It was a quiet goodbye. But expectedly outgoing President Mahinda Rajapaksa had the last word: “mama apahu enawa”. “I shall be back”, Rajapaksa told his staff as he left the Presidential secretariat after being defeated by his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) colleague, Maithripala Sirisena in the fight for presidency last January.
Seven months later, his return as Prime Minister in a 225 member Parliament has become the issue of the August 17 Parliamentary election.
The PM in Sri Lanka’s political system is several notches of power below the President. But if the Rajapaksa-led coalition, the United Progressive Freedom Alliance (UPFA) gets the simple majority with 113 Members of Parliament (MP) on August 18, it will signal the return of Rajapaksa from the precipice of political ignominy if not oblivion.
The political – as well as electoral – situation here is confusing.
Rajapaksa and Sirisena are from the same party, the SLFP. But Sirisena became the joint opposition Presidential candidate in January and won the election – but he did not quit the SLFP. Rajapaksa continues to enjoy solid support within the SLFP and the coalition he leads, the UPFA.
Sirisena, experts said, failed to take control of the SLFP in the last seven months. That helped Rajapaksa to stage a comeback. And, just to add to the confusion, Sirisena had and is opposing Rajapaksa’s return.
“With Sirisena opposing Rajapaksa’s return, the 17 August parliamentary elections will test the continued appeal of the ex-president’s hardline Sinhala nationalism and give a chance for the fresh start that lasting solutions to the country’s social divisions require,” the Brusselsbased International Crisis Group said in a report this week.
In academic circles, the two sides have been labelled as one fighting for the “dynasty project” (The immediate and extended Rajapaksa family had a stranglehold on the Lankan polity for almost a decade) and the other as the “January project” (those who were opposed to Rajapaksa’s hardline nationalism and are now in government.)
“The Rajapaksa ‘dynasty project’ and the 'January project. . .' fairly correct way to define the polarisation in the politics at present,” Jayadeva Uyangoda, professor of political science at the Colombo University told Hindustan Times.
Several academics and professionals HT spoke to said Sirisena’s victory had an immediate positive impact.
As pointed out in the ICG report, it opened up “important political space: robust debate and criticism have replaced the fear under Rajapaksa, and important governance reforms have been made, but much remains undone.”
In Tamil areas, excessive presence of military and police went down. Commentators said the intrusion of the military into daily life also reduced. Politically, the atmosphere became more liberal.
Rajapaksa himself continues to enjoy support and popularity; his election rallies have been well-attended, reports said. The kind of politics he practices clearly has supporters.
“Among the Sinhalese youth, there is fairly strong support for Rajapaksa. Majoritarian ideology runs fairly deep though it has been challenged, questioned and discredited but to get it away, there is some time to go,” Rajan Hoole from the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) said.
“I think there always will be hardcore Rajapaksa supporters. The man is the ultimate warrior as far as they are concerned. But I think there will be an attrition of support for him if he is out of power,” Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives said.
“When victory does not materialise, it will antagonise members of the party,” she told HT,
One of Rajapaksa’s main campaign planks has been the current government – and if UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe becomes PM again by defeating him – will capitulate to “western” forces and divide the country along Sinhala-Tamil ethnic lines.
“In seven months, this government has reversed everything we achieved. The economy is in shambles, developmental activities have been stalled and national security is being undermined,” Rajapaksa recently said at presser in Colombo.
Part of the reason behind stoking nationalist fire is the upcoming UN Human Rights Council report on war crimes allegedly committed by government forces and the Tamil rebels, LTTE, at the end of the civil war in 2009.
The incumbent government has said that if necessary a “credible domestic mechanism” with technical assistance from international groups will be set up look into war crimes.
“Remember, Sirisena and his group will not be the focus of the report. The LTTE is wiped out. So, it would be Rajapaksa who will be the target. So, to him the report is an intrusion into the country’s sovereignty,” Uyangoda said.
There is a bit of a desperation in Rajapaksa’s come-back bid. As a diplomat pointed out that after-all a former all-powerful President is attempting to become the PM. There could be a scenario where Rajapaksa wins his seat – which he is all but sure to win – but his coalition loses. Then, he remains merely as an MP.
But in the end, as Rajapaksa told his staff that he would return. He is certainly not a politician to go down without a fight.