Sri Lanka's Family Rule May Be Reaching Its Limit
COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — Traditions die hard in South Asia, where dynasties dominate the political process and succession all too often has been forced by an assassin's bullet.
An unprecedented number of widows and daughters have stepped into the shoes of murdered statesmen as presidents, prime ministers, or leaders of the opposition. Today women lead governments in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh and opposition parties in India and Pakistan.
But nowhere have women retained as much power for so long as in Sri Lanka. The country's current president, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, has used her pedigree to win power, but is now finding it difficult to preserve her charisma in the island's troubled political landscape.
Ms. Kumaratunga's mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was elected the world's first woman prime minister in 1960 after the assassination of her husband, Solomon. Today Ms. Bandaranaike is back in the post of prime minister, but the position is largely ceremonial. The real power rests with her daughter.
It's a unique double act in more ways than one. President Kumaratunga's husband, a matinee idol, was assassinated while running for president in 1988.
Despite her credentials, Ms. Kumaratunga says she is against family fiefdoms dominating governments.
"I certainly agree that dynastic control of parties is not good," says Kumaratunga, seated in the formal dining room of Temple Trees, her official residence in Colombo. "I agreed to contest only after my mother agreed to contest for parliamentary elections, my brother crossed over to another party, and my husband was assassinated."
Kumaratunga's is not the only dysfunctional dynasty in South Asia, where domestic squabbles often spill over into the political arena. In Pakistan, then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's estranged brother fought against her in Parliament before being killed in 1996.
In India, Sonia Gandhi's sister-in-law, Maneka Gandhi, fell out with the Congress Party and is now an independent in Parliament supporting the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
South Asia's dynasties have survived much bloodshed, but it's not the best way to run a country, says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Analysis, a Colombo-based think tank.
"A dynasty is a good thing only in so far as it can deliver the goods," says Dr. Saravanamuttu. "Because you have the dynastic element underpinning the actual structure of the whole party, you don't necessarily attract people who are of good caliber and competence."
But even her harshest critics concede that Kumaratunga has skillfully used her family's charisma to further her own political ends.
"She is an extremely charismatic figure, and this is what she's got going for her," says Saravanamuttu. "She appeals to people across the social spectrum."
That appeal, however, is becoming harder to project. Kumaratunga tops the hit list of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist guerrilla group that has been blamed for the assassination of two heads of state and numerous terrorist bombings. Her home is ringed by half-a-dozen layers of security. Only last month, police reported that they uncovered an assassination plot using Tamil Tiger suicide bombers.
"My method of proceeding was a very hands-on kind of style where I was always in the streets, with the villagers, with the people. The fact that for the last four years I have not been able to do that has been very damaging," Kumaratunga says. "Up to now, people have had sufficient faith in me," she says. "But it can't go on for very long."
Just how much faith is left may be put to the test soon.
There is speculation in Colombo that Kumaratunga may bring forward the date for presidential elections to try to win a popular mandate for a devolution package giving greater autonomy to the Tamil-dominated north and east - and perhaps bringing an end to 15 years of ethnic strife.
For now, however, the war against the Tamil separatists is her main preoccupation.
"If we fight, we can definitely get the majority of the LTTE," Kumaratunga says. "If they are not willing to talk as a government, we will have to go to the logical end."