Supporters of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa have their eyes set on the upcoming parliamentary elections, hoping to bring him back into Sri Lankan politics, a move that could pose a serious challenge to new President Maithripala Sirisena’s agenda for democratic reforms.
Rajapaksa, who oversaw a military victory over Tamil Tiger guerrillas six years ago, but at the cost of the lives of more than 70,000 civilians, as the United Nations noted in a report, was dramatically defeated by his one-time ally, Sirisena, in last month’s presidential election. But Rajapaksa is not giving up yet.
“What we are experiencing today is not a defeat but a result of a conspiracy,” Rajapaksa said in a message that was read out at a rally held by tens of thousands of his supporters in Colombo on February 18 to call for his return. “I say firmly that I am in anyway unable to ignore the wishes of those of you who think about the country and are committed for the country,” he added, according to Agence France Presse.
What did he mean by a “conspiracy”?
There were reports of neighbouring India’s role in Sirisena’s victory. During his rule, especially after facing condemnation from the West and calls for an investigation over alleged war crimes, Rajapaksa moved closer to China as protection against any action by the international community. India, which is seen by the West as a potential counterbalance to Beijing’s increasing clout in the region, was naturally not happy with Rajapaksa, who allowed Chinese submarines to dock at the Colombo port and who concluded deals with Beijing to build a deep-water port in the southern town of Hambantota and fund mega construction projects, among other overtures.
It was also typical of Rajapaksa to resort to nationalism to win popular support, alleging that the West and the United Nations were “propagandists and bullies” and therefore Sri Lanka’s enemies.
His description of his supporters, as people who “think about” and are “committed” to the country, alludes to the backing he had for his efforts to keep the ethnic Tamil minority at the margins of Sri Lankan society and politics and under the thumb of the majority Sinhalese population.
Allies of Rajapaksa, the leader of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), claim that Sirisena, who has promised democratic reforms within his first 100 days, is dividing the Indian Ocean country with his relative lenience towards the Tamils. Sirisena has also lifted a ban on news websites, promised to enact a Right to Information bill, and reinstated former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, who was impeached during Rajapaksa’s tenure.
Citing this “threat” to the nation’s unity, Rajapaksa’s supporters say he will stand for prime minister in the parliamentary election to be held in April.
The election is crucial for them, as Rajapaksa has not only lost the office of the president, but legislators loyal to him have also ended up in the opposition in the parliament, although the UPFA – which split after Sirisena’s victory – still has a majority. Sirisena, leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and an erstwhile ally of Rajapaksa, appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minster on January 9, the day after the presidential election.
Ironically, Rajapaksa might be hoping to gain from the reform agenda of Sirisena, who has promised to put a check on presidential powers and give back considerable authority to the parliament under a prime minister who will be the head of government. Following the end of the war against Tamil Tigers, Rajapaksa amended the constitution to consolidate power in the office of the president. He also removed presidential term limits.
The election defeat is not the end of Rajapaksa’s political career. It has not robbed him of his ideological appeal, and he continues to have a cult following. Many Sinhala language newspapers still support him and his ideology. Rajapaksa is popular among sections of Buddhist nationalists, thanks to his efforts to cultivate the extremist group Bodu Bala Sena. He also pleased the Sinhalese nationalist movement, which saw the defeat of the Tamil Tigers as a victory for the ethnic majority.
Rajapaksa is the best bet for his allies who need him to ensure their victory in the parliamentary election, but he is also the worst fear of those who care about democracy, civil and political rights, and ethnic equality in Sri Lanka.