During an election rally in Jaffna, Rajapaksa, while urging the minority Tamils to vote for him, said, ‘there is a saying that the known devil is better than the unknown angel.’  Photo: Bloomberg
During an election rally in Jaffna, Rajapaksa, while urging the minority Tamils to vote for him, said, ‘there is a saying that the known devil is better than the unknown angel.’ Photo: Bloomberg

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s future in the balance as Sri Lanka goes to polls

Seeking polls 2 years before the end of his term, a decisive Rajapaksa victory was on the cards until the opposition came up with a common candidate, Maithripala Sirisena

New Delhi: When Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced mid-term polls in October last year, and that he would run for an unprecedented third-term in office, he wasn’t expecting a tough fight. Seeking elections two years before the end of his term, a decisive Rajapaksa victory was on the cards — until the opposition came up with a common candidate, Maithripala Sirisena.

The presidential elections, due on Thursday, could be one of Sri Lanka’s most closely contested polls in recent times. In 2005, Rajapaksa, as leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), beat opposition rival Ranil Wickremasinghe of the United National Party (UNP) by a slender margin of 1.86%.

Rajapaksa’s decision to call snap polls, on the suggestion of his astrologer Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena, is puzzling. Sri Lanka’s economy, powered mainly by increasing foreign investments from China and Japan, has been witnessing an impressive growth of around 8% after the civil war ended in 2009. Inflation (down 3.5% in August to 1.7 in October, rose again to 2.1% in December 2014) and unemployment rates (4.5% in Q2) were low but have begun to rise, especially prices of essential commodities such as rice, cooking fuel, milk powder and wheat. In addition, after 10 years in power, Rajapaksa also faces the familiar prospect of increased anti-incumbency. Cost of living has rocketed and Rajapaksa, the war hero to majority Sinhalas after brutally crushing an armed Tamil rebellion, is showing signs of fallibility.

Charles Haviland, a BBC journalist who reported from Sri Lanka between 2009 and 2014 says, “For at least three to four years, there have been widespread rumours that a revolt would break out from within his party. The only question was when would the first “rebel" dare to break ranks. It has now done so — even though predictions that the revolt would be within his family haven’t materialised."

He is also accused of nepotism, with his family occupying several powerful posts in the government, including that of the defence secretary (Gotabaya Rajapaksa), speaker ( Chamal Rajapaksa) and economic development minister ( Basil Rajapaksa). Haviland adds, “More and more people, including Sinhalese Buddhists, are upset at the massive concentration of power and — apparently — of wealth in the hands of the Rajapaksa family."

Rajapaksa also did not deliver on a promise he made in 2005 and 2010, of abolishing the executive presidency. Meanwhile, the benefits of the post-war economic boom were not trickling down to the people.

His tenure has also seen the recent rise of religious intolerance and violence against minorities such as Muslims and Christians, especially by hardline Sinhala Buddhist groups like Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and Ravana Balaya. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is alleged to have links with the BBS, though he has denied this allegation.

The wake-up call for Mahinda Rajapaksa came in the provincial council elections of 2014. Even though his party-led alliance, the UPFA, won the elections held in March (Western and Southern Provinces) and September (Uva province) 2014, the ruling alliance took a significant hit in vote share. In the mainly urban Western Province (which includes the capital Colombo), the UPFA’s vote share declined by 11.43 percentage points (down from 64.78% in 2009 to 53.35% in 2014). Likewise, in the Southern Province, considered to be an SLFP and Rajapaksa bastion, with a majority Sinhala population, it took a hit by 9.82 percentage points (down from 67.88% in 2009 to 58.06% in 2014). But the biggest fall came in Uwa province, where Rajapaksa’s nephew Shasheendra was the chief minister. The party lost a whopping 21.33 percentage points, coming down from 72.39% in 2009 to 51.06% in 2014. The declining vote share, in many ways, reflected a sense of dissatisfaction with the Rajapaksa rule.

“The resentment is high in urban areas and the hope is that it will translate to rural Sri Lanka as well, where most of Rajapaksa’s voters come from," says Paikiasothy Saravanmuttu, director of the Colombo-based think-tank Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA). He adds, “There is the usual anti-incumbency, coupled with the growing perception that the regime led by Rajapaksa has not shown any movement on issues like post-war reconciliation."

The election campaign, which concluded on 5 January, has also witnessed incidents of violence.

The Sirisena Surge

While announcing snap polls, reports say, Rajapaksa had been originally plotting and planning a run against his old foe and former prime minister Wickramasinghe, a scenario in which the President would have won without many hurdles. However, the Rajapaksa campaign was totally caught off-guard when Maithripala Sirisena, an old-time SLFP loyalist and general secretary of the party, defected to the opposition and declared his intention to run for the presidency in a November press conference.

Reports also say that this was a carefully crafted move by the a faction within the ruling SLFP, a decision which was arrived at after long and discreet meetings with opposition leaders like Wickramasinghe, former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, General Sarath Fonseka and other leaders like Sobitha Thero of the ‘monk’s party’ Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and Anura Dissanayake of the Marxist- Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) parties. Sirisena’s candidature was announced in a dramatic press conference.

Haviland says, “What is striking is how surprised Rajapaksa was at the way in which a close colleague, also from a rural Sinhala background, Sirisena, turned against him. He was caught unawares."

Maithripala Sirisena, 63, is the son of a World War II veteran, Albert Sirisena, a former village headman who was honored by the first president of Sri Lanka, D.S. Senanayake. Hailing from the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, Sirisena began his political career in the SLFP, inspired by former prime minister SWRD Bandaranaike. He was first elected as member of the Sri Lankan Parliament in 1989, representing Polonnaruwa district. Sirisena was also appointed the general secretary of the SLFP in 2001, a post he occupied till his expulsion from the party in November 2014. Besides his most recent post as health minister, Sirisena has also been minister for agricultural development, irrigation and parliamentary affairs, among others.

Saravanamuttu, adds, “Sirisena was the general secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, and the opposition felt that someone from within who appeals to the same Sinhala Buddhist constituency is best placed to challenge Rajapaksa."

Several senior leaders of the SLFP, including sitting members of parliament (MPs) and ministers defected to the opposition. By the time campaigning ended on 5 January, 26 MPs of the ruling SLFP-led coalition, United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) pledged their support to Sirisena.

Sirisena also enjoys the support of the minority parties. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC) defected from the government to support Sirisena. The main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which has considerable influence in the country’s Northern and Eastern provinces has also pledged its support to the challenger. Conjuring up a formidable umbrella alliance, a total of 48 parties have joined the opposition. Haviland says, “The TNA is backing him simply because he is not Rajapaksa — but he is also backed by a hardline Sinhala nationalist party, and the coalition could all come unstuck later even if it wins."

The Sirisena campaign has largely focused on themes like good governance by taking immediate steps to abolish executive presidency, a promise Rajapaksa failed to deliver in both his terms. With the minority vote largely in his favour, Sirisena is also likely to benefit from a split in the decisive rural Sinhala Buddhist vote, a constituency that Rajapaksa and the SLFP have carefully nurtured over the years. While he is assured of a certain section of traditional SLFP voters, what would be interesting to see is if the votes of other parties, especially the traditional UNP votes, go his way. Saravanamuttu adds, “In the event of a close contest, the minority vote is expected to play a critical role in deciding the outcome."

In the past, the ruling SLFP has benefited from a divided opposition. This time, almost every party has come together with a common objective - dethroning Rajapaksa.

The contest, says Saravanamuttu, has gone beyond a personality-based contest, something that worked immensely for Rajapaksa in 2010, when he decisively won against Fonseka. This time, he says, is “a theme-based contest. The arguments are for development and stability on one side versus good governance on the other."

The Indian angle

What does India gain from either scenario? While Rajapaksa offers a sense of stability over a president from a ragtag opposition coalition, his growing proximity to China will have New Delhi worried. The docking of Chinese submarines in a Colombo port in September last year has been a matter of concern to India. Besides, India has also repeatedly expressed its concerns over the Chinese-built port in Hambantota in the South, near Galle.

His challenger, Sirisena has promised to keep Sri Lanka friendly with both India and China, saying “Sri Lanka won’t be anti-India or dependent." He has also repeatedly mentioned about the need to nurture better relations with India. For India, the Sirisena regime could be easier to deal with, says Haviland. However, he adds, “It has to be said that he (Sirisena) has remained silent on the issue of more devolution to Tamils or of a more general settlement of the ethnic problem."

Sirisena’s colleague in the opposition, Wickramasinghe, announced in December that if voted to power, they (the opposition) would scrap the $1.34 billion Colombo Port City project amid environmental concerns. The project is funded by China. Wickramasinghe was close to previous Indian governments, and enjoys cordial, if not close relations with leaders of India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Both candidates Rajapaksa and Sirisena have been studying Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s phenomenal election campaign, and adopted several of its facets, from dressing style to the use of holograms. The president’s campaign, according to reports, was also advised by a leading member of Modi and the BJP’s digital team. Inspired by Modi, Rajapaksa has also been using the hologram, a popular campaign tool of the prime minister. And in his first election rally in Kandy, Sirisena was spotted wearing the now famous ‘Modi jacket’.

Earlier this month, during an election rally in the northern city of Jaffna, Rajapaksa, while urging the minority Tamils to vote for him, said, “There is a saying that the known devil is better than the unknown angel." Rajapaksa was referring to himself as the “known devil" and his main challenger, Sirisena as the “unknown angel".

The statement, apparently made in jest, could come to haunt Rajapaksa.

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