Why a change of regime in Sri Lanka matters for the whole world

Good riddance

It’s hard to tell if the ejection of Mahinda Rajapaska from the Sri Lankan presidency should worry Putin or Xi more.

In recent years the world has seen a growing number of elected autocracies: governments that gain and retain power through elections yet repress dissent and seek to control institutions that should be independent of it like the media and judiciary. Examples include Venezuela, Hungary and most crucially Russia. However, as of this month there is one fewer example. The election for Sri Lankan president saw Mahinda Rajapaksa, who presided over war crimes against the Island’s Tamil minority and put most of the countries key institutions under the control of members of his family, lose to his former health minister Maithrala Sirisena.

Amanda Taub at Vox explains why Mr Rajapaska’s fate may have other elected autocrats looking over their shoulder:

There is a lesson here for other autocratic rulers. If you want to hold onto power, you should be at least as worried about the people who attended your last birthday party as you are about youthful idealists’ street protests.

It’s romantic to believe that popular uprisings like the Tahrir Square protests of 2011, Russia’s White Ribbon movement of 2012, or Ukraine’s Maidan protests of 2013 are the most serious threat to autocrats’ power. But Sri Lanka shows that, even in the case of power transfers that seem like the result of popular movements (in this case, a democratic election), the change is often actually driven by elites shifting their loyalties to a new candidate at a key moment.

Rajapaksa was brutally effective at crushing bottom-up democratic activism in Sri Lanka. But it turns out grassroots activists weren’t the people Rajapaksa really needed to worry about. Sirisena was a close ally who was a guest at Rajapaksa’s birthday celebration a mere two days before announcing his candidacy for president. Other elites quickly shifted to Sirisena’s camp, leaving Rajapaksa without support.

The same thing could happen to just about any autocratic leader.

Consider, for example, Vladimir Putin. He enjoys extremely high approval ratings, and is a beloved figure among ordinary Russians. And there is no one in Russia who seems powerful enough to be a possible Putin replacement, or any signs that Russian elites are beginning to doubt his rule.

But the same could have been said about Rajapaksa up to the moment when Sirisena announced his candidacy. It turned out that his popularity was fragile, and reliant on quiet but crucial support from key members of Sri Lanka’s most powerful institutions. When that support eroded, so did his popularity — in less than two months.

Putin’s popularity, like Rajapaksa’s, has been manufactured by pliant state media with the assistance of key allies among the Russian elite. The same elite-run forces that bolster autocratic leaders — supportive state media, a justice system willing to overlook corruption, helpful security services — can be used to take their rule away.

NYU professor Mark Galeotti, who studies Russia, told me recently that elite abandonment is far more of a risk for Putin than are the protesters who periodically throng the streets of Moscow. The real concern for Putin, he argued, should be that Russia’s elite power players — such as the leaders of the security services and major business interests — would lose faith in him, and decide that it was time to replace him with someone who offered better prospects for the long term.

This election result illustrates potential risks for Putin. However, the autocrat it poses the greatest difficulty for – asides obviously from Mr Rajapaksa himself – is China’s Xi Jingping.

In an interview with The Economist, [new Sri Lankan foreign minister] Mr Samaraweera spelled out how he expects Sri Lanka’s place in foreign affairs to change. For a start, warmer relations with India are all but guaranteed: he describes bilateral ties as “a state of irreversible excellence”, with the “strained” relations that were experienced under Mr Rajapaksa an “aberration” that must now be forgotten. “We must put our friendship back on track…we must accept the geopolitical reality”, he says. For India the most pressing concern is the heavy influence of China in its neighbourhood, especially after China deployed a military submarine, twice, to Colombo harbour in September. China has provided billions of dollars’ worth of loans and investment for Sri Lankan infrastructure, including a southern airport at Mr Rajapaksa’s hometown which Mr Samaraweera dismisses as a “white elephant”. Such projects will now be reviewed, he says. Dubious Chinese activities—such as unsustainable tuna-fishing by Chinese boats in Sri Lankan waters—will presumably end.

Sri Lanka’s ties with Europe and America had traditionally been excellent. A large share of its trade continues to be with the European Union. But under Mr Rajapaksa, who was accused of human-rights abuses at the end of the civil war, some of those relationships became antagonistic. Mr Samaraweera describes the former president as “vilifying” the West as a form of “hysterical nationalism to command” the vote of the ethnic Sinhalese majority, despite the fact that Western powers helped to crack down on international funding and support for the Tamil Tiger separatists towards the end of the war. Now, argues the new foreign minister, it is time for Western governments to re-engage Sri Lanka much more closely. He argues that they must regard his country as having its own “Burma moment”. Myanmar (previously Burma) had been loyal to China while it was under military rule, but in recent years it has rebalanced internationally, reached out for investment and closer ties with India and the West—and been rewarded with high-profile visits and growing economic ties. Similarly, Sri Lanka is also pivoting back to take a friendlier position towards the West (Mr Samarweera is keen to emphasise there will be no hostility towards China) so the opportunity is ripe for stronger co-operation there. Mr Samaraweera will travel both to Washington, DC and to Beijing in coming weeks.

To generating cause for substantial disquiet in both Moscow and Beijing is not bad going for a small island with a population of 20 million.

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