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The End of Sri Lankan Democracy?

At a time of growing international skepticism toward China's Belt and Road Initiative, the Rajapaksa family’s potential return to power is welcome news for Chinese President Xi Jinping. But it is bad news for practically everyone else.

COLOMBO – One of Asia’s oldest democracies may be in jeopardy. Sri Lanka’s presidential election next month, is expected to bring to power another member of the Rajapaksa family, whose affinity for authoritarianism, violence, and corruption is well known. While Sri Lanka’s democracy survived the last test – an attempted constitutional coup by outgoing President Maithripala Sirisena a year ago – it may not survive a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency.

Gotabaya, as he is popularly known, is the current frontrunner and previously served as Sri Lanka’s defense chief under his older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sirisena’s predecessor. Mahinda’s decade-long tenure, which ended in 2015, was characterized by brazen nepotism, with the four Rajapaksa brothers controlling many government ministries and about 80% of total public spending. And by steadily expanding presidential powers, Mahinda created a quasi-dictatorship known for human-rights abuses and accused of war crimes.

Moreover, Mahinda’s pro-China foreign policy allowed for the swift expansion of Chinese influence in Sri Lanka – and rapid growth in Sri Lankan debt to China. It was the debt incurred during the last Rajapaksa presidency that forced Sirisena in 2017 to sign away to China the Indian Ocean’s most strategic port, Hambantota, along with 6,070 hectares (15,000 acres) of nearby land, on a 99-year lease. This Hong Kong-style concession was modeled on the United Kingdom’s nineteenth-century colonial imposition on China.

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