A few weeks ago, Sri Lanka’s upcoming election seemed a mere formality

ElectionsUntil just a few weeks ago, Sri Lanka’s upcoming election seemed a mere formality. Nothing, it seemed, could keep President Mahinda Rajapaksa from rolling to a third term in office.

He was the president hailed as a king after crushing the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009 and ending the island nation’s 25-year civil war. He is a charismatic campaigner with vast campaign funds. He has turned the government into an extended family business, with politically powerful brothers, sons and nephews who can all help his candidacy.

But an internal revolt now threatens Rajapaksa’s hold on power. Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena, a close Rajapaksa aide and No 2 in the president’s Freedom Party, defected in late November, announcing he would run as an opposition candidate in Thursday’s election.

Power, he said, has become too concentrated, and corruption epidemic.

“One family has captured the country’s economy, wealth, administration, and the management of the political party,” Sirisena said.

He said Rajapaksa began to believe the public support after the end of the war and “perhaps he thought he could become a real king”.

A confident Rajapaksa had called the election two years ahead of schedule, hoping to win a third six-year term before voters’ memories faded of the defeat of the Tigers.

Jumping between parties and backroom deals are part of the political landscape in Sri Lanka, but this has surpassed the normal with 21 lawmakers and ministers fleeing the government so far to back Sirisena. He has won support from the opposition United National Party, the main ethnic minority parties, many professional groups and some powerful Buddhist monks.

Rajapaksa’s government has come under heavy criticism for turning a blind eye to recent anti-Muslim violence, and the largest Muslim party has also defected.

Rajapaksa denies all accusations of corruption, and insists he will again win on January 8.

“I am not worried. I will be the president even after the 9th,” he said.

While there is no reliable polling, cracks have appeared in his core constituency – the Buddhist Sinhala majority – amid repeated accusations of amassing excessive power and corruption.

Sirisena has accused the Rajapaksas of amassing wealth from their pet highway projects and implied they were receiving benefits from tobacco and pharmaceutical companies in return for arranging favourable laws.

The president’s relatives, meanwhile, are everywhere. One brother is cabinet minister for economic development, another is the speaker of parliament and a third is the defence secretary, with control over the armed forces. His older son is a member of parliament and a nephew is a provincial chief minister.

That left few powerful jobs and fewer resources from the national budget for non-Rajapaksas in the party, alienating many senior politicians.

Businessman Kolitha Dissanayake, a long-time Rajapaksa voter, said the talk of family rule and corruption had changed his mind.

“It is these revelations that have hit the people,” he said. (SCMP)

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