There is unprecedented political flux in Sri Lanka with just about three weeks to go for parliamentary elections. By throwing his hat in the ring, former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa has contributed hugely to the churning.
Nobody is quite sure what the August 17 play of dice throws up. Moreover, the timing of the elections is significant as the UN report on human rights abuse by the Sinhala army in the last phase of the military campaign against the LTTE will be tabled at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva by September-end, when the new Parliament will meet and a new prime minister take charge. He may just be Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Just over six months since he lost to the little known Maithripala Sirisena, Rajapaksa is back in the reckoning, though the president has had second thoughts after clearing his nomination. The fact that Sirisena allowed Rajapaksa to contest elections in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) ticket is a clear indication of the clout the former president still wields in the party. Sirisena was forced to give nomination to Rajapaksa also for fear that a divided SLFP will give the United People’s Party (for good governance) the advantage.
Despite the President’s vow to keep Rajapaksa out of the prime ministerial race, it may not be easy to keep him down, considering the support he enjoys among the Sinhala Buddhist majority. In his first election rally in Anuradhapura, Rajapaksa was able to gather a mammoth crowd. His message was simple. The current government had destroyed in six months what he has assiduously built during his presidency. It is ironic that the minority government headed by Ranil Wickremesinghe has spent 20 years in Opposition and just six months in government and yet has to carry the weight of anti-incumbency.
The hardliners are eternally grateful to Rajapaksa for wiping out the LTTE and still regard him as a Sinhala hero. Yet despite eliminating Prabhakaran and the Tigers, Rajapaksa’s tendency to grab all power within his family circle, combined with allegations of large scale corruption and attacks on civil liberties of those opposed to him, resulted in a shocking defeat for the war time President. Though he lost to his own minisiter, who smelt the swing in public mood and became the joint opposition candidate, he was able to garner not more than 51.28 percent votes. The minority Tamils and Muslims voted for Sirisena. But Rajapaksa was still able to secure 47.58 percent of the voteshare. So the former president still enjoys a solid votebank.
If a large number of his loyalists win the elections, it will be difficult for President Sirisena to go against the majority of his partymen in the SLFP. Though Sirisena has vowed to use constitutional means to stop the possibility, it may not be easy for a mild mannered president who won elections not because of his personal appeal, but because of the negative vote for an all-powerful president bent on promoting his family.
In January, when Rajapaksa was defeated, most democratic countries welcomed the verdict. India and the US were delighted and gave all out support to the new Sirisena government. The US helped the new government to get the UN report on atrocities to be delayed. It was to be released in March. Washington helped to push it back as Sirisena wanted more time.
The new man reassured New Delhi by choosing India over China for his first foreign visit. India hoped now to smoothen ties with Colombo which was strained since the 2009 defeat of the LTTE. China was a big factor in the deteriorating ties between India and Sri Lanka. The fact that Rajapaksa allowed Chinese naval submarine to dock, not once but twice in Colombo, rattled New Delhi. This was playing with India’s security and strategic interests in what New Delhi regards as its backyard. China’s foray into the Indian Ocean is a major challenge to India. Will Rajapaksa’s return mean having Chinese naval presence within hair's breadth? The former president had encouraged China knowing full well India’s apprehensions. The 1987 India-Lanka accord binds both India and Sri Lanka not to allow forces inimical to each other to use the other nation’s ports. The new government, aware of India’s concerns had made it plain that no Chinese submarine or warship would be allowed to dock in its ports.
The 1.5 billion dollar Colombo Port City, which the Chinese were building from reclaimed land had led to howl of protest from concerned citizens, but the Rajapaksa did not budge. It was only after Sirsena took over that many Chinese projects were kept on hold for review for flouting environmental and building laws. Also, besides promising "13 Amendment +" for the Tamils, Rajapaksa refused to concede even an inch to the minorities. Instead, the Sri Lankan army controlled large swathes of land in the Tamil dominated Northern Province and an ex-general was appointed the governor.
All these issues could come up once again if Rajapaksa were to become prime minister, but with Sirisena still the president, it would not be easy for Rajapaksa to tilt so heavily towards China. Once the UN report comes up, he will be much more circumspect, knowing full well that in Western capitals, Sirisena’s words count more than his. The human rights issue will continue to haunt Rajapaksa and perhaps constrain his actions. In short, prime minister Rajapaksa cannot be the strongman he was as president. Perhaps, that will be the saving grace of a Rajapaksa victory.