It’s Rajapaksa vs. Anti-incumbency

Election MS vs MRNearly 15 million voters in Sri Lanka will go to polls on Thursday, delivering their verdict on whether President Mahinda Rajapaksa will obtain his dream third term, or make way for his chief rival Maithripala Sirisena.

The contest for the island’s eighth presidential election began in November when incumbent Rajapaksa called snap polls, two years ahead of schedule. With no serious contender at that time, he was eyeing an unprecedented third term in office, least expecting his own Cabinet Minister Maithripala Sirisena to defect and emerge as a common candidate who would win the support of an eclectic joint opposition platform.

“He was having hoppers [aappams] with me the previous night, but stabbed me at the back the next morning,” Mr. Rajapaksa was repeatedly quoted as saying, referring to what the ruling camp bitterly perceived as an act of betrayal. Mr. Sirisena’s departure not only prompted some of his colleagues to move with him, but also caused quite a flutter in the ruling camp. The subsequent turn of events — importantly, Tamil and Muslim parties pledging support to Mr. Sirisena — has now led to what could be one of the most closely fought presidential elections in Sri Lanka’s history.

Given that Mr. Sirisena, a former Health Minister, comes from Mr. Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), his defection caused a virtual split in the party, drawing some of the party’s old guard to the opposition, say political analysts.

“It was not a family rule, it was a family jungle,” said Rajitha Senaratne, formerly fisheries minister, who crossed over along with Mr. Sirisena.

Waning war victor image

Confident supporters of Mr. Rajapaksa argue that it would hard to match the two-time President in charisma or mass appeal. “He has won a war for this country. Plus, he can connect with the masses in a way no one else can,” said a close aide of the President.

However, five years after the military victory over the LTTE, the President’s war victor image may also be waning, say critics. Concerns over corruption, apparently rising authoritarianism and dominance of his family, they argue, have outweighed people’s appreciation for his development initiatives by way of plush highways, ports and airports for the country.

The comparable backgrounds of the two leaders have intensified the contest. Mr. Rajapaksa, 69, belongs to rural Hambantota, at the heart of the island’s southern Sinhalese belt, while Mr. Sirisena, 63, hails from the peasant community in the ancient town of Polonnaruwa, the rice bowl of Sri Lanka. If Mr. Rajapaksa employs the rhetoric of war victory while addressing his Sinhalese electorate, Mr. Sirisena resorts to promises of abolishing the country’s much-criticised executive presidency. Both tread on the question of political rights of Tamils with evident reservation, perhaps for the fear of alienating their majority constituency.

All the same, key parties representing the country’s minority Tamils and Muslims are backing Mr. Sirisena, along with the Sinhala-Buddhist, nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya or National Heritage party, which also left Mr. Rajapaksa’s coalition ahead of elections.

Political reconfiguration

It is this political reconfiguration that makes the 2015 presidential election significant, according to Jayadeva Uyangoda, Professor of Political Science at Colombo University. “The JHU is suddenly trying to project itself as a more moderate party. Also, ethnic politics has taken a back seat in this election. The minority parties are not overplaying their individual demands,” he said, pointing to a common need for change that has galvanised a group of diverse political actors.

Unlike in several other elections, the nationalist ideology is not the dominant theme framing the discourse of this election, he said. “It is clearly governance.”

Good governance, he said, as a campaign point encapsulated the critique of abuse of power and corruption, combining it with a strong desire for change in style of administration. “Even in the rural areas, there is a trend for change,” he said. (The Hindu)

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