Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa has offered reassurances that his government will peacefully hand over power in the event of a possible defeat in tightly fought upcoming elections in January, as he seeks an unprecedented third term in office.
In response to questions from the Financial Times, Mr Rajapaksa also pledged a new drive to attract foreign direct investment were he to win, including forging deeper economic ties with China, which has pumped billions of dollars of infrastructure funding into the South Asian island of 21m people over recent years.
But in the face of an unexpectedly well-organised opposition campaign, local analysts describe the contest as too close to call, raising fears that a narrow defeat could prompt instability and violence if Mr Rajapaksa’s family-dominated regime attempted to maintain its hold on power.
“First of all, I won’t lose,” Mr Rajapaksa told the Financial Times in an emailed statement. “But . . . as a mature and vibrant democracy, Sri Lanka has always been able to handle peaceful transitions of power. But, again, as I said, I am confident we will come out victorious.”
Sri Lanka’s contest will be watched closely by western governments hopeful that its next administration will investigate allegations of war crimes committed during the country’s civil war, as well as by international investors attracted by an economy the government forecasts to expand by nearly 8 per cent this year, making it one of Asia’s fastest growing frontier markets.
Despite heavy investment in infrastructure, including high-profile Chinese-financed port and road projects, Sri Lanka has repeatedly missed government targets to increase FDI in recent years. FDI averaged 0.9 per cent of GDP during the five years following the end of the civil war in 2009, exactly the same level as in the preceding five years, according to Deutsche Bank.
Mr Rajapaksa said he would work to “attract even more FDI” during his third term, in part by developing Sri Lanka as a regional “hub” in growth industries ranging from shipping to IT outsourcing, as well as pushing the island’s tourism industry.
Sri Lanka would also continue to deepen its economic ties with China, Mr Rajapaksa said. “Yes, we have benefited from Chinese investments but Sri Lanka isn’t the only country that has benefited. We expect investments to increase not only from China but also from many other countries.”
However, the Sri Lankan president struck a defiant tone on the issue of war crimes allegations, offering no concessions to countries such as the US and UK that have repeatedly led moves to censure Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council over its slow progress to investigate alleged abuses.
In response, Mr Rajapaksa linked the issue to Sri Lanka’s postwar economic recovery, arguing: “Even in the midst of these human rights criticisms, there has been a steady rise in foreign investment into Sri Lanka. I think that’s an indication that investors do not find these allegations credible.”
Were he to win a third term, Mr Rajapaksa would face potential criticism from an independent UN commission, established to investigate allegations of wartime abuses, which is due to present initial findings next March.
Senior figures within the American administration, including Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, are understood to view Sri Lanka as an important test case in holding countries to account for human rights abuses.
But Mr Rajapaksa firmly rejected accusations of war crimes. “I can also decisively say that Sri Lanka has not violated any international humanitarian laws or abused human rights as claimed by some,” he said. “I think, over time, that the criticisms in relation to human rights would get weaker and would lose traction altogether.” (Financial Times)