Sri Lanka holds presidential elections on January 8, 2015 with the incumbent party being accused of rampant corruption. This is actually being used as an argument in favor of returning the ruling party to power, if you can imagine it.
In this context, a southern ruling party MP’s remarks are highly revealing for their bluntness. He is reported to have advised voters to support the SLFP because, as he put it: “We have made enough money not to be greedy next time. But if you elect the opposition, they will make money hand over fist.”
Now there’s an inspiring slogan: Vote for us because we have already stolen as much money as we need. You have got to admire the brazenness of such a claim and the logic behind it.
Sri Lanka is a democracy with a strong president and weak parliament system, modeled on the French system of governance. The current president Mahinda Rajapaksa won re-election in 2010 with the overwhelming approval of the majority Sinhala community after he successfully suppressed the Tamil Tigers and ended that decades long civil war in 2009. But the brutality of the measures used against the Tamil minority has resulted in him being accused of war crimes and threats to call him before international tribunals.
He called the election two years earlier than he needed to because he seemed to suspect that his popularity was declining and the opposition parties were in their usual state of disarray. But in an unexpected move, Maithripala Sirisena, a high-ranking minister in his own government, defected and announced his own candidacy for the presidency and the opposition forces have united behind him, making him a serious threat.
Although his opponent (following president Obama’s model of protecting his predecessor government from war crimes prosecutions) promises not to allow him to be tried for those crimes, it is felt that Rajapaksa will not want to risk it and thus will try to be re-elected by hook or by crook.
One big issue in the election is nepotism and corruption that have reached unbelievable levels.
The stakes are high for Rajapaksa. He cannot afford to lose power for several reasons. His family – sons, brothers, aunt, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins – have benefited immensely from his presidency. His elder brother Chamal is speaker of parliament, and younger brothers Gotabaya and Basil are Defense Secretary and Minister of Economic Development, respectively. Family members have been appointed as ambassadors to key countries, heads of banks, and government corporations. Fifty-six percent of Sri Lanka’s budget allocation goes to ministries and departments controlled by the Rajapaksa family. The presidency is a cash cow for the Rajapaksas and they are unlikely to let go of it easily.
This rampant nepotism has caused some members of his own party to become disgruntled since they have been prevented from rising up because of the favoritism shown to the president’s family in awarding prime jobs. The president is quite open about the methods of bribery used to retain support among the waverers.
Over the years, Rajapakse has reduced buying the opposition to a fine art. He simply offers MPs ministerial portfolios and other lucrative posts, and as all ministers are allowed to import one duty-free car per year, they can make a lot of money in a country where duties on luxury cars can reach 350pc. To increase the number of portfolios, ministries have been divided into smaller and smaller departments.
One thing that you can be sure is that a lot of money will flow in the elections as important people are bribed to join the various sides. The stakes are high. I only hope that the violence and thuggery that have become endemic in Sri Lankan politics, does not get completely out of hand.