Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa has just announced that the country will hold a presidential election two years early. The move had been expected for some time. The election will be held on January 8, 2015. In light of this development, there are other issues that merit attention.
As mentioned in the New York Times, “Rajapaksa’s second term officially ends in November 2016, but he can legally seek re-election after completing four years in office, a marker his office said he passed on Nov. 19.” Essentially, he couldn’t have called the election any earlier than he has.
Additionally, Sri Lanka is expecting a visit from Pope Francis from January 13-15. In spite of the custom whereby the Pope does not visit countries a month before or after an election is held – to help ensure that a Papal visit isn’t manipulated for political purposes – it appears that the Pope’s upcoming visit to Sri Lanka will remain unchanged. (The Vatican had recently asked for the election to be held no earlier than late January 2015). Even more recently, Sri Lanka’s Roman Catholic church has stated that the Pope’s visit should not be used for political campaigning, as his image has already been displayed in some campaign posters.
Clearly Rajapaksa was aware that a snap election in January might compel the Vatican to rethink its travel plans. If he had announced that the election were to be held in in late-February or March, this wouldn’t be an issue. The fact that Rajapaksa decided on a date in early January underscores that the regime is more skittish than ever, wanting the election to be held as soon as possible.
Indeed, Rajapaksa has good reason to be worried. The results of the recent Uva Provincial Council election in September confirm that his government continues to lose support. Equally important, the country’s main opposition party, the United National Party, picked up a lot of support in that same election. That said, a provincial council election simply isn’t the same as a presidential one. For better or worse, Rajapaksa remains the most popular and charismatic man in Sri Lankan politics today. Besides, as an incumbent, Rajapaksa can use his existing power (and state resources) to his advantage during the campaign.
In an especially intriguing development, Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lanka’s health minister and member of the president’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, resigned and will now run against Rajapaksa as the “common candidate” for the opposition. There is no question that Sirisena’s move is troubling for Rajapaksa, as are several other high-level defections from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. This is an important moment for the United National Party – the country’s main opposition party. Even if Sirisena doesn’t win, if he can make it a competitive race, it will mean that the country’s other big Sinhala-Buddhist party is probably back in business, and actually poses a credible challenge to what has become an increasingly authoritarian regime.
For a host of reasons, ranging from corruption to the regime’s relentless consolidation of power to the erosion of the rule of law, the harsh repression of dissent and policies which have continued to alienate the country’s ethnic minorities, the Rajapaksa government just isn’t a popular as it used to be.
It’s long been said that, having militarily defeated the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009 and ending a civil war that spanned nearly three decades, Mahinda Rajapaksa is the man who won the war, but then lost the peace.
Irrespective of what happens during the upcoming presidential election. Sri Lanka still has a long way to go before the wounds of war can actually heal. Nonetheless, it’s become increasingly clear that Rajapaksa is not up to the task. While it is unfortunate that Rajapaksa has governed so poorly, his grip on power is weakening – which is a development that should be welcomed.
Taylor Dibbert is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. and the author of Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert.