Mahinda Rajapaksa takes oath as Sri Lankan Prime Minister, consolidates family’s grip on power

COLOMBO, Aug 9: Sri Lanka’s former president Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in on Sunday as the new prime minister at a centuries-old Buddhist temple after his party won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections that allowed the influential family to consolidate power in the island nation.
The 74-year-old Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) leader was administered the oath of office by his younger brother and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Rajamaha Viharaya in Kelaniya, a north Colombo suburb, at the auspicious hour of 9:28 am local time.
This is Mahinda Rajapaksa’s fourth innings as prime minister. Supporters of SLPP lit firecrackers to celebrate his swearing in as the 13th Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.
The Rajamaha Viharaya, also known as the Kelaniya temple, dates back to 2,500 years. According to the temple website, the shrine has often been associated with the rise and fall of Sri Lanka.
There is a popular saying that as the temple rose, Sri Lanka rose and as it fell, the country and its administration fell. It has thus had a deep association with the political powers of the country, the website states.
Mahinda Rajapaksa completed 50 years of parliamentary politics in July this year. He was elected as a Member of Parliament at the young age of 24 in 1970. He has since been elected President twice and has been appointed Prime Minister thrice before.
He was prime minister between April 2004 and November 2005. He was prime minister for 52 days in 2018, and from November 2019 to August 5, 2020.
The SLPP, led by Mahinda Rajapaksa, registered a landslide victory in the August 5 general election, securing two-thirds majority in Parliament needed to amend the Constitution to further consolidate the powerful Rajapaksa family’s grip on power.
India’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Gopal Baglay on Saturday became the first envoy to congratulate the new prime minister when he called on Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Baglay recalled that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had complimented the people and Government of Sri Lanka on the successful conduct of elections and had acknowledged the impressive electoral performance of the SLPP.
He reiterated the strong desire and the commitment of the Indian government to work very closely with the new government and Parliament in Sri Lanka for further strengthening comprehensive bilateral cooperation, the Indian High Commission here said.
Mahinda Rajapaksa polled over 500,000 individual preference votes — the highest ever recorded by a candidate in the country’s election history.
The SLPP won in 145 constituencies, bagging a total of 150 seats with its allies, a two-thirds majority in the 225-member Parliament.
The cabinet ministers, state and deputy ministers are expected to be sworn-in this week.
The Rajapaksa family — including SLPP founder and its National Organiser 69-year-old Basil Rajapaksa, who is the younger brother of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 71, and Mahinda Rajapaksa — has dominated Sri Lankan politics for two decades.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had won the November presidential election on the SLPP ticket.
In the parliamentary election, he was seeking 150 seats mandatory to execute constitutional changes, including to repeal the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which had curbed the presidential powers while strengthening the role of Parliament.
Activists, already alarmed by the diminishing space for dissent and criticism in the island nation, fear such a move could lead to authoritarianism.
The biggest casualty from the election outcome was the United National Party (UNP) of former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe which managed to win only one seat. The country’s grand old party failed to win a single seat from any of the 22 districts.
UNP leader and four-time prime minister Wikremesinghe was unseated for the first time since he entered Parliament in 1977.
Mahinda Rajapaksa earlier served as the country’s president from 2005-2015, a period which was mired by allegations of human rights abuses, especially against the Tamils.
He enjoys cult status among the 77 per cent Sinhala majority community for his action to end the brutal nearly three-decade-long civil war in the island nation with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009.
The LTTE led by its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had waged a violent campaign in the nation to carve out a separate Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island.
The military during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime as president defeated the rebel group, a task all his predecessors since 1972 had failed to achieve. (PTI)