The High-Stakes Battle for Sri Lanka’s Presidency
Sri Lankan Health Minister Mithripala Sirisena (C) waves as he arrives at a news conference in Colombo November 21, 2014.
Image Credit: REUTERS/Stringer

The High-Stakes Battle for Sri Lanka’s Presidency

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Mahinda Rajapaksa’s plans to return to power as Sri Lanka’s president for a third successive term has run into trouble. With less than a month to go before the vote, Rajapaksa is ahead of his rivals but joint opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena is closing in and could unseat him in a free and fair election.

Until recently, Sirisena was Health Minister in the Rajapaksa government and General-Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the party Rajapaksa heads and which leads the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Sirisena’s defection from the government on November 21 to be named the joint opposition candidate took the government by surprise.

The opposition’s decision to pit Sirisena against the president is a political masterstroke. Both appeal to the same constituency – nationalists among the island’s ethnic majority, the Sinhalese-Buddhists.

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Sirisena can “eat into the Sinhala-Buddhist vote, which is Rajapaksa’s main constituency as well as draw support from the SLFP,” Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives told The Diplomat. Besides splitting Rajapaksa’s core support base, Sirisena is expected to win the votes of the island’s minorities, who account for roughly 30 percent of the island’s population. Tamils and Muslims in particular are “unlikely” to vote for Rajapaksa given his regime’s “human rights record [vis-à-vis Tamils), including religious violence “targeting Muslims.”

Sirisena enters the election fray with “a clean slate and is seen as a person of integrity,” Lasanda Kurukulasuriya, a Colombo-based political commentator told The Diplomat. At a time when Sri Lankans are tired of the corruption and nepotism associated with the Rajapaksa family, Sirisena’s relatively “clean” image could cost the president dearly.

Rajapaksa became Sri Lanka’s president in 2005 after an election that was a close contest: He won 50.29 percent of the vote against his closest rival, Ranil Wickremasinghe of the United National Party (UNP). Rajapaksa’s political standing on the island soared after May 2009 when his government inflicted a crushing defeat on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, bringing to an end the 30-year-long civil war. Sinhalese-Buddhists hailed him as the architect of that victory and in presidential elections held in January 2010, Rajapaksa swept back to power. Riding the wave of Sinhala-Buddhist triumphalism that swept the country, Rajapaksa’s UPFA has won all elections thereafter to parliament, provincial councils and local bodies, the only exception being the provincial council election to the Tamil-dominated Northern Province.

But Rajapaksa’s popularity has been waning in recent years. A small pocket of civil society activists and intellectuals who are sharply critical of his human rights record, authoritarian style of governance, brazen nepotism, and widespread corruption have been joined over the past year by the masses, who are unhappy with the spiraling cost of living under Rajapaksa rule.

This mounting disaffection has been reflected in recent election results. In March, the UPFA won two provincial council elections, but with reduced margins. Then, in September, results from the Uva Provincial Council elections signaled a crisis: Rajapaksa’s support base was hemorrhaging; the ruling alliance’s vote share had plummeted from 72.39 percent in the 2009 election to 51.25 percent.

While different factors come into play in local and national elections, the dwindling voter support signaled that Rajapaksa was not invincible. Acting to save his chair before it was too late, Rajapaksa called for presidential elections two years ahead of schedule.

But will his gamble pay off?

Voters will get to choose among 19 candidates in the election fray. But this election is essentially a two-horse race between Rajapaksa and Sirisena.

Rajapaksa is confronted by an energized opposition alliance, which includes among others the center-right UNP, the Marxist Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a party of Buddhist monks that was until recently a major Rajapaksa ally. Tamil and Muslim parties are yet to indicate their preference.

The opposition’s disparate constituents are together on the question of abolishing the executive presidency. By its very definition, an executive presidency is anti-democratic and in Sri Lanka it has been more so, as constitutional checks and balances on presidential powers were whittled away by successive presidents, allowing them to function in an authoritarian manner.

Calls for abolition of the executive presidency have been raised for decades and several leaders have promised to do away with it. Sirisena is the latest to join the “abolish executive presidency” bandwagon. He has pledged to abolish it within 100 days of becoming president and to restore the country’s parliamentary democracy.

Whether this promise will draw him votes is doubtful. Constitutional reform is an issue that resonates with Colombo’s educated elite, who understand that it is Sri Lanka’s excessively powerful executive presidency that facilitated the slide into authoritarianism. The need to abolish the executive presidency does not strike a chord with the masses, who are more concerned with the rising cost of living, corruption, etc.

To win the masses over, the opposition will need to “draw the connections between this [the executive presidency] and the daily problems of the voter,” Saravanamuttu says. The question of constitutional reform “has to be complemented with an economic platform.”

But raising economic issues could be problematic for the opposition. For one, little separates Rajapaksa’s economic policies from that of the UNP, the largest party in the opposition alliance. Besides, a focus on economic policy could bring to the fore fissures within the opposition; between the UNP and the anti-economic liberalization JVP, for instance.

Analysts are also pointing out that Sirisena’s promise to appoint Wickremasinghe as the prime minister in a unity government could work against him. It creates “doubts in the voters’ minds as to who they would actually be bringing into power by voting for Sirisena: Sirisena himself or Wickremasinghe,” observes Kurukulasuriya.

The influence that former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga will wield over Sirisena should he become president, given “her role in ushering in Sirisena as the opposition’s ‘common candidate’ and her continued visibility on his election platform,” is another “subject of speculation,” Kurukulasuriya says.

Indeed, some analysts suggest that the return of the old guard is prompting Sirisena’s supporters to think twice. “Why should anyone vote for Maithripala only to find that Ranil and Chandrika are back in power,” asks political analyst Dayan Jayatilleke. “If the voters sense a risk… that Maithripala will be used, dominated and discarded by Ranil and Chandrika; that he is just a front man for them rather than his own man, then the voters will, quite understandably and even rightly, opt to remain with Mahinda.”

However, it is the presence of Wickremasinghe and Kumaratunga alongside Sirisena that makes him acceptable to the minorities. A Jaffna University professor told the diplomat that Tamils see little difference between Rajapaksa and Sirisena. “Both have a Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist mindset,” he said, with Sirisena seeming the “lesser of the two evils only because he has Wickremasinghe and Kumaratunga [who are more inclusive in their approach to the minorities] on his side.”

The stakes are high for Rajapaksa. He cannot afford to lose power for several reasons. His family – sons, brothers, aunt, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins – have benefited immensely from his presidency. His elder brother Chamal is speaker of parliament, and younger brothers Gotabaya and Basil are Defense Secretary and Minister of Economic Development, respectively. Family members have been appointed as ambassadors to key countries, heads of banks, and government corporations. Fifty-six percent of Sri Lanka’s budget allocation goes to ministries and departments controlled by the Rajapaksa family. The presidency is a cash cow for the Rajapaksas and they are unlikely to let go of it easily.

Besides, the Rajapaksa regime faces allegations of war crimes that are being probed by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). His government has opposed, even prevented UNHRC officials from conducting investigations.

Rajapaksa cannot afford to lose the election as “with loss of power comes the loss of impunity,” argues Saravanamuttu, pointing out that “irrespective of their fate on the human rights and war crimes front, the Rajapaksas will undoubtedly be hauled up before the courts on corruption charges by a successor regime.”

“Staying in power is literally and metaphorically, a matter of life and death for the Rajapaksas,” he says.

The high-stakes battle for the presidency will be hard fought and Rajapaksa will leave no stone unturned to hold on to power. His access to state power and resources, control over the Election Commission, the media, intelligence agencies, police, and other bodies give him an enormous advantage that he will not hesitate to use to ensure his victory.

Rajapaksa’s supporters have sought to project the opposition bid to unseat him as part of a “foreign conspiracy” to destabilize Sri Lanka. Rehabilitation Minister Gunaratne Weerakoon, for instance, accused the U.S. embassy in Colombo of “pumping money” into the election in a bid to defeat Rajapaksa. Sirisena is being painted as a traitor seeking to unseat the ‘patriotic’ Rajapaksa.

deeply superstitious Rajapaksa is believed to have consulted astrologers before deciding on bringing forward the election. January 8 was chosen as voting day as the number 8 is said to be lucky for the president. He is said to have filed his papers at an auspicious hour.

The stars may be aligned to favor Rajapaksa’s return to the presidency but he is unlikely to leave his fate to the stars alone. He is moving heaven and earth to ensure victory. Besides visiting a Hindu temple in India to woo the gods, Rajapaksa will seek more earthly intervention: He will use state machinery to win the election. Pre-election gifts have been prepared to ensure the loyalty of officials. Voter intimidation, violence, bribing, and election irregularities on an unprecedented level can be expected.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be contacted at [email protected].

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