When he called a presidential election for January 8th, two years before he had to, Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa must have been confident of victory. Provincial elections had shown that his once unassailable popularity was waning. But the opposition was fractured, the economy was doing well and incumbency bestows benefits, both legitimate and nefarious. Mr Rajapaksa, who fosters myths that portray him as the reincarnation of a great king from Sri Lanka’s south, seems to have expected re-anointing. Something close to the 57% vote share which saw him re-elected to a second term in 2010 seemed achievable. Now, barring outlandish rigging, it would be a surprise. Mr Rajapaksa may still, just, be the favourite. But the contest will be very close-fought.
Mr Rajapaksa’s popularity has rested on his role in ending Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war, with the rout in 2009 of the Tamil Tigers, a vicious, fascistic group but one that represented the opposition of the largely Hindu Tamil minority to discrimination favouring the ethnic-Sinhalese, Buddhist majority (about 70% of the population). Victory was ruthless and bloody, costing thousands of civilian lives. Charges that the army, like the Tigers, committed war crimes have been dismissed by the government, and have not bothered Sinhalese voters. Indeed, Mr Rajapaksa has bolstered his appeal by portraying himself as a patriot defending his country from foreign sniping.
That divisiveness is one reason for turfing him out, but there are plenty of others. He has done little to contain the spread of an ugly strain of anti-Muslim prejudice. He has stacked the administration with his family (four brothers, a son and a nephew are important politicians). Corruption has worsened. Mr Rajapaksa has used his big parliamentary majority to undermine the independence of the judiciary and to tamper with the constitution—removing the two-term limit on presidential tenures, for example, strengthening an already over powerful “executive presidency” and failing to do anything to afford Tamils the autonomy the constitution promises them. Probing journalists and social activists have lived in fear. Resentful of the West’s irksome harping on human rights, Mr Rajapaksa has drawn his country closer to China’s orbit, where the flows of aid and credit are not hampered by such concerns.
If Mr Rajapaksa falls it will not be to a popular uprising but because of anger at rising prices, corruption and one-family rule—and murky political manoeuvres. His opponent, Maithripala Sirisena, now compared by the Rajapaksas to Judas, was health minister until November and a leading light in the family’s party. The opposition has rallied around Mr Sirisena as the best hope of ending the drift to a dynastic dictatorship. The government’s Muslim coalition partners, for example, have deserted, along with some of the ruling party.
Mr Sirisena is hardly a beacon of hope for the Tamils: he was acting as defence minister in the nightmarish final fortnight of the war. Yet electing him instead of Mr Rajapaksa is a necessary first step towards curing some of the country’s ethnic ills. Under him it is at least possible to imagine the genuine national reconciliation that Sri Lanka needs if it is to enjoy lasting stability. Just as important, electing Mr Sirisena may also be the only way of saving Sri Lankan democracy, vindicating Abraham Lincoln with the proof that Mr Rajapaksa cannot fool even most of the people all of the time. (The Economist)