Will Rajapaksa win the battle for Colombo?

No one in Lanka disputes Rajapaksa's hand in ensuring the return of peace to the country, ravaged by a civil war that lasted 26 years.

 |  3-minute read |   08-01-2015
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It was a case of a dinner gone horribly wrong that made the Presidential contest in Sri Lanka such a riveting one. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his health minister Maithripala Sirisena (also the general secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party) met over dinner on November 19 last year. Two days later, Sirisena quit the party and the government to announce himself as the united opposition's candidate in the election, which took place today.

Sirisena perhaps felt during the course of the tasty rice pancake and salad dinner that evening, that Rajapaksa wanted to have the cake and eat it too. The reference was to the kitchen cabinet -- the President's three brothers and son -- that controls the government and the country. By coming out at the nth hour, Sirisena put the focus of this election on the nepotism and charges of corruption. It was a political masterstroke, that shook Rajapaksa and made him realise that winning a third term in Colombo won't be a cakewalk.

So Rajapaksa trained his guns on the backstabbing, asking at several election rallies, ''Can you trust a person of this nature and make him President?'' Sirisena after being part of Rajapaksa's power matrix and enjoying the fruits of power, now criticised the "soft dictatorship", vowing to change the situation.

One of the first promises that Sirisena, if elected, will be expected to keep will be to render his own office powerless. He has vowed to abolish executive presidency in 100 days and make Sri Lanka return to a Westminster kind parliamentary democracy. Rajapaksa, by bestowing on himself enormous powers, had emerged as the most powerful man on the island -- almost king-like.

No one in Lanka disputes Rajapaksa's hand in ensuring the return of peace to the country, ravaged by a civil war that lasted 26 years. The possibility of a return of the LTTE is what Rajapaksa has held out as a threat, should he be defeated.

But there are other geopolitical reasons why this contest is important to the region. Rajapaksa has ensured political stability in the country, making Sri Lanka's $67 billion economy expand by about 7 per cent every year on an average since 2009, when the civil war ended. He has worked in the past few years towards a big role for China in and around Sri Lanka, a development that worries India. China is now Sri Lanka's largest investor.

Sirisena at the head of an unwieldy opposition alliance may find himself pulled from all directions and that could have an impact on the investment climate in Sri Lanka. What approach Sirisena takes vis-a-vis India and China, will also be a factor Big Brother India will be interested in.

As the counting of votes takes place on Friday, what could work for Rajapaksa is that inflation has been low and he went on a please-all mission before the polls, cutting fuel and electricity rates, raising pension and paying farmers better remuneration. Sirisena has promised more goodies, if elected. And in a reference to Rajapaksa's alleged wealth, he stressed that the funding will come by stopping wastage and big ticket corruption.

"Rajapaksa knows the craft of winning elections," said a business executive in Colombo to me. Sirisena believes the number of voters who are frustrated with Rajapaksa is more and that would ensure victory for him.

PSFormer Army chief Sarath Fonseka, who played a huge part in vanquishing the LTTE on the ground, contested against Rajapaksa in 2010. Within days of his defeat, he was court martialled and jailed. Sirisena, who has been a student of political science, would do well to remember this piece of history as well.


TS Sudhir TS Sudhir @iamtssudhir

The writer is a journalist.

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