In the Sri Lankan presidential election on Thursday President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat looks imminent unless rigging takes place. A formidable coalition of the Opposition under the leadership of Maithripala Sirisena is in place. Sri Lankans’ disenchantment with corruption, the rising cost of living and nepotism characterised by the presence of the Rajapaksa family in all government departments has crossed the limits of tolerance. While the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was never expected to support Rajapaksa, at least three ministers have resigned from the government to support Sirisena.
For the first time the minorities are united against a presidential candidate. Comprising 32% of the total vote share, the votes of the minorities can be decisive. The Opposition has also consolidated its support base among the Sinhalese majority since the last provincial elections.
Apart from Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Sri Lanka between January 12 and 15, Rajapaksa has failed to convince people that he must be re-elected. The victory over the LTTE no longer sells. The dissatisfaction of the Tamils against the Rajapaksa regime requires no reiteration. However, relentless attacks on Muslims and Christians have also turned them against Rajapaksa.
Sri Lankans are also aware that Rajapaksa lacks the confidence of the international community — particularly, India. Devolution of power for the Tamil minorities apart, the repeated arrests of Indian Tamil fishermen have not gone down well with New Delhi. By opening up the Indian Ocean to China, Rajapaksa appears to have bitten off more than he can chew.
In recent years, India’s support for political parties in the neighbouring countries has been critical for domestic electoral results and international recognition. In Nepal, the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML (with India’s support) trounced the Maoists in the December 2013 elections. In Bangladesh, in January, the Awami League won 153 out of 300 parliamentary seats even before the first vote was cast as the Bangladesh National Party boycotted the elections, and India’s unstinted support to the Awami League was critical for its recognition at the international level. In Bhutan, the People’s Democratic Party came to power in July 2013 after India stopped kerosene supply to Bhutan just prior to the elections to send a clear message of New Delhi’s disapproval of the then PM Jigme Y Thinley’s meeting with the then Chinese PM Wen Jiabao in Brazil.
National security adviser Ajit Doval’s meeting in December with Sirisena, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, former PM Ranil Wickremesinghe and leaders of the TNA had a significant role in shaping the united opposition against Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa might have the support of Beijing. However, India has been far ahead on propping up favourable regimes in neighbouring countries than China, which is at loss with the intricacies of electoral politics, and feels more comfortable to deal with dictators.
Skullduggery on polling day cannot be ruled out, more so because Rajapaksa’s brother, defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fears possible indictment by the UN Commission of Inquiry, which will submit its report in March.
Rajapaksa called the snap elections two years ahead of the current term to prolong his family’s rule. This decision is a clear indication in itself that irrespective of the outcome, the end of the Rajapaksa dynasty has become inevitable. The tactics adopted by Rajapaksa like inviting Bollywood actor Salman Khan to campaign for him only proves his desperation. Both the defeat of Rajapaksa in the elections and the indictment of Gotabaya by the commission of inquiry are within the realm of possibility.
Suhas Chakma is director, Asian Centre for Human Rights, New Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal