Colombo is set for a power shift. Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), who as defence secretary oversaw the final assault to crush Tamil separatists in 2009, has claimed victory in the country’s presidential polls held on Saturday. His main rival, the ruling coalition’s housing minister Sajith Premadasa, has conceded the election and congratulated Rajapaksa on his victory.
The presidential polls were held in the backdrop of the deadly Easter Sunday bombings of churches and high-end hotels this April that left at least 260 dead. The economic slump that followed – the island’s beaches are popular tourist hotspots – added to anti-incumbency forces against the ruling coalition. Last October, President Maithripala Sirisena had appointed former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister, the elder brother of Gotabaya, without first dismissing the incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe, triggering a Constitutional crisis. The protracted bickering and the intervention of the country’s apex court to reinstate Wickremesinghe left the regime wobbly. The resultant lack of coordination and executive paralysis is believed to have prevented government agencies from acting fast enough on intelligence inputs from India to foil the devastating terror attacks.
The political circumstances were opportune for the Rakapaksas, widely held to be corrupt and accused of gross human rights violations during the 2009 war, to stage a comeback. People remember the Rajapaksas for eliminating separatism, ending decades of violence, and large numbers yearned for a sense of security frayed by the Easter bombings. For India, the return of the Rajapaksas may not be good news, since they have a history of leaning China’s way. China is heavily invested in Sri Lanka, having poured in billions of dollars to build infrastructure projects that are suspected to be part of Beijing’s “string of pearls" geo-strategy to surround India. The ability to project power in the Indian Ocean Region is high on New Delhi’s security agenda, and so it will have to stay alert to Colombo-Beijing ties.