Rajapaksa Returns?

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Imagine sri lanka’s former president mahinda rajapaksa back in the saddle , this time as prime minister. The scenario is not far-fetched. Rajapaksa has the sinhalese voter solidly behind him and mistakes by current president sirisena could cost him heavily on polling day. BY MALLADI RAMA RAO

Two days after India celebrates its 69th Independence Day, Sri Lanka will decide the political fortunes of 69–year-old Mahinda Rajapaksa in the island nation’s 15th general election seven months after the electorate had rejected his third-term bid and made him a former President. If the electorate of Kurunegala in north-west Sri Lanka rejects him, as his critics expect, it will mark the beginning of his fade out. If he gets elected to Parliament, as his acolytes hope, it will mark a watershed in the country’s history and signal pack up time for his bête noire, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP).

Put simply, the stakes are high for both sides in the one-day election to the 225-member Parliament based on the proportional representation system. As many as 15,44,490 Sri Lankans are eligible to decide the outcome.

As of now, Ranil is heading a minority government with just 47 lawmakers on his side, and the levers of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SFLP), which is the main prop of the government, are not with its President Sirisena but with Rajapaksa and his cheer leaders, who have made life miserable for the Sirisena-Ranil combine. Probably, President Sirisena could have dissolved the house in April itself, had he had his way to fulfill his 100-day reform programme. The Rajapaksa camp made him go slow, and thus delayed the call for general election.

What precipitated matters? Well, the Rajapaksa camp tried to oust Prime Minister Ranil through a no-confidence motion and install in his place their supremo by making him a nominated Member of Parliament. This strategy of “quiet coup” failed to take off due to the alertness of the treasury benches, and the 14th parliament was dissolved on 26th June shortly after it adopted a constitutional amendment to help Sirisena redeem his poll pledge of clipping the wings of the executive President. Unlike in India and some other democracies, the Sri Lanka Parliament has a term of six years. The dissolved House term was to expire in April next year.

How did Rajapaksa manage to get the SFLP ticket? In a manner of speaking it was not a big deal. The SLFP at all levels is dominated by people, who still owe several IOUs to the former strongman. Sirisena could have used his official position to strengthen his hold over the party particularly in the Election Committee that selects candidates. This he did not for reasons which remain shrouded in Colombo mist and Sinhala mystery. So he became a party to the 3rd June decision to field Rajapaksa on the SLPF-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) ticket and paved the way for his comeback bid.

“We had to go along with Rajapaksa’s demand for a ticket as we needed his group’s support to push through promised constitutional amendment to reduce the powers of the president,” says his camp by way of an explanation. There are no takers for the claim though.

Nominations for the Aug 17th ballot took place between 6th and 13th July. Rajapaksa entered the fray in Kurunegala district, which is dominated by ex-servicemen. “They (ex-servicemen) are his loyal constituency since he had vanquished the deceitful Tamil Tiger chief Vellupillai Prabhakaran in the Eelam War in 2009”, says his camp.

His home district, Hambantota, too could have been a safe bet but he did not want to take a chance since there is no letup in the reports that his development plans (like a port and an airport undertaken with the Chinese help) only benefitted his family and cronies. The Sirisena government has blocked several controversial Chinese projects. Expectedly the decision has drawn the ire of Rajapaksa and he has promised to revive them if he becomes prime minister.

A day after the nominations closed, Sirisena broke his silence on the Rajapaksa factor. In a media interaction that was televised, he declared that he would not back the former President. “I will remain neutral during the election”, he asserted, and pledged “to spend the next five years following the election performing my duties by keeping the promises I made on January 8.”

Sirisena indicated that he would use his powers to block any attempt by Rajapaksa to become prime minister even if the SLFP and its allies win the election. “I urge people to select those who are suitable to march forward with the January 8 mandate (in the Presidential election),” he said, adding, “I want those who could carry my pledges forward to be elected.”

The Sri Lankan President remarked: “I am against Mahinda; he would lose similar to his loss on January 8.” He added there are many seniors in the SLFP whom he could appoint as prime minister in the event the SLFP–led alliance wins. His message was simple, loud and clear. He could invoke his presidential powers to block any attempt by Rajapaksa to become prime minister after the results are out.

Rajapaksa had bagged an estimated 55% of votes cast by members of the sinhala community in the presidential election, but lost to sirisena because the ‘rebel’ received a whopping 81% of votes from the sri lankan tamils, muslims and indian tamils

On his part, MahindaRajapaksa is not perturbed. The maiden UPFA election rally held in Anuradhapura on 17th July was marked by a pledge to make him the prime minister. On his part, Rajapaksa told the rally that there would be a new-look Lanka under the new UPFA government.

“A new set of leaders will be created in the UPFA and the new government would develop new international relations while promoting inter communal harmony among Sinhalese, Muslims, Tamils and Burghers”, he declared, claiming that he had come back on public demand. He has left no doubt whatsoever that his plank is Sinhala chauvinism and security of the nation.

“They called me a thief for protecting the country from the most powerful and cruelest terrorists and constructing airports and for giving employment to 1.5 million in the public sector. They branded me as a fraudster for launching hundreds of development projects round the country,” he said. Without naming any foreign power as such, he said “I never bowed down to foreign influence, and, therefore, the foreign countries colluded with the UNP to defeat my government.”

The Rajapaksa camp is banking on the majority Sinhala community to rewrite history, and hopes to cross the mid-way mark of 113 seats. As several commentators point out, this is not a dream rather it will remain a mirage if his ‘dictatorial’ past catches up with him.

Rajapaksa had bagged an estimated 55% of votes cast by members of the Sinhala community in the presidential election, but lost to Sirisena because the ‘rebel’ received a whopping 81% of voters from the Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims and Indian Tamils. Since the Sinhalese comprise 74 % of the total population, Rajapaksa had won over half of the ‘Sinhala’ votes and stands to gain with his plank: “Danger to national security from symptoms of revival in Tiger militancy.”

By the same logic he stands to alienate the minority ethnic Tamil vote by seeking to whip up anti-Tamil chauvinism. His calls for the “the protection of the motherland from the LTTE” six-years after the Eelam War ended will not go down well in the Tamil dominated north. The ethnic minority is hoping to see the Army vacate all “occupied” land and return to the barracks. For them, Rajapaksa call would mean continued Army occupation of their properties

If the alienation does happen at the hustings, as is likely, it will be advantage Prime Minister RanilWickremesinghe. He is leading the newly formed United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) and is putting his best foot forward to woo the electorate. Will he be able to turn the tide in his favour? A million dollar question as of now and much depends on how his campaign manages to corner Rajapaksa with the ammunition that is available for the mere asking.

Observers expected Ranil to gun for Rajapaksa and his brothers Basil and Gotabhaya, after several scandals tumbled out of the old closet. For reasons that remain unclear, his government did not press the advantage.

The rajapaksa camp is banking on the majority sinhala community to rewrite history, and hopes to cross the mid-way mark of 113 seats

One of these scandals involved the supply of arms to pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine, in what is believed to be a trade-off for Russian diplomatic support against the human rights ayatollahs gunning for Rajapaksa at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The other concerns Gotabhaya, who as former defence secretary, is accused of setting up a floating armoury off Galle harbour (as a private enterprise) for attacking the LTTE den in the North. Another equally serious charge is that Rajapaksa made his cousin brother UdayangaWeeratunga (son of his mother’s sister) envoy to Russia and Ukraine though he was not qualified for the job; Weeratunga stands charged with perpetrating the Lanka version of the Bofors scam by pushing a deal for four MiG-27s with Ukraine through an “unknown” offshore company, Bellimissa Holdings Limited.

With so much scandal and sleaze around him, it won’t be smooth sailing for Rajapaksa. Much will depend on the majority Sinhalese, whether they want back their hero who vanquished the LTTE, or would prefer someone else.

SUMMARY

  • Sri Lanka’s parliamentary elections could see the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who lost so spectacularly in the presidential elections
  • Rajapaksa as prime minister will likely show no interest in healing the ethnic divisions of the war against the LTTE
  • The ethnic Sinhala vote seems solidly behind the controversial and deeply divisive former president
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