The race to be the next president of Sri Lanka is moving along. Voters will go to the polls on Saturday; the field includes 35 candidates. No matter who prevails, members of the island nation’s minority communities — particularly Tamils and Muslims — are bound to lose. When it comes to Sri Lankan politics, reaching out to ethnic and religious minorities has never been in vogue and would require serious political courage.
The question is how badly minorities will lose. In that context, the differences between the two principal contenders are significant.
The frontrunners — Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP) and Sajith Premadasa of the United National Party (UNP) — are committed Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists. Sinhalese people constitute the overwhelming ethnic majority and most of them are Buddhist.
Mr. Premadasa is deputy leader of the UNP and a cabinet minister. His father, Ranasinghe Premadasa, served as president from 1989 to 1993, when he was assassinated by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber; he governed in an authoritarian fashion. There’s no reason to believe that his son would be willing to go against a majoritarian system that has always prevailed.
The bottom line, however, is that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is favored to win, would be a more worrisome choice. His brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency (2005-15) became increasingly authoritarian. The space for dissent evaporated and people lived in fear. Corruption and nepotism were rampant. Minority rights, particularly the rights of Tamils, were consistently trampled.
As secretary to the Ministry of Defense from 2005 to 2015, Mr. Gotabaya played a major role in defeating the separatist Tamil Tigers and ending a civil war that raged for nearly three decades. The final months of war caused massive civilian casualties. Credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity have plagued the Sri Lankan military since then. The Rajapaksas are still venerated as war heroes by many members of the Sinhalese community. Prominent alleged war criminals continue to be promoted.
Maithripala Sirisena, the current president, is extremely unpopular and isn’t contesting. His purported reform agenda has essentially been on a road to nowhere since he unexpectedly unseated Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2015.
National security, law and order, economic revival and competence are prominent campaign issues. The yearning for stronger and more competent leadership was growing even before the Easter bombings. The attacks have clearly helped the Rajapaksa camp.
Tamil rights have long been under assault, even after the conclusion of war. The targeting of Muslims by the Sinhala majoritarian state has principally occurred post-war. But the Easter bombings ensure that anti-Muslim violence and discrimination will be significant matters in 2020 and perhaps beyond.
Ongoing rights violations would continue under either Mr. Rajapaksa or Mr. Premadasa; the difference would be one of degree and the distinction matters. A Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency would be far more dangerous — for Tamils and Muslims, and the country more generally.
The repression of dissent would be a hallmark of a future Rajapaksa presidency. A renewed centralization of power would follow too. Journalists, the media and civil society activists would be in greater danger. Another Rajapaksa presidency would worsen the situation in the heavily militarized Tamil-majority Northern Province. And, Islamophobia could be fomented at the highest levels of power.
Others hold more cynical views about the main choices. “Sinhala politicians do not understand Tamils’ problems properly,” says C.V. Wigneswaran, a former Supreme Court justice, prominent Tamil politician and secretary general of the new Tamil political party Thamizh Makkal Kootani. He says that Mr. Rajapaksa and Mr. Premadasa are both “interested in furthering Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony and keeping the Tamils subjugated.” In terms of Mr. Wigneswaran’s preference between the two, he believes that “[s]o long as they think this country is Sinhala-Buddhist only, they cannot be any different with regard to minorities.”
No matter what happens on Saturday, for far too many, the nation will remain a place that’s truly troubled. It’s, at best, a majoritarian democracy where the root causes of ethnic conflict are ignored; where institutional racism is common; where minorities are treated as inferior citizens.
Nevertheless, the two principal candidates in this election aren’t the same. A Gotabaya Rajapaksa win in November would augur a return to a very dark era.
• Taylor Dibbert is an adjunct fellow at Pacific Forum.