When President Mahinda Rajapaksa called a snap election last month in Sri Lanka, it appeared he would cruise to a third term. But a hitherto feeble and divided opposition has since rallied behind a common presidential candidate for the Jan. 8 vote. Only a month ago, Maithripala Sirisena was a cabinet minister and general-secretary of the ruling party. Now suddenly Sri Lanka could be at a turning point after almost a decade of Rajapaksa rule. The president is campaigning on his economic record after comprehensively defeating the Tamil Tigers in 2009. And on the surface, Sri Lanka looks a lot better off for his leadership. After a quarter-century of civil war, people can go about their daily lives without fear. Roads, bridges, railways and power projects have come to fruition. Colombo and many other towns have been beautified. Tourism has bounced back, with postwar arrivals hitting all-time highs. But this surface reality is deceptive. Things have gone terribly wrong with Sri Lanka’s politics, ethnic relations, economy and foreign policy.
Politically, Sri Lanka has become a one-family show. It is run by a quartet: the president; his two brothers, Gotabhaya and Basil; and his son Namal. Then there is the rest of Rajapaksa clan, an outer circle of relatives and hangers-on, where conflicts of interest abound.
Policy making is extremely populist and ad hoc, hostage to the whims of a few individuals. The civil service, legislature, judiciary, local government, police and military have been co-opted. Likewise business, the media and nongovernmental organizations have been cowed. In short, Sri Lanka has become an illiberal democracy, more like Russia or Venezuela than its subcontinent peers.