Mahinda Rajapaksa, the wily 76-year-old patriarch of the powerful Rajapaksa clan, was once known as Sri Lanka’s man for all seasons, but the first anti-government protests triggered by the island nation’s first economic turmoil turned out to be a tsunami that forced him to resign as the prime minister.
The island nation’s worst economic crisis since its independence from Britain in 1948 is caused in part by a lack of foreign currency, which has meant that the country cannot afford to pay for imports of staple foods and fuel, leading to acute shortages and very high prices .
Thousands of demonstrators hit the streets across Sri Lanka since April 9 seeking resignation of President Gotabaya and Prime Minister Mahinda.
Under mounting pressure, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dropped his older brother Chamal and the eldest nephew Namal from the Cabinet in mid-April. However, Prime Minister Mahinda was reluctant to resign even as reports emerged of a rift between the two brothers in running the debt-ridden country.
Mahinda’s resignation came after his supporters attacked anti-government protesters outside embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office, leaving dozens injured and prompting authorities to impose a nationwide curfew and deploy army troops in the national capital.
The anti-government protests gathered momentum after nearly 1,000 trade unions – ranging from a number of sectors, including the state service, health, ports, electricity, education and postal – joined the movement demanding the resignation of the government, including a member of the government powerful Rajapaksa family – President Gotabaya and Prime Minister Mahinda.
Two-time former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, who suffered a crushing defeat in the presidential elections in 2015, returned to power in 2020 after deadly Easter terror attacks that killed 270, including 11 Indians, and put many Sri Lankans on the edge about the country’s security.
His newly-formed Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) scripted history by becoming the political party with the shortest life span to gain absolute power in the island nation’s political history.
The powerful Rajapaksa family tightened their grip on power after their party’s massive victory in the general elections in August 2020 that allowed them to amend the Constitution to restore presidential powers and install close family members at key positions.
Mahinda, who crushed the Tamil Tigers in a brutal military campaign, assumed the role of prime minister, becoming the premier for the fourth time in his career.
Initially, Mahinda maintained an image of security and stability as the COVID-19 pandemic spread globally in 2020. However, despite reporting much lower rates of infection and death from COVID-19 than other South Asian countries, tourism dependent Sri Lankan economy suffered a major setback, ultimately resulting in an economic crisis that paved his ouster. Mahinda, a veteran street-fighter politician, entered Parliament when he was just 24, becoming the youngest lawmaker. After losing the seat in 1977, he focused on his law career until reentering Parliament in 1989.
He served as labor minister (1994–2001) and minister of fisheries and aquatic resources (1997–2001) under President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who appointed him as prime minister after the general election of April 2004, when the United People’s Freedom Alliance won a majority .
He was chosen as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s presidential nominee in November 2005. Shortly after his victory in the election, Mahinda announced his intention to crush the LTTE, which had established a de facto government in Sri Lanka.
Ending the nearly 30-year-long bloody civil war with the LTTE, where all his predecessors had failed, Mahinda became a hero and used it to return to power with a thumping win in 2010, leading to political analysts labeling him “a man with a midas touch.” During his presidency from 2005 to 2015, Mahinda consolidated his position. The Constitution was changed to allow him to serve a third term, and his three brothers – Gotabaya, Basil and Chamal – were awarded acting positions, leading to accusations that he was running the country like a family firm.
His domestic popularity appeared to wane during 2014 because of prices and concerns of corruption and abuse of rising power, and, in an attempt to secure another presidential term before losing support, he again called for an early presidential poll. But his political gamble backfired and he was defeated in the elections in 2015. Maithripala Sirisena, formerly a member of Rajapaksa’s cabinet, defeated him and was sworn in as president.
During his tenure as president, Mahinda concluded several key infrastructure deals with China, raising concerns in India and the West.
Critics say it was due to Mahinda that the country has fallen into the “Chinese debt trap”. The strategic Hambantota port, which was funded by a Chinese loan during his regime, was leased to Beijing on a 99-year-for-equity debt swap in 2017 after the country failed to pay off the debt.
In 2015, Parliament restored a constitutional two-term limit on the presidency barring Mahinda from contesting again. In August, Mahinda was elected to Parliament.
After their defeat in 2015, the Rajapaksas were battling arrests and cases corruption in court. There were scores of cases filed against them for alleged misappropriation and the cases are still pending.
Three years later, Mahinda was briefly appointed as the prime minister in October, 2018 by then President Sirisena, who sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in a controversial move that plunged the country into a constitutional crisis. Mahinda resigned on December 15 after the Supreme Court declared that the dissolution of Parliament by Sirisena was “illegal”.
Later, Mahinda and his supporters in Parliament defected from the ruling party and joined the SLPP, founded by his brother Basil, and he formally became the Leader of the Opposition.
The deadly Easter bombings on April 21, 2019 was a turning point in Sri Lankan politics. The SLPP led by the Rajapaksas lambasted the government of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe for the failure on the security front.
The SLPP also announced the presidential candidacy of Maninda Rajapaksa’s younger brother Gotabhaya, who had served as his defense minister in the final years of the civil war against the LTTE.
The brother-duo promised security to Sri Lankans who became worried about Islamic extremism in the Buddhist-majority country. Gotabhaya won the presidential election in 2019.
After becoming President, Gotabaya appointed Mahinda as the prime minister.