Six months after he was ousted from power in the presidential election, Sri Lanka’s former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is eyeing a political comeback as prime minister. Ironically, his comeback bid has been facilitated by the very person who ejected him from the presidency, his friend-turned-foe, Maithripala Sirisena.
Last week, President Sirisena, who also heads the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as well as the coalition it leads, the United Progressive Freedom Alliance (UPFA), reversed his decision not to allow Rajapaksa to contest the August 17 general election under the SLFP banner.
Both Sirisena and Rajapaksa belong to the SLFP. Sirisena was health minister in the Rajapaksa government and quit it to challenge his former boss in the presidential election. After becoming president, Sirisena wrested leadership of the SLFP and the UPFA from Rajapaksa as well.
That Rajapaksa would aspire for a comeback was never in doubt. Although he was defeated in the presidential election, he did not perform badly in the Sinhalese areas. He remains popular among Sinhalese-Buddhists, the island’s ethnic majority, who are grateful to him for having ended the civil war in 2009.
However, what he lacked was a party machinery. Sirisena has provided him with that by granting him a seat under the SLFP banner.
While Rajapaksa supporters are delighted with Sirisena’s decision, others, especially liberal Sri Lankans are not. They backed Sirisena as president as they wanted an end to years of Rajapaksa misrule; corruption, nepotism and authoritarianism were some of the hallmarks of the Rajapaksa presidency. Gains that were made in recent months on questions of democratization, constitutional reforms, etc., could be frittered away should Rajapaksa return,they fear. Sirisena’s decision is seen as a subversion of the people’s mandate, a betrayal of the hopes for change that millions of Sri Lankans vested in him by voting for him in January.
So why did Sirisena decide to give Rajapaksa the green signal to contest under the SLFP banner?
Over the past six months, the SLFP has been a divided house – factions loyal to Rajapaksa and Sirisena were at odds with each other. Although the United National Party (UNP) backed Sirisena in the presidential election and the President appointed the UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe as the prime minister, relations had soured.
The SLFP and the UNP are rivals in the upcoming election and the UNP has an advantage given the rift in the SLFP. To deny the UNP that advantage, the SLFP has now closed ranks. By permitting Rajapaksa to contest on an SLFP ticket, Sirisena and the SLFP are no doubt hoping that the party will be able to win the votes of Rajapaksa supporters among the Sinhalese majority. Many SLFP leaders realize that without the electoral boost that Rajapaksa’s presence will provide, they may not be able to return to parliament.
Rajapaksa is far more assertive than Sirisena. His return as prime minister could shift the spotlight away from the rather uncharismatic President. Has Sirisena blundered by agreeing to give Rajapaksa a ticket?
Sirisena appears to have taken a calculated risk. After all, even if an SLFP-coalition were to win the election, it is the President who appoints the Prime Minister. So the final word on whether Rajapaksa should be the prime minister rests with Sirisena.
While the UNP and the SLFP are the main actors in the electoral fray, there are several other parties who will impact the final outcome. Sinhalese parties such as the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya, who were Sirisena allies in the presidential election, are upset with the Sirisena-Rajapaksa rapprochement. They have said they will contest separately and could end up taking away a sizeable section of Sinhalese-Buddhist votes from the SLFP.
As for the Tamil National Alliance and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, parties that had played a huge role in ensuring Sirisena’s victory, given their fierce opposition to Rajapaksa – Tamils and Muslims suffered much during his presidency – they can be expected to go along with the UNP.
The coming weeks are likely to see politicians and parties switch loyalties, change sides and negotiate deals and alliances. There is much uncertainty in the air.
However, one thing is clear: the Rajapaksa era which was thought to have ended with his defeat in January has got a fresh lease of life.
Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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