Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election 2019: A New President and the Politics of Balances

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by Asanga Abeyagoonasekera December 3rd, 2019


The recent Sri Lankan election witnessed the Rajapaksa brothers – Gotabaya and Mahinda – coming to power. Gotabaya, former secretary of defence and a technocrat with little political experience, was elected president while Mahinda, former two-time president who ended the protracted civil war during his term 10 years ago, was sworn in as prime minister. The new president faces the twin internal challenges of balancing nationalist and liberal values and introducing a new political culture with emphasis on meritocracy and technocracy. On external relations, past Sri Lankan leaders have leaned towards a single power for economic support and this superseded everything else. It will be interesting to see if Gotabaya’s foreign policy will be different from that of his brother and the other leaders, and if he will be able to balance the triple sphere of influence – India, China and the United States – with his ‘neutral’ foreign policy focus.


We have not lost in this election. In a way we have won the Southern vote; we just did not receive the votes from North-East and the upcountry… I will ensure I will look after all of you.” These were the departing words of Mahinda Rajapaksa after his presidential loss in 2015. The president who left office came back to power after four years, this time appointed as prime minister by his brother – Gotabaya Rajapaksa – a historical political incident where two brothers share the Executive and the premiership.

In 2015, votes from the ethnic Tamil-dominated former war zone in the north of the country and Muslim-dominated areas played a key role in President Maithripala Sirisena’s victory. It took four years for a Rajapaksa to seize back the top seat by winning a significant percentage of the Sinhalese voter base. The new president, Gotabaya, secured 52.25 per cent of the votes with a 1.3 million lead, a historic victory without many votes from the North-East. As articulated by the newly elected president, I won from the Sinhalese votes; I expected more votes from the Tamil and Muslim community which I did not receive. I want them to join now.” He has appealed to them to be a part of his grand vision to create a prosperous nation with a new political culture, with meritocracy and technocracy emblazed at the helm.

Reasons for Gotabaya’s Victory

There are three distinct reasons for Gotabaya’s victory. First, the Sri Lankan economy has been badly managed and the direct effect of rising costs was felt by the entire country. Second, the flaws in the bipartisan model introduced in 2015, which gradually evolved into a complete loss of mutual trust between the Executive and prime minister. Finally, it was the national security threat that arose from the extremist terror attack on Easter Sunday earlier this year. Following the attack, the people’s trust in the government eroded significantly and reached its lowest ebb when a Parliamentary Select Committee highlighted serious intelligence gaps and administration flaws in the government.

In the 2019 presidential election, Sri Lanka was at a crossroads, pitting the neo-liberals against the nationalists. As a symbolic gesture, the colour of the new presidential flag depicts dark brown, signifying the rich soil of the nation. The values stem from the deep South – the scarf was the symbol the Rajapaksas used to depict their closeness to the soil, and this had much more strength than any other political slogans used by their opponents. I am from a southern Sinhalese Buddhist family and I was educated at a Buddhist school ‘Ananda College’. I will ensure principles of Buddhist values will be at the forefront in my presidency”, said the newly-elected president at his inauguration at the Ruwanwelisaya Buddhist shrine, the place where the ancient Southern Sinhalese Buddhist King Dutugamunu who united the nation left a magnificent edifice to the entire country.

Adopting Global Best Practices

While embracing history is significant, it is also important to explore whether history has punished societies that have not evolved. Alexis de Tocqueville came from another nation to praise America’s embodiment of progressive political ideals. Nations should adapt best practices and embrace the values of progressive development in other nations. Leaders should be quick to adapt best practices and values from them. Many politicians in Sri Lanka’s recent past spoke about bringing inspiration from the Singapore model but their words ended up only as empty promises.

The newly-elected president could enact this change. Perhaps, as a reflection of this change, Gotabaya, within his first week in office, reduced the number of cabinet portfolios and established a committee for future appointments at all government institutional levels.

Sri Lanka’s economic geography matters as much as its political geography. Most past leaders failed to capitalise on the nation’s economic and political geographic significance due to their narrow political principles and their belief in protectionist measures, thereby missing the opportunity to leap forward and be part of the global economy and its value chains. Even Singapore defines her geography by international connectivity.

The balance between national and liberal values is clearly visible in the Singaporean context. Sri Lanka should develop its capacity to concentrate and harness the flows of goods, services, resources, money, technology, information and talent which will make it grow into a large nation, just like Singapore. For this, Sri Lanka has to go beyond the ultra-nationalist spirit to embrace what is out there in the world.

The strategy of the new president comes during the significant time of the 4th Industrial Revolution. The author was present in Davos when Professor Klaus Schwab, Chairman of the World Economic Forum, released his book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, in 2016, during which time Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product growth rate was at 4.5 per cent. The economy is expected to grow at its lowest rate of 2.7 per cent in 2019. Political instability, followed by a weak security environment, was a significant factor that has pulled the entire country down. When compared to nations such as Bangladesh in the South Asian region, which has managed to stabilise its economy with an eight per cent annual growth rate, the Sri Lankan economy would need a quick recovery, with a particular increase in foreign direct investment inflows.

Value of Democracy and Technocracy

Will Gotabaya be able to manage the delicate balance between ultra-nationalist and liberal economic values? Seen as an efficient administrative technocrat with little experience in politics, will he embrace the values of the rich school of democracy in his government? How will he embrace his brother’s pro-China foreign policy? And will he be able to create a balance between the triple spheres of influence –between India, China and the United States? These are some questions the new leadership will face, and Gotabaya will need to use all of his statecraft to answer them in the coming months.

One significant internal value the new leader may wish to follow is technocracy. Sri Lankans are in search of a better government that could balance democracy and technocracy – an area in which the previous regime failed miserably. The gap was clearly identified by Gotabaya and he has promised a government with values of technocracy and meritocracy under his leadership. In both his election manifesto and at his inaugural speech, these values were re-emphasised by the president.

Technocracy is the model and policy prescription that was put forward as a solution for modern democracies by Parag Khanna, a professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore – he published a book on the same subject. He explained that there is a lack of technical experts to solve complex government problems in a democracy. Technocracy, as a form of leading governing practice to efficiently govern a polis (the ideal city), was introduced by the Greek philosopher Plato as the most preferred form of government, which should be led by a committee of public-spirited guardians”. In such a system, the most qualified technical experts are chosen based on merit to govern the nation. This is a model adopted by progressive nations such as Singapore. According to Parag, Technocratic government is built around expert analysis and long-term planning, rather than narrow-minded and short-term populist whims… Real technocracy has the virtues of being both utilitarian (inclusively seeking the broadest societal benefit) and meritocratic (with the most qualified and non-corrupt leaders). Instead of ad hoc and reactive politics, technocracies are where political science starts to look like something worthy of the term: a rigorous approach to policy.” What Sri Lanka clearly needs is to steer in this direction. Indeed, the island state’s new leadership has already recognised the importance of this model. Accordingly, the pubic-spirited guardians” will be chosen to address key complex issues not adequately addressed before.

Foreign Policy Management

Gotabaya is the second leader after Sirimavo Bandaranaike who managed to become the head of state without much political experience. While Sirimavo’s domestic policies had limitations, leading to an erosion of the economy, her foreign policy imperatives were excellent.

On foreign policy, the newly-elected president spelt out his policy in his election manifesto to maintain friendly relations with other countries from a standpoint of equality”, and to adopt a non-aligned policy in all his foreign dealings and work with all friendly nations on equal terms” . His clear position was that, We will not be part of any big power rivalry, we will take a neutral position.” Even before his maiden visit to India, Constantino Xavier, a foreign policy fellow at Brookings India in New Delhi, explained that Gota will play the China card, but Beijing is now less inclined to repeat the large financial investments it did five or 10 years ago, due to growing domestic opposition and international scrutiny.” Further looking at Indo-Lanka foreign policy in the context of the greater global strategy at play in the Indo-Pacific, Xavier stated, Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi’s ambition to shape the Indo-Pacific great game will fail unless he gets Gotabaya to play ball and keep China at bay.” It would be wise for India not to use its closest neighbour in such a manner as described by Xavier, since a strong and deep Sino-Lanka relationship is also an essential element in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy.

China’s deep economic and infrastructure-driven diplomacy on the island state cannot be discounted. From South Asia, Sri Lanka was an initial partner of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a strategic step taken by Mahinda during his presidency. China’s goals were explained by President Xi Jinping in his congratulatory letter to the newly-elected president: [T]o deepen our practical cooperation within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, to start a new chapter of China-Sri Lanka Strategic Cooperative Partnership and to bring more tangible benefits to our two peoples.” During his visit to India from 28 to 30 November 2019, Gotabaya bluntly and rightly expressed the importance of the strategic asset of the Hambantota port leased out to China during his interview: [The] Sri Lankan government must have control of all strategically important projects.” Viewing the lease of the Hambantota port as an unfruitful exercise, he elaborated on its long-lasting strategic implications …these 99-year lease agreements [that the previous government signed] will have an impact on our future.” The Hambantota port and Chinese infrastructure diplomacy have had many concerned that Beijing was indulging in ‘debt diplomacy’. Gotabaya has, however, rejected the claim of a ‘debt trap’ in his same interview—It is also wrong to say there was a debt trap”—and that the Hambantota port was leased out due to the government’s inability to finance the borrowings from the Chinese.

The total Chinese loan percentage is much less than the sovereign bonds and the debt issue is more of a ‘middle-income trap’ rather than a ‘Chinese debt trap’. The country has advanced from a low-income to middle-income status, and no longer qualifies for concessional loans from international institutions. Andrew Small, Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program and a renowned China expert, analysed the Sri Lankan debt trap as a data point rather than a trend”, stating that the perception that China plans to build military bases through debt-diplomacy is inaccurate”.

Having said that, the new president will have to astutely exercise his ‘neutral’ foreign policy posture at a time of geopolitical significance in Sri Lanka’s surrounding environment, especially the Indian Ocean, where neutrality has its own complexity. Sri Lanka should not accept binary choices when it comes to the Indo-Pacific or the BRI. It should be part of both strategies and it should reap maximum benefits for its people.


Gotabaya is seen by the general Sri Lankan public as a leader who is capable of delivering on his promises. During his term, Gotabaya will be faced with the challenge of balancing competing priorities. He needs to introduce technocracy and meritocracy into the country, but he needs to balance this by carefully making deep changes to the existing system. He will need to balance nationalist and liberal policies, adopt best practices that will connect Sri Lanka to the world and make the small island gravitationally a large nation. For this, Gotabaya will need to balance his ‘neutral’ policy stance with regional and global geopolitical dynamics.

Mr Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is the Director-General of the Institute of National Security Studies, Sri Lanka under Ministry of Defence. He is the author of Sri Lanka at Crossroads (2019), published by World Scientific Singapore. He studied ‘Adaptive Leadership’ under Professor Marty Linsky from Harvard Kennedy School. He can be contacted at The author bears full responsibility for the facts cited and opinions expressed in this paper.

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Director General, Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), Sri Lanka. Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is a columnist and author. He is a visiting lecturer in International Political Economy for University of London in Sri Lanka Royal Institute of Colombo and University of Colombo. The Institute of National Security Studies of Sri Lanka (INSSSL), the premiere national think tank of the Ministry of Defence has been established to understand the security environment and to work with the government to craft evidence based policy options and strategies for debate and discussions to ensure national security. It will conduct a broad array of national security research for the Ministry.