Rajapaksa’s big poll gamble

Mahinda  Rajapakse 2Will former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ambitious comeback bid succeed? He has not waited long after he lost the presidential elections in January 2015 and he is contesting from Kurunagala parliamentary seat for the August 17 Parliamentary elections as a candidate of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the coalition that he headed when he was president from 2005 to 2015.

The current president Maithripala Sirisena had no choice but to allow his predecessor’s nomination because the majority of the party demanded it. Although he is not contesting as a prime ministerial candidate, ironically should Rajapaksa become the country’s next premier, he will have more powers than his predecessors, after Sirisena transferred more powers in April 2015 to the prime minister.

Significantly, with this development, the ruling coalition led by Sirisena and his ally Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe faces significant challenges as it was united only by a desire to oust Rajapaksa. Seven months after, stability is still eluding the regime. There are also deep economic problems and the bruises of the Eelam war. Also as long as the Sirisena government’s popularity keeps eroding, Rajapaksa becomes a factor as he becomes an obvious choice for disgruntled voters, especially from the majority Sinhala community.

Rajapaksa’s ambitious bid cannot succeed easily as there are many ifs and buts. First of all, there is nothing surprising in his efforts to make a come back bid. He always had the nomination and was always going to run according to some Sri Lanka experts. It was only natural that he would like to save himself and his family from possible prosecution on corruption charges.

Secondly, he is approaching the voters as a victim of an international conspiracy.

Thirdly, although he lost the elections to Sirisena, he has a solid Sinhala vote bank with him.

Fourthly, many of his former allies who are now facing corruption charges would like him to come back.

Fifthly, Sirisena has not been able to establish his grip on the coalition government, which is seen as weak. Sri Lanka watchers claim that Sirisena is becoming irrelevant because he has no following of his own as he is just a front man. He joined hands with former President Chandrika Kumaratunga for five years, with Rajapaksa for 11 years, with Ranil for nine months and now perhaps back to Rajapaksa again.

Sixthly, Rajapaksa has launched a massive outreach programme in the past few months with the support of the Buddhist Sinhalas and fundamentalists. Significantly, he received 47.58 percent of the vote in January elections that he lost to his former ally Sirisena who was supported by the then opposition United National Party (UNP).

Seventhly the possibility of an early release of UN report on war crimes might have prompted Sirisena to call elections on Aug. 17 to give his ally Prime Minister Wickremesinghe an edge and hopefully deny Rajapaksa any chance of a political resurgence. No one knows what is in the report and it could turn out to be sharp-edged.

Lastly the dynamics of presidential elections are quite different from those of Parliamentary elections. Ranil Wickremesinghe has put together a broad front as against Rajapaksa’s Sinhala front. Ranil is the prime ministerial candidate from the UNP, which has also secured the support of a broad coalition that backed Sirisena in January. He has promised power devolution to the island’s provinces as part of the reconciliation process with the minority Tamils, which has been urging for power to the north and east provinces since the LTTE’s military campaign ended in 2009.

While the minorities went against Rajapaksa earlier, which helped Sirisena win the elections, it is not clear seven months down the line whether their votes remain in tact. The outcome of the elections will also determine whether Sri Lanka under Sirisena continues to repair relations with India, or opts for stronger ties with China under Rajapaksa who built close ties with Beijing . Sirisena has shown a pronounced pro-India tilt.

It is clear that the election scene is not entirely in favor of either and also it is too early to predict as things change closer to the elections. People have not forgotten Rajapaksa’s authoritarian rule till recently. Will they go back to Rajapaksa so soon is the question. If they do, Rajapaksa will have the last laugh. Secondly, he also does not have the state machinery, which he had in the presidential elections.

There are three scenarios emerging. The first is a UNP majority in which Ranil Wickremesinghe can form the new government with the minority parties. It will show some kind of continuity and stability. He has been working hard for the past seven months to win the polls.

The second is a Rajapaksa led government if he can polarize the Sinahala voters in his favour and Dame Luck favours him.

The third is a hung Parliament, which cannot be ruled out. In that case, the highest bidder gets the advantage. The jury is still out for a final verdict.(The Statesman)

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