South Asia's Turn to Illiberal Democracy

In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa brothers’ return confirms the region’s autocratic drift.

Expert comment Published 18 November 2019 Updated 22 November 2019 2 minute READ

James Crabtree

Former Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme

Sri Lanka's President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa arrives to take the oath of office at the Ruwanwelisaya temple in Anuradhapura on 18 November. Photo: Getty Images.

Sri Lanka’s President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa arrives to take the oath of office at the Ruwanwelisaya temple in Anuradhapura on 18 November. Photo: Getty Images.

The return of the Rajapaksa brothers to power in Sri Lanka drew delighted cheers from their Buddhist nationalist supporters this weekend. But it should bring a shudder of alarm from those concerned for the island’s future.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the nation’s wartime defence chief, emerged as a comfortable winner on Sunday after a presidential poll on Saturday marked by deep ethnic divisions - signaling a likely return to the autocratic style favored by his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who served as president from 2005 to 2015.

More importantly, the result fits a broader and more alarming trend: the rise of illiberal democracy in South Asia as Sri Lanka joins India and Bangladesh in particular in backing nationalist strongman leaders with scant concern for the niceties of constitutional rule.

Mahinda Rajapaksa ground out a bloody victory in Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, before leading an administration noted mostly for its Chinese-funded white elephant infrastructure projects and widespread disrespect for human rights.

The nation’s minority Tamils came to fear Rajapaksa family rule - hence why they voted en masse for the opposition during this election - as did journalists and civil society leaders. At its worst, Sri Lanka gained a grim international reputation for the disappearance of government critics, bundled away in mysterious white vans.

In a formal sense, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s win shows Sri Lanka’s democracy in reasonable health. The recent poll appeared to be free and fair, while the handover of power was peaceful. Yet the elder Rajapaksa’s victory is still likely to raise concern about the future health of its democracy, not least because he has pledged to appoint Mahinda as prime minister.

In this, Sri Lanka takes its place as part of a wider regional pattern, with India the most obvious example.

Under Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has witnessed a clear retreat from liberalism, with declines in independent institutions, limits on freedom of expression and rising alarm among religious minorities.

Bangladesh looks much the same. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina secured a landslide third election victory in late 2018, winning around 96 per cent of the vote in a poll that was widely viewed as rigged.

On a recent visit to Dhaka, I found few political observers willing to describe their country as functioning multiparty-democracy. Instead, with Hasina’s political opponents languishing in jail, they are adjusting sullenly to its new position as an effective one-party state.

Academic research backs up these broad impressions. Over the last five years both India and Bangladesh have recorded sharp declines on the liberal democracy index put together by the Varieties of Democracy project at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg. Sri Lanka’s rating recovered over the same period, in large part because the Rajapaksas lost power. The risk is now it will decline once again.

There are of course exceptions to this pattern. This year’s parliamentary elections in the Maldives were won by the liberal-leaning Maldivian Democratic Party. Imran Khan’s victory in Pakistan, while hardly a triumph for liberal policies, at least resisted the temptation to slip back to military rule.

Still, South Asia’s direction should at least be surprising. As recently as 2013, The New York Times wrote a celebratory article headlined ‘A Region Totters Toward Democracy’, noting a democratic upsurge in a part of the world that, beyond India and Sri Lanka, had historically been ruled by a ‘a grab bag of monarchies, dictatorships and military regimes’.

Now the trend is going the other way, with an illiberal democratic turn across South Asia with two main causes, the first being security.

In Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa won because of his firm record as a military hard-liner. Voters turned to him after the deadly Easter Sunday attacks earlier this year, in which domestic terrorists tied to the Islamic State bombed churches and hotels, leaving more than 200 dead.

India’s election in May showed a similar pattern, as Modi won support for his own hard-line stance in the aftermath of military skirmishes with Pakistan and terrorist attacks in the restive region of Kashmir.

The second factor is a desire for stability, given the way in which political parties with more liberal visions have come sadly to be associated with corruption, drift and inaction.

Rajapaksa also won in Sri Lanka because his opponents had for the last five years run a divided and largely do-nothing administration, with little to show on economic reform in particular.

Indeed, there are clear parallels between the polls in Sri Lanka and India. Both offered a choice between a leader who was liberal but viewed by the public as ineffectual - Sajith Premadasa in Sri Lanka and Rahul Gandhi in India - against one who was seen to be efficient but sinister. In both cases, voters preferred the strongman.

Much the same is true in Bangladesh, where Sheikh Hasina has won grudging public support for ending a decade of electoral instability, styling herself as a technocratic leader in the mould of Singapore’s late Lee Kuan Yew.

Put another way, voters have turned to illiberal leaders largely because the liberal ones have largely failed to deliver. Under the Rajapaksas, Sri Lanka transformed with astonishing speed from a messy and rambunctious South Asian democracy into a regime that more closely resembled the illiberal autocracies of East Asia. It now looks worryingly as if that style is catching on.

This article was originally published in the Nikkei Asian Review.