To his supporters----mainly Sinhala Buddhists---- Gotbaya Rajapaksa is the president Sri Lanka needs. They believe, he can strengthen security after the Easter Sunday bomb attacks which claimed 253 lives. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s sort of persona reflects the fact that he is not a populist politician like his brother. He is very much a middle class professional, with military experience in his formative years. So he speaks of the need to have quick solutions to difficult problems. And, his background shows, he suggests this as a course of action without necessarily having much regard for the consequences.
There are multiple factors at work. Firstly, there's the fight against terrorism. The second is the issue of political stability and strength as the last year showed. When there was a constitutional crisis in November, there were doubts within Sri Lanka about the ability of the government to lead the country and to work for the objectives that everybody wanted. There is also the question of the economy. So, multiple factors came together but most importantly it was a call for somebody who could play a strong role and give the country stability.
The election was fought in the backdrop of the Easter bombings. It was the larger meta-narrative of this election. Lot of people especially the Sinhalese majority felt that they were under siege.
It was assumed that the country was returning to normalcy and then you had those Easter Sunday bombings and it reflected a certain sense of dissonance within the wider community that perhaps felt that the weakness of the state was leading to these incidents.
It generated a sense in the country that it was not governed effectively. Because the security conundrum especially exemplified by the Easter Sunday bombings, underscored something very fundamental. You had clear warning. India was telling them that it was happening. Even, their internal intelligence was telling them that something was going to happen and yet the decision-making apparatus was divided between the two power centers. There was a sense that governance was at stake in the country. It was not governed effectively. And, so you vote for a strongman, a candidate who has demonstrated his ability in bringing the country back to normalcy after decades of civil war. In the aftermath of Easter attacks, the Muslim community is feeling very vulnerable, as it should. As for the reconciliation in Sri Lanka and the issue of minorities feeling at home and secure, these spells represent a low point in Sri Lankan history.
One looks at today at a country that is trying to come out from this sense of insecurity. And, once again Sri Lankan people have voted for a candidate who could demonstrate his effectiveness in dealing with the situation on the ground. How effective he would be depends on whether his first statement----- that he mentioned of taking into consideration the sentiment of those who did not vote for him into account. This is because, ultimately if that does not happen, then reconciliation will not happen and therefore Sri Lanka would not become a normal country that its people want it to be.
Since 2015, the relationship with India ostensibly perked up and there was an attempt at establishing better trade, improving bilateral political relationship. That would certainly seem to take a backseat and would not figure in the calculations of Gotabaya Rajapaksa if the past is anything to go by. So, 10 years under his brother’s presidency between 2005 and 2015 certainly saw a strengthening of relationship with China and with Pakistan both in terms of military supplies as well as investments within Sri Lanka. The fact is the Sri Lankan economy is not at a good place. For the 15th time, it’s had a bailout by the IMF and certainly foreign direct investment is at an all-time low. All this is accentuated by the fact that Sri Lanka had suffered Easter Sunday attack as mentioned before. Therefore, trust in the Sri Lankan state is low at this point in time. One way to bolster that would be perhaps implementing Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s plans to go back within the Chinese embrace. This will have an impact within the regional relationship with India.
Md Sharif Hasan is a faculty at the Department of International Relations, University of Rajshahi.