Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Rajapaksa Dynasty?

Usually blogger doesn't post articles written by others. But this would be his first exception. The following article was written by a friend of the blogger for his post-graduate studies.

The Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, got his parliament to approve an 18th amendment to the constitution giving him sweeping powers. A recent economist article is very critical of the new amendment. The executive presidency in Sri Lanka is very powerful as it is and the new amendment gives the president final authority over all appointments in judiciary, the civil service and the police plus the opportunity to contest any number of times for the presidency. The day these amendments were passed, a friend commented on Facebook the old quote “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. That got me thinking, why is Mahinda Rajapaksa doing this and how was he able to get a 2/3 majority in the parliament to pass this amendment which was considered an impossibility?

Difference of 5 years

President Mahinda Rajapaksa came in to power in 2005 winning the presidential election by a narrow margin. At the time the country was engaged in a bloody 30 year old war with the LTTE, a terrorist organization which is proscribed in many countries including the EU, there was a strong opposition which gave Rajapaksa a good run for his money and the country’s economy was in shambles. Fast forward to 2010 and there is no trace of LTTE, the opposition is in disarray and many of the former adversaries are now Rajapaksa allies including ex-LTTE commanders and the tourist trade is booming while there are ambitious mega construction projects such as new highways, an international airport, and a new harbour which has shifted the economic growth in to high gear.

Symbolic Importance

Rajapaksa stood for the symbols valued in the Sri Lankan society such as strong family values, culture and patriotism. While the sons of other minister were in the news for brawls at night clubs, Rajapaksa’s 3 sons were in the new for all the correct reasons. The eldest was involved in a lot of community projects and voluntary work while the second son excelled as a rugby player at school and later joined the Navy. Also Rajapaksa took a hard stand against the terrorists. After they rejected his efforts to negotiate, he put the country on a war footing and went all guns blazing to finish them off. A bloody 30 year old war was ended within 4 years. This was done while keeping the economy stable and fighting the pressure from the international community.

All hail ‘the king’

The ending of the war elevated Rajapaksa’s status to a level never achieved by any Sri Lankan president before. Sri Lankans have a longing for a monarchy which ended with the British invasion. With the end of the war, people started elevating Rajapaksa to the level of king. As soon as the war ended, the country was awash with posters hailing ‘the king’. Songs were written and documentaries were made. When the news of the end of war was being spread, the president was out of the country. When he arrived, soon after he got down from the plane, he went on his knees and worshipped the ground. This symbolic gesture was captured on camera and it has adorned many newspaper pages ever since.

Chinks in the armour

However, Rajapaksa’s tenure so far is not without its’ black marks. There have been assassinations of journalists who were critical of the government. No culprits have been presented to courts yet. A couple of media stations who criticised the government were attacked by unidentified men. Sarath Fonseka, who was the general of Sri Lankan army during the war has been accused of treason and taken in to custody. He has been stripped of his rank and charged by a military court. All this after he decided to contest against the president in the last presidential election. The ‘Rajapaksas’ control much of Sri Lanka. Defence Secretary, Finance Minister and Speaker are all president’s brothers. Opponents of the president see this as a threat to democracy.

Symbolic Leadership

Rakapaksa’s leadership has been called charismatic and dictatorial among other things. I believe Smircich and Morgan provide the best answer to decipher his leadership style. In their leadership studies, they present leadership as the creation of meaning. This creation of meaning occurs through symbolism which creates the leaders desired context for the followers. In spite of his criticisms, Rajapaksa has been able to create greater meaning through symbolism. His portrayal of family values, respect for culture and unconditional patriotism shown through hard stance against international pressure and spontaneous gestures like ‘worshipping the mother land’ has created the desired meaning in his followers’ minds. Rajapaksa has shown the power of symbolic leadership which is relevant in most global leadership contexts today. However, it remains to be seen whether ‘absolute power’ will corrupt Rajapaksa in to a dictatorial leader.