Header Ads

 New website available at www.slguardian.org

Dynastic Politics in Sri Lanka

| by Laksiri Fernando

"The State shall guarantee equal access to opportunities for public service, and prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law." - Article II, Section 26, Constitution of the Philippines (1987)

( July 3, 2014, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) DA Rajapaksa became prominent as a key founder of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), along with SWRD Bandaranaike, largely because after their breakaway from the UNP in 1951, with five other MPs, they were the only two who could retain their seats at the 1952 parliamentary elections. SWRD was assassinated in 1959 and DA died in 1967. I had occasion to deliver memorial orations for both of them, for SWRD Bandaranaike in 2004 and DA Rajapaksa in 2010.

There was another reason for the Bandaranaikes or the Rajapaksas to become prominent within the SLFP or its support base. They were political families. Although Mrs. Bandaranaike was not interested in politics initially, she came forward given the crisis within the party after her husband’s assassination. Thereafter, daughter (Chandrika) and son (Anura) also entered politics with somewhat a ‘gender’ balance.

However, from the DA Rajapaksa family, apart from his predecessor brother (DM) and his two sons (George and Lakshman) and one daughter (Nirupama) from George, three sons (Chamal, Mahinda and Basil) have come into politics along with another brother (Gotabhaya) as a clan or a group and dominates the state and the party apparatus today. Most of the arrogant political dynasties are male dominated. The story doesn’t end there. There are two sons from Mahinda and Chamal prominently in politics. This is undoubtedly the most formidable challenge that democracy in Sri Lanka faces today.


SWRD undoubtedly was the real founder and the visionary of what we know as the SLFP both with its strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless, there are no indications whatsoever that he anticipated a ‘dynastic tradition’ within the party of his own or others. He himself was a victim of dynastic tendencies in politics when the first Prime Minister DS Senanayake advised the then Governor General, Lord Soulbury, that his son Dudley Senanayake should be named as the PM in an event of his demise, by passing SWRD and several others in seniority and competence.

There are no indications that SWRD considered politics as a family affair. He had never encouraged his wife, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, to come into politics along with him or after. One may consider it as a ‘macho tendency’ that he was usually accused of, but it was a fact. By the time of his assassination, his two children were too young to be drawn into politics and it is difficult to speculate what he would have done if he survived.

This was the same in the case of many of the first generation of SLFP leaders. Even when DM Rajapaksa died in 1945, DA Rajapaksa was reluctant to contest the by-election although he was involved in his elder brother’s political campaigns before. There are no clear indications that even DA Rajapaksa cultivated his sons to enter into politics. Apart from SWRD and DA, another prominent leader of the SLFP movement was DS Goonesekera. He was the person who was elected at the Madampe Conference in 1951 to negotiate with the UNP leader and the PM, DS Senanayake, before they took a final decision to breakaway and to form a new party. Goonesekera held important portfolios both in SWRD’s and Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s governments. He had a large family of ten children but none of them wanted to enter politics and instead they opted for professional careers (five doctors, three teachers, a lawyer and an engineer).

Dynastic Politics

There are of course no hard and fast rules how politician’s children choose or should choose their future careers. There may be natural tendencies for children to follow political paths/causes of their fathers or mothers. Aung San Suu Kyi is one positive example who opted to enter politics at a later age of her life for the sake of the country. Her father was assassinated in 1947 when she was just a toddler. There is no dynastic intention in her decision to enter politics.

Unfortunately ‘dynastic politics’ has not been limited to royal families or ancient kingdoms. It has on and off become a feature even in democratic and quasi-democratic countries and endemic in South Asia among others continents. In America, Kennedys and the Bush family were much famous. More oligarchic dynasties have prevailed in contemporary non-democratic countries such as North Korea, Cuba and former Libya. The obvious inference is that dynasties closely go hand in hand with centralization and/or authoritarianism.

Within South Asia, India has been famous for political dynasties both at the center as well as the states. The most famous has been the Nehru-Gandhi family. This dynasty has produced three Prime Ministers, Nehru, Indira and Rajiv, and still keeps a strong grip on the Indian National Congress Party. At the state levels, there are competing dynasties aiming at succession like Karunanidhis and Ramachandrens in Tamil Nadu or Mishras and Yadavs in Bihar. Nepal also has been famous for a similar phenomenon. The Koirala family similarly had a grip in politics, until everything went in flames recently, producing four Prime Ministers, Krishna Prasad (father) and Matrika, Bishweshwar and Girija as his sons.

Sri Lanka: Shame or Pride?

Sri Lanka has undoubtedly been no better especially in the case of the SLFP. Some consider this as exemplary and ‘take pride’ in Sri Lanka’s relative merits instead of becoming ashamed of. The Bandaranaike clan has produced two Prime Ministers and one President. However, after CBK the leadership was passed on to Mahinda Rajapaksa and not to Anura Bandaranaike. That was the right thing to do, breaking the dynastic tradition at least partially. Let me relate a personal recollection on the matter.

I met Mahinda Rajapaksa in July 2005 at Nuwaraeliya. The occasion was a workshop organized by the Peace Building Project of the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs for the UPFA parliamentarians and provincial council members in the Central Province. We were discussing the forthcoming presidential elections in a personal conversation. He told me “This women (geni) will not give me nominations.” I said, “No, she cannot and she would not. She is very political and she would follow the political rules.”

The relevance of the above discussion is to emphasize the importance of following rules in politics. The most important rule to follow in Sri Lanka at present is the two term limit for the presidency. Although it has been altered by the infamous 18th Amendment, there is no people’s mandate or moral right for the President Rajapaksa to contest again. Its legal position is also not sacrosanct. After two terms, especially in the position of the presidency, any human person would become weary and exhausted. Then others, mostly siblings, rule the roost. That is very clear in MR today. It is better to handover the baton without being too late. Even in parliamentary systems, the tradition is developing for the same person not to continue for more than two terms in the position of the Prime Minister.

It is for the same reason that anyone should not approve or admire CBK coming back again for the presidential competition. She should keep her dignity and integrity intact in retirement from that office. However, she can or may play a different role in politics or public life given the present crisis situation in the country and in the SLFP.


In terms of succession, the seniority should come first if the competence is assured. Or a democratic vote within a political party could decide on a succession battle on the proviso that such elections are held democratically and without undue influence of the incumbent. This principle should apply both to the SLFP and the UNP and for any other democratic party.

I have already expressed the view before that it would have been better both for the UNP and Ranil Wickremasinghe personally if he had taken the backstage after repeated defeats for the party. It might be too late now. It is always better for democracy, if circulation of leaders in political parties are ensured. It is unfortunate in Sri Lanka that when people come into position they don’t easily leave whether it is a political position or even a simple academic position from my personal experience. They want to hold on to power.

The chasm of dynastic politics again has raised its ugly head within the UNP in a different form. The rift between Ranil and Sajith, as far as I understand, appears to be a resurrection of JR-Premadasa rift of the past. At least that is the way the Sajith Premadasa camp has projected its leadership challenge within the party - as a resurrection of the Premadasa legacy. That may be one reason why Ranil is reluctant to leave the leadership. But what has to be realized by both factions is that the challenge of the Rajapaksa dynasty is much more formidable and fatal to both factions.

One may argue that dynastic politics in the case of Rajapaksas was a later development or a reaction to the Bandaranaike dynasty. Although CBK came to lead the SLFP after some hesitation and even on the promotion MR in 1993/94, during her tenure, the way MR was treated could not be considered amicable. I was partial witness to this ‘discrimination.’ However, that is not a valid reason to turn the tables and establish his own dynasty, more vociferous than the Bandaranaike dynasty, within the party. CBK’s efforts were not dynastic. The frictions between the two were mostly personal and political.

Rajapaksa Dynasty

The present dynastic project of the Rajapaksas seems to have more profound political and other implications. It is a tragedy for the country. Unlike in the past, the Rajapaksa family has established a strong grip on the state apparatus and in the economy. That can be changed only through a rebellion within the SLFP. I am not saying that the regime cannot be defeated electorally. But one element for the equation should come through the SLFP, not necessarily to bring the UNP into power, but to reinstate democracy in the country beyond partisan affiliations.

It may be true that it was first a given factor, a large number of family members being in politics and another brother’s services being required in the defense sector. However, now the family network has become institutionalized and entrenched within the state apparatus and within the party. The failure of the nation is not rooted in its culture, religion or the people, but in the distorted institutions, both state and party. The leaders are primarily responsible. Otherwise why do we call them leaders?

If this is not changed without delay, both within the party/parties and the State, it would be difficult to alter the situation in the future. What might happen is a catastrophe like in Nepal where legitimacy of the governance completely breaks down and people resort into rebellion against the family oligarchy.

One may ask what is wrong in a family dynasty or dynasties in politics. There are tendencies particularly in South Asia to prefer political families by some voters instead of independent individuals at the leadership. Apart from some cultural reasons, families are considered easy to predict and worthy to rely. However, this is largely among the backward voters, some might consider part of ‘political realism.’ The challenges are more formidable to democracy and good governance, people should be educated on by the parties and the free media. On this last point, let me quote an expert/activist on the subject, C. K. Lal (Human Rights Democracy and Governance: Imagine a New South Asia, p. 3) from our own region (Nepal) as the conclusion.

“But what makes dynastic succession dangerous is the tendency of elected hereditary leaders to concentrate political power in their own hands. Since they thrive because of the politics of patronage, centralization of all authority ensues. Constitutional procedures fall by the wayside as invincible leaders begin to perceive themselves as indispensable. Sadly, this gives rise to submissive tendencies among their followers. One of the ways of countering this trend can perhaps be an effective devolution of power at the provincial level and empowerment of local government units at the grass roots.

Powered by Blogger.