As the pandemic ends, more rulers face scrutiny

In Sri Lanka, mass protests revel a public eager for economic management by accountable and competent leaders – not by a family dynasty. 

People in Colombo protest against Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and demand that Rajapaksa family politicians step down, April 4.

There is a broad consensus among global observers that the pandemic has harmed democracy. Yet as the face masks come off and normal life resumes, another trend is emerging: By exacerbating the impact of corruption and economic mismanagement, the pandemic has sharpened a yearning for better governance, from Cuba to Pakistan and Argentina to Israel.

In Sri Lanka, massive street protests in recent weeks have revealed an additional dimension: a demand for an end to the incompetent rule of a family dynasty, one that has exploited ethnic and religious divisions to stay in power. The main reason for the country’s current crises, says Medagoda Abayathissa Thero, a prominent Buddhist monk, is “family rule.”

The turmoil in this island nation on the southern tip of India may mark a turning point in the public’s demand for merit-based rule. That holds lessons for other societies striving to build durable democracies, especially ones seeking to be free of family rule. One study published in 2018 found 1 in 10 world leaders come from households with political ties.

For most of the past two decades, Sri Lanka has been dominated by the Rajapaksa family. Two brothers have served as president for all but five years since 2005, creating an impression they are entitled to rule. One brother, Mahinda, is credited with ending the 26-year civil war with the separatist Tamil minority.

Yet this dynastic rule has bred a sense of social inequality and the country’s worst economic crisis since independence in 1948. Since the family first held the presidency, the country has dropped 24 places in a global ranking of countries for corruption by Transparency International. Acute shortages of food, electricity, and gas have exhausted the public’s patience with the family’s quixotic economic policies and rule by force. Gotabaya, the other brother and current president, faces pressure to resign.

“What the Rajapaksas have been doing all these years was to divide the people along ethnic and religious lines,” Christopher Stephen, a construction businessman in Colombo, the capital, told NPR. “But this has united all Sri Lankans – Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers – all want them out.”

In recent days, scores of lawmakers have withdrawn from Gotabaya’s ruling coalition. Negotiations for a rescue loan from the International Monetary Fund hang in the balance. Yet amid the political uncertainty, Sri Lankans may be showing a way out of family rule, giving hope to other nations now more closely scrutinizing their leaders.

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