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Sri Lanka’s Former President Wages Comeback at Polls

  • Anjana Pasricha

Sri Lankan election workers wait to leave for their respective voting centers after collecting polling material from a distribution center in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015.

Sri Lankan election workers wait to leave for their respective voting centers after collecting polling material from a distribution center in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015.

As Sri Lanka holds elections to choose a new parliament, all eyes are on the bid by its former controversial president, Mahinda Rajapaksa to stage a political comeback. He was ousted seven months ago from the top job, but now wants to return as the country’s prime minister.

Sri Lankans headed to over 12,000 polling booths on Monday to make a crucial choice: whether to stay with current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe or give Mahinda Rajapaksa, who suffered a shocking defeat in January, a chance to occupy another commanding political position.

The two men are the main contenders in the race to control the 225 member parliament and become prime minister.

Rajapaksa says he is confident that the coalition led by his Sri Lanka Freedom party will win more than half the seats. Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party dismisses his optimism.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, at Colombo’s Center for policy Alternatives, said Wickremesinghe has a narrow lead, but it is likely that no party will emerge a clear winner.

“Everyone is hoping that there will be some kind of decisive results that comes out of it. The conventional wisdom says though that the United National Party led coalition will emerge as the single largest formation,” said Saravanamuttu.

Rajapaksa is disliked by the ethnic Tamil and Muslim minorities. But he drew big crowds during his campaign because of his popularity among the majority Sinhalese, who praise him for crushing a Tamil civil war ten years ago.

The possibility of Rajapaksa emerging with a significant number of seats has created huge uncertainties. Analysts say in that event, President Maithripala Sirisena, who toppled Rajapaksa, could emerge weakened.

Both of them belong to the same party, and its loyalties are divided between them. That is why the President had to reluctantly agree to allow the party to nominate Mr. Rajapaksa for the prime minister’s post. He is believed to be backing Prime Minister Wirckremesinghe, with whom he had formed an alliance to defeat Rajapaksa in January.

However President Sirisena has vowed to block any bid by his rival to become prime minister even if he wins.

Saravanamuttu said such a move could help resolve the political flux.

“If he is not appointed prime minister or leader of the opposition as the case might be, then he is going to be relatively isolated. I would imagine that the allegiance of the party members will shift towards President Sirisena,” said Saravanamuttu.

If no party wins an outright majority, Wickremesinghe will find it easier to find allies among Tamil and Muslim parties, whereas Rajapaksa’s polarizing personality will make it harder for him to build support.

President Sirisena has led a drive to reform the autocratic regime headed by Rajapaksa, who was accused of corruption, intimidating opponents, weakening parliament and the judiciary, and journalists, and human rights abuses during his decade-long rule. He had also leaned towards China, while President Sirisena has restored what he calls “balance” to the country’s foreign policy.

Rajapaksa’s battle to stay politically relevant stems from his need to protect himself and his family from charges of corruption. One of his sons has also been implicated in the alleged murder of a former rugby star.

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