Six months after his resounding defeat in presidential elections, Sri Lanka’s former president took the stage in the gardens of his home to tell a crowd of thousands that he would lead an opposition group in parliamentary elections in August.
“I am not ready to reject the appeal you are all making,” said the former leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa on Wednesday, amid the sound of firecrackers in the distance. “For the sake of this country, for the sake of the motherland, we must contest in the upcoming parliamentary elections.”
Mr Rajapaksa stopped short of indicating that he, himself, would fight for a seat in the country’s 225-member parliament in the elections on August 17. But he insisted the opposition faction he is leading would go forward with a “great wall” of people’s power.
The former president sought to play up his political victories, including his defeat of a long-running Tamil ethnic insurgency in 2009. He accused the current administration, led by President Maithripala Sirisenia, of removing army camps in the country’s north, a claim the government has repeatedly denied.
But his entry is complicated by disillusionment among many in his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party, rancour that led to his ouster by Mr Sirisenia, his former health minister, who also received support from opposition parties.
Analysts stressed that the political arena had changed significantly from six months ago, and not necessarily in Mr Rajapaksa’s favor.
“He obtained 5.8 million votes when he was contesting at the height of his power, with the full weight of the state machinery at his back,” said Victor Ivan, a political analyst and journalist based in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital. “Now he comes into the fray, if he contests directly, as a candidate once defeated, that will result in an erosion of electoral support.”
However, Mr Ivan said that Mr Rajapaksa’s entry could split the vote and further weaken the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, possibly handing the rival United National Party an easy victory.
In a statement released on Tuesday, Mr Sirisenia’s office ruled out declaring Rajapaksa the prime ministerial candidate of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party or the People Freedom Alliance, a coalition to which the party belongs. But Mr Rajapaksa’s aides said the former president was hoping for a nomination from the party or the coalition that he led for nearly a decade.
Mahindananda Aluthgamage, the former sports minister and a Rajapaksa loyalist, insisted that the former leader would contest the election through another political party if Mr Sirisenia refused to aid his parliamentary bid.
Thousands of supporters, bused in for the occasion, were present for Mr Rajapaksa’s speech. One of them, Rohith Gamini, 54, said he had travelled for hours from his hometown in north-western Sri Lanka to arrive in time for the announcement.
“If our President Mahinda Rajapaksa doesn’t contest, I will not even vote in the parliamentary election,” he said. (New York Times)