Gotabaya’s Disappointing Presidency – The Diplomat


On November 18, Gotabaya Rajapaksa will finish his two years as President of Sri Lanka. He won a decisive mandate; Sinhala Buddhist nationalists, who constitute the majority of the island, voted overwhelmingly for him.

However, his two years at the helm have been disappointing.

In his electoral manifesto, Gotabaya promised to make Sri Lanka a “prosperous” country. But it is only the Rajapaksa family and some of their cronies who thrived during Gotabaya’s two-year presidency.

Consider this: The Sri Lankan Cabinet has five Rajapaksas, including four brothers – President Gotabaya; Prime Minister Mahinda, who served as president for the period 2005-15; Basil and Chamal, as well as Namal, who is Mahinda’s son. In addition, several Rajapaksas hold subordinate ministerial positions and head government departments and institutions.

The clan has always prospered with a Rajapaksa at its head. During Mahinda’s presidency, too, the family was well placed in the highest positions and positions.

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It is estimated that approximately 75 percent of Sri Lanka’s total budget is currently controlled directly by the ministers of the Rajapaksa family. While the Rajapaksa family prospered, the masses did not.

The economy is in crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a crippling blow to the economy as Sri Lanka relies heavily on tourism. Exchange reserves have declined from $ 7.5 billion in November 2019 when Gotabaya took office to $ 2.8 billion at the end of July 2021. With banks running out of foreign exchange to finance imports of basic necessities, the island was hit. by a severe shortage of food and cooking gas, among others, in August -September this year. This led to a spike in food prices, prompting President Gotabaya to declare a state of emergency on August 31 to end hoarding.

But the pandemic alone is not to blame for the economic crisis. Gotabaya’s decisions are also to blame.

Shortly after assuming the presidency, Gotabaya ordered radical tax cuts. Income has fallen by around 30% in 2020.

The government then embarked on a money printing frenzy. There was a 42% increase in the money pumped into the economy between December 2019 and August 2021.

The decision was ill-conceived, especially since the net growth of the economy over this period was only around 1%. It could inflate inflation at over 40 percent over the next few years, warned WA Wijewardena, a former deputy central bank governor.

Even as people struggled with rising prices and shortages, Gotabaya dealt them another blow. In May of this year, his government banned the use of chemical fertilizers at night. Organic fertilizers imported from China have been found to be toxic. Farmers were unable to start planting at the onset of the monsoon.

The ban on chemical fertilizers should reduce paddy production by 43 percent and exports of cash crops like rubber, coconuts and tea by 40 percent, according to Jeevika Weerahewa, agricultural economist. In addition to impacting Sri Lanka’s food security and exports, the fertilizer ban will affect the livelihoods of the agricultural sector. Two-thirds of Sri Lanka’s population depend on agriculture.

The erroneous policies and decisions of the government can be attributed to Gotabaya’s approach to governance. It has set up working groups to deal with a range of issues. Not only do they bypass legal structures to formulate policy, but they are also teeming with serving and retired soldiers. While the military can get the job done quickly, they are not experts on the issues they are formulating policies on.

The President’s COVID-19 Task Force, for example, is headed by Army Chief General Shavendra Silva. Twenty-five district units are headed by a major general and staffed with soldiers. It was not virologists and immunologists who developed the country’s COVID strategy, but military personnel who have little understanding of how viruses mutate. Unsurprisingly, the third wave was very severe.

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Sri Lankan analysts have pointed out that despite the enormous hardships ordinary people have suffered as a result of the economic crisis and pandemic, the government has failed to step in to alleviate their suffering.

Not surprisingly, anger against the Rajapaksas is growing.

Gotabaya’s government is now “facing open challenge and protests by three broad segments of citizens who may have voted overwhelmingly for him in November 2019: rural farmers, small producers engaged in export agriculture and public sector teachers, ”writes the Sri Lankan political analyst Jayadeva Uyangoda. “Many of them,” he said, “now regret having elected such a group of leaders in power. “

There are rumblings of discontent within the government. Allies of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana party are not the only ones unhappy with not to be consulted. SLPP ministers are also said to be frustrated as they have been rendered unnecessary by the working groups.

Gotabaya still has three years before the next presidential election. However, its governance could be put to the test in 2022 if the government decides to hold the long-awaited elections of nine provincial councils.

Despite his two unimpressive years, Gotabaya’s grip on power remains strong.

The opposition remains in disarray. Unless he rallies around a strong leader, Gotabaya is expected to return for a second term.

Even if his support among his core, Sinhala Buddhists, erodes, he will act to rebuild that support. He can be expected to intensify community polarization in Sri Lanka in the run-up to elections. Islamophobia runs so deep in the country that any move to weaken Muslims and their identity will unleash a wave of Buddhist triumphalism, which will earn it votes. Gotabaya is already taking steps in this direction.

In October, the government set up a “Presidential Task Force for One country, one law. ‘ Led by Gnanasara Thero, a die-hard Buddhist monk who is fiercely anti-Muslim and had spearheaded anti-Muslim violence a few years ago, the task force will amend Muslim personal laws. The Gotabaya government is also preparing to implement the ban on slaughtering cows.

Such measures can be expected to reassure Buddhist extremists that their interests are secure in Gotabaya’s hands.