Will Sri Lanka see the return of Rajapaksa?

Buzz is that the former president will try to become prime minister by contesting the upcoming general elections.

 |  5-minute read |   24-03-2015
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Is former Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who suffered a surprise defeat in the January 2015 presidential election, set to be reincarnated as a prime minister? It would appear so, if we go by the moves of the national unity government as well as pro-Rajapaksa elements within the polity. Of course, Rajapaksa, the grandmaster of political intrigues, has kept everyone guessing despite continued speculation in media and political circles.

Even in his interview to The Hindu ten days back, he would not directly talk about getting back into the political scene. Instead he has tried to play the martyr card by complaining about the corruption investigation being carried out against some of his relatives and associates.

But Rajapaksa kept the speculation alive by saying "I would have just supported this government. But they want to probe, put us in jail, [and] take our passports without any evidence. How can I retire like this? I never said I would retire. At the moment I am taking a rest." So it would be reasonable to conclude the chances he contesting the general election in April 2015.  

Of course, with skeletons of corruption tumbling every day from the Rajapaksa and co.'s cupboard, the former president has to make up his mind fast. There is no doubt corruption and misuse of power by the Rajapaksa family and its cronies have damaged the Rajapaksa brand, justifying the government investigations. But unless they are proven in a court of law 4.8 million voters who supported Rajapaksa will continue to consider him a political martyr rather than a self-centered autocrat. 

This is the advantage Rajapaksa enjoys because even investigations into corruption cases - specially the mega projects - cannot be completed within the self-imposed 100-day deadline of the Sirisena government for holding parliamentary elections. And there is no way the investigations could be rushed through as some of the major cases involve the Chinese who have a number of options to delay the process.  

Rajapaksa appears to be taking cautious steps to gauge the public mood and reinforce his popular support with the Sinhala masses before he jumps back into the political fray. Two rallies organised by his admirers and smaller parties like the National Freedom Front (NFF) were well attended. There are probably more are on the anvil. The central theme of the rallies is to persuade Rajapaksa to contest the general election to regain power.

The small parties have a personal stake in Rajapaksa regaining power. If he does not do so, parties like NFF, Labour Party, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, which had benefited from Rajapaksa's political benevolence may well be left out in political wilderness.

It is significant that neither Rajapaksa nor the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which he had nurtured for many years participated in the rallies. Apparently this was done perhaps intentionally to add an element of spontaneity to the whole exercise. The ebullient and acerbic NFF leader Wimal Weeravamsa is probably the point man in this effort. Of course, he has a personal axe to grind as his wife is facing serious charges of getting a diplomatic passport on false pretexts. Apart from this in the past Rajapaksa had fired potshots from his shoulder at some of the inconvenient targets.   

Going by this, the pro-Rajapaksa camp's strategy to bring him back to power would probably cash in on latent fears of Sinhala masses and even some political parties. Three related themes likely to be included are: Sri Lanka heading for instability without Rajapaksa at the helm, loss of Chinese aid for major projects which could improve employment and development opportunities and revival of Tamil Tigers (with the possible help of India to ginger up Big Brother syndrome) encouraged by the Sirisena government. The participation of Left parties in this effort would come in handy to underplay the anti-minority credentials of the campaign.  

Even as the government contemplated introducing the all important 19th amendment (19A) to the constitution, the main Opposition party in Parliament, the SLFP, has joined the government--it could be Sirisena's tactical move to gain SLFP support to push through 19A in Parliament. Though Sirisena leads the SLFP now, the move suits pro-Rajapaksa Trojans within the party as it can help dilute the government's efforts to bring Rajapaksa and his cronies to book on corruption charges. Evidently unnerved by the possibility of the return of Rajapaksa, the national unity government is rushing 19A through Parliament. Far from turning the executive presidency to a ceremonial one as promised in the campaign against Rajapaksa, the amendment seeks only to curb certain powers of the executive president by re-establishing the Election Commission, the independent Police Commission, the Public Services Commission and the Constitutional Council. Presumably the two-term curb on the president would also be back.  

Though the cabinet had approved the abolition of the executive presidency, a compromise seems to have to been struck to shelve it for the time being to ward off objections from the SLFP which is divided on the issue. The decision also recognises the objections of the right wing Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a member of the national unity alliance and strong supporter of the executive presidency. However, prime minister Wickremesinghe has told "abolitionists", notably his foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera, that there should be a more comprehensive constitutional amendment under the new parliament which will be convened after the next parliamentary election according to the Daily News, Colombo.

So Rajapaksa seems to have scored a small but significant victory even while "taking rest" well before he joins the battle.

Writer

Colonel R Hariharan Colonel R Hariharan @colhari2

The writer is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia with rich experience in terrorism and insurgency operations.

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