Populist Authoritarianism. Why Mahinda Rajapaksa will abdicate the Reins: A Forecast in 2012

Michael Roberts

 Reflections in January 2015

In the course of my teaching and researches I developed some interest in the phenomenon known as “populism” which informed political currents in interwar USA, Romania and parts of Eastern Europe in the 20th century. I gained considerable inspiration from the book Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics, edited by G. Ionescu & E. Gellner (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson). Populism had affinities with fascism, but had its roots in farming populations. Thus it was a form of “peasantism” — thereby slotting into  the university courses on peasant rebellions which I had initiated within the Department of Anthropology at Adelaide University.

This background informed my reading of political developments in Sri Lanka from the 1940s –especially the influence of the panchamahābalavēgaya 1] at the electoral revolution in 1956 and the continuing force of the ideological currents associated with the“1956 revolution” in subsequent decades (see Roberts 1994f). This necessarily meant attentiveness not only to the (Sinhala) nativism at the heart of the 1956 ideology, but also to the implications of the catch-cry duppath podhu janathāva (poverty-stricken common man). The latter, in my reading, was the equivalent of the currents of “peasantism” and “nativism” at the centre of several populist movements in other parts of the world.

In its turn, this line of reading was meshed with my concept of the “Asokan Persona” — a tool derived from my readings of the cakravarti concept in southern Asia which was deployed in my analysis of political leadership practices in Sri Lanka.[2] Central to this interpretation were observations of the hierarchical respect embodied in such notions as pirivarāgena (surrounded –and thus serviced — by an entourage of subordinates) and such practices as däkum (paying respect or tribute to a superior).

Thus guided, some of my recent work on the political currents of the last three decades commented on characteristics of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration. In an article entitled “Mahinda Rajapaksa: Cakravarti Imagery and Populist Processes,” I contended that kingly styles developed from the practices of Sinhalese monarchs and aristocratic landlords of the medieval past had been consciously and subconsciously adopted by the Rajapaksa clan and its acolytes.[3]

220px-Rajasimha-II  MR-in Diplomat-Wikimedia Commons

rajapaksa_llrc report 1971292858230main-MR at Hindu rite

I went further. I ventured bold. I raised the prospect of a Rajapaksa dictatorship.[4] Moving speculatively in answer I asserted that there would be three constraints on this possibility.

So, here, today I reproduce my reasoning then in January 2012. Needless to say these factors may not have been the only elements that encouraged and/or pushed Mahinda Rajapaksa and his clan to jettison the mighty trappings of power so meekly a few days back. Major transformations usually involve a multiplicity of factors. I will let others introduce other factors — so that, eventually, some Mighty Solomon can distil a multi-factorial answer with appropriate weightages.

That said, let me suggest yet another ideological factor as a fourth reason, a thought that goes against the veins of visceral hostility to the Rajapaksas embedded in some vocal quarters. I think maybe that Mahinda Rajapaksa was, and is, a patriot attached to his motherland and that this patriotic bondage was deepened by his leadership role in war, a considerable one against a mighty enemy. As a patriot and as a man of the people in his populist self-subjectivity, he — perhaps reluctantly — decided to bow to the voting will of the people. So I surmise.

Contentions in January 2012 … segment inMahinda Rajapaksa: Cakravarti Imagery and Populist Processes

……… Though socialist ideas informed JVP motivations within this phase, the 1956 ideology of linguistic nationalism and indigenist currents of thought, gilded with Xenophobia, dominated this campaign in the late 1980s. Note, too that the last quarter of the twentieth century was featured by an intellectual currents identified as Jātika Chintanaya. Articulated by such advocates as Gunadasa Amarasekera and Nalin de Silva, the Jātika Chintanaya sentiments were also threaded by a form of indigenist populism.

Subsequently, after the second JVP insurrection had been crushed by brute force in 1989-90 and a revamped JVP emerged in the late 1990s and 2000s as a parliamentary party, the new JVP was not that different from the Jātika Chintanaya. In the 2000s, however, the SLFP itself was re-invented in the mantle of 1956 once the Rajapaksa clan displaced Chandrika Kumaratunga (nee Bandaranaike) at its masthead. The stance adopted by Mahinda Rajapaksa was directed towards the rural folk and was explicitly anti-elitist in rhetoric [as distinct from practice]. In dressing itself under the banner of “Mahinda Chintanaya,” it effectively stole the sarong and vest from the JVP even as the two allied together in the 2005 parliamentary elections in order to trump the rejuvenated UNP.

Having secured this ‘democratic’ victory, the Rajapaksa regime split the JVP by its offer of spoils to some leading lights within that party. It also embraced the small party known as the Jātika Hela Urumaya, which is widely regarded as an ultra-nationalist organisation directed by Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism. In effect, the new SLFP of the Rajapaksas became the dominant expression of Sinhala heritage and power in Sri Lanka’s political firmament, a force that is often depicted by radical and moderate commentators as “Sinhala supremacist.”[iii]

The Rajapaksa brothers were a key element in the combination of forces that engineered the comprehensive defeat of the LTTE as a military force in the island by May 2009. This momentous change has been a major benefit to most people in the land and therefore contributed immensely to the prestige and authority of Mahinda Rajapaksa. His roots in the south east encouraged local people, including sycophants, to see him as modern day Dutugemunu and to clothe him with the honorifics bestowed on famous Sinhala kings in the past. Moreover, political rhetoric these days is regularly threaded by a reiteration of extreme Sinhala nationalist positions, spiced with the occasional strain of Xenophobia and the bashing of some Western state(s) and/or NGO’s.

mr-cut-3-colombotelegraph presidentnorth2 (1)

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s emergence to supreme power in the recent past was accompanied by a considered distancing from the elites of Colombo. His appeal has been to the rural bourgeoisie and underprivileged. The successful expansion of the Rajapaksa-led SLFP’s clout by patronage and electoral process was confirmed in his clear victory over Sarath Fonseka at the Presidential Election of January 2010 and then consolidated at the parliamentary elections of April 2010. Note that it is a standard practice within Sri Lanka’s political dispensation for a ruling party to call the presidential elections before those for parliament. The presidential executive can tilt the parliamentary process.

Returning recently to his village Happawana-Harumalgoda after a life in exile, the radical Dayapala Thiranagama noted its transformations since he was child in the 1960s: “it no longer bears the hallmark of destitution and abject poverty” and it “will continue to change at increasing speed.” But this is a footnote to his verdict that “President Rajapaksa enjoys a solid political support among the Sinhalese rural masses, which hitherto no other political leader has been able to command” (Thiranagama 2012). Coming from a Left radical whose article also conveys reservations about the anti-democratic trends in contemporary politics, this is a significant pointer to the character of “the Rajapaksa regime” (a considered phrase that I have deployed elsewhere as well — note Roberts 2009).

What, then, one sees in Sri Lanka is the development of “populist authoritarianism” built upon Sinhalese nationalism and a rural-cum-rurban vote within a context where the Sinhalese have constituted some 69-80 per cent of the population over the last fifty years. Since virtually every political party in Sri Lanka has been oligarchic in its internal structures and favours a top-down mode of operation, sometimes augmented by dynastic threads and the Marxist concept of “democratic centralism,” the overall tendency in Sri Lanka’s politics has been towards the periodic creation of “populist authoritarianism.”

The authoritarian character of the present Sri Lankan state is also supported by the 1978 constitution as consolidated by subsequent amendments and the subservience of both the judiciary and the leading administrators. Those aspects of political behaviour and those symbolic images that I have called “the Asokan Persona” contribute to this process. They point not only to the overconcentration of power, but also raise the spectre of a further shift towards a dictatorship. Recall my opening comparisons: populist authoritarianism is sometimes described as a form of “plebiscitarian dictatorship” because of its Bonapartist motifs and its mass appeal, mass support that is sometimes confirmed by referendums. So, the issue arises: are we in danger of sliding in this direction under the impulses of the Rakjapaksas and the forces they have assembled?

This danger is not only accentuated by the 1978 constitutional structure and its subsequent amendments, but also by the censorship and intimidation of the press that occurred during Eelam War IV in 2006-09. This period saw regular disappearances and assaults on several press personnel, a few killings (notably that of Lasantha Wickrematunga) and pressures which forced others to leave the country (JDS 2009; Kurukulasuriya 2010). The overarching fears are captured in the metaphor “the white van phenomenon.” This force encouraged some measures of self-censorship and caution in the reportage of the independent media. Though disappearances have abated in some measure since mid-2009, the overarching fears and constraints, and acts of censorship, still continue. Middle-class personnel have even advised me to be cautious in my journeys and writings in Sri Lanka. It would not be amiss to talk of “threads of fear and caution.”

So, what are the prospects of a Rajapaksa dictatorship eventuating and what restraints remain? Apart from Sri Lanka’s geo-political situation in the Indian Ocean space dominated by Big Brother India and the overarching moral pressure of the cumulus clouds we call “the West”, what are the internal restraints?

As hypothetical surmise, I mark three major factors that would restrain such a development. The first is the character of populism in Sri Lanka as it has taken root in the Rajapaksa walauwa and its corridors. President Rajapaksa believes in his popularity and the popularity of the Rajapaksa dynasty. He desires to sustain it and pass it down the lineage as a legacy. This means that it has to be periodically affirmed through general elections. Therefore familial subjectivity and family interests will influence the future.

In this future such a subjective inclination will mesh with the inclinations of the Sri Lankan people. In contrast with the neophyte democracy of Romania in the 1930s, Sri Lanka has ‘enjoyed’ universal suffrage and elections for 80 years. General elections are an institution and deeply entrenched as an expectation among the generality of people. Any breach of this practice will jeopardise the perpetuation of the populist/popular character of the Rajapaksa lineage.

General elections and Sri Lanka’s version of democracy have also institutionalized a multi-party system. However weak the opposition parties, and however oligarchic/dictatorial their internal organisation, they exist as entities. Their presence provides a source of resistance to any dictatorial take-over. True, the Rajapaksas have successfully incorporated many former opponents into their regime through patronage, spoils and largesse in ways that have created a sprawling government establishment. But there are limits to populist authoritarianism through such patronage. In helping A to get a coveted post, one can alienate B who anticipated that very post. Dissatisfied clients gravitate to the opposition parties; or they await the opportunity to do so. The vast patronage system can leak like a sieve when the popular tide turns

What all this means, therefore, is that Sri Lanka is presently burdened with a form of populist authoritarianism that is necessarily short-term, one that has to calculate how to reproduce itself at the next general elections. This tendency in its turn generates its own problems and can cater to the expression of Sinhala majoritarianism within a context created by island’s demographic composition and its distribution in space (Roberts 1978). We are hung in the cleft between Scylla and Charybdis.

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY for both segments

De Silva-Wijeyeratne, Roshan 2007 “Buddhism, the Asokan Persona and the Galactic Polity,” Social Analysis 51: 56-78.

De Silva-Wijeyeratne, Roshan 2014 Nation, Constitutionalism and Buddhism in Sri LankaRoutledge.

Journalists for Democracy 2009 “Sri Lanka: Thirty-four journalists & media workers killed during present government rule,” http://www.jdslanka.org/2009/08/sri-lanka-thirty-four-journalists-media.html.

Kurukulasuriya, Uvindu 2010 “I finally boarded the plane,” 2 April 2010, http://www.fojo.se/international/freedom-of-expression-around-the-world/uvindu-from-sri-lanka.

Roberts, Michael 1978 “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhalese Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation,” Modern Asian Studies, 12: 353-76 [reprinted in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, 1994].

Roberts, Michael 1984 ” ‘Caste Feudalism’ in Sri Lanka? A Critique through the Asokan Persona and European Contrasts,” Contributions to Indian Sociology, 18: 189-217 [reprinted in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, pp. 73-88].

Roberts, Michael 1994 Exploring Confrontation. Sri Lanka: Politics, Culture and History Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Roberts, Michael 1994b “The Asokan Persona as a Cultural Disposition,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 57-72.

Roberts, Michael 1994c, “The Asokan Persona and its Reproduction in Modern Times,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 73-88.

Roberts, Michael 1994d “Four Twentieth Century Texts and the Asokan Persona,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 57-72.

Roberts, Michael 1994f “The 1956 Generations: After and Before,” in Roberts, Exploring Confrontation, Reading: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 297-314.

Roberts, Michael 2004 Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s to 1815, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications.

Roberts, Michael 2009 “The Rajapaksa Regime and the Fourth Estate,” 9 December 2009, http://www.groundviews.org/2009/12/08/the-rajapakse-regime-and-the-fourth-estate/

Thiranagama, Dayapala 2012 “Ending the Exile and Back to Roots: Fears, Challenges and Hopes,” 2 January 2012, http://groundviews.org/2012/01/02/ending-the-exile-and-back-to-roots-fears-challenges-and-hopes/.

Uyangoda, Jayadeva 2014 “A Surprise! The Resilience of Sri Lanka’s Democracy,” 10 January 2014, http://thuppahis.com/2015/01/10/a-surprise-the-resilience-of-sri-lankas-democracy/

Walicki, Andrzej 1969 “Russia,” in G. Ionescu & E. Gellner (eds.) Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pp. 166-709.

Wiles, Peter, 1969 “A Syndrome not a Doctrine: Some Elementary Theses on Populism,” in G. Ionescu & E. Gellner (eds.) Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pp. 166-709.

Worsley, Peter 1969 ‘The Concept of Populism,” in G. Ionescu & E. Gellner (eds.) Populism. Its Meanings and National Characteristics, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, pp. 212-50.


[1] The “five great forces,” namely, the bhikkhus, native physicians, teachers, peasants and workers (sangha-veda-guru-govi-kamkaru).

[2] See the first version applied to the ancient period of Sri Lankan history in criticism of RALH Gunawardana’s concept of “caste feudalism,” in Roberts 1984 and thereafter in the three articles in my book Exploring Confrontation (1994) indicated here in this bibliography as 1994b, c and d. This concept has been adopted by Roshan de Sulva Wijeyeratne and meshed intoa complex review of the Sri Lankan world over several centuries (2007 and 2014).

[3] This article has since been reprinted with a modified title, viz., “Mahinda Rajapaksa as a Modern Mahāvāsala and font of clemency? The Roots of Populist Authoritarianism,” in Roberts. Tamil Person and State. Essays, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2014, chapter 25. The final segment, pages 414-19, are those reproduced here in this thuppahi presentation

[4] Likewise, on the 8th and 9th January 2015 as friends forecast the impending defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa I wondered if the Rajapaksa brothers would engineer a coup. It appears that many in the anti-Rajapaksa circles entertained this fear quite seriously (see Uyangoda in The Hindu).


Filed under accountability, authoritarian regimes, democratic measures, disparagement, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian traditions, landscape wondrous, legal issues, life stories, patriotism, politIcal discourse, power politics, Presidential elections, press freedom & censorship, Rajapaksa regime, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, slanted reportage, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, truth as casualty of war, world events & processes

6 responses to “Populist Authoritarianism. Why Mahinda Rajapaksa will abdicate the Reins: A Forecast in 2012

  1. Reblogged this on Wings of Time.

  2. chandre Dharmawardana

    “What all this means, therefore, is that Sri Lanka is presently burdened with a form of populist authoritarianism that is necessarily short-term, one that has to calculate how to reproduce itself at the next general elections.”

    Good one.

    But I think the part about “Asokan Persona” etc, are the typical fables woven by historians who love to caste modern people with old iconic images even knowing that they are fatally incorrect and totally misleading. As Roberts knows well, Asoka, after his becoming “Chakravarti” became a pious Buddhist and got his children ordained in the Sangha and sent them off as Buddhist missionaries. Rajapaksa’s children became playboys unpopular with the public, even if Rajapaksa had dreams of nurturing one of them to succeed him.

    As for authoritarianism, JRJ and Premadasa set the style for authoritarian action and their authoritarianism achieved very little that was positive, but much that was negative. The undermining of the Judiciary, and the 1983 pogram were some of the worst outcomes of JRJ’s authoritarianism that led him to ultimately succumb to India’s authoritarianism;. There he approved constitutional changes in secret. Chandrika’s, (and Ranils) signing of secret CFAs, PTOMs etc were similar authoritarian acts -leaving aside other authoritarian abuse in matters of business, favoritism, corruption etc..

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