Eight months after Sri Lanka voted to oust Mahinda Rajapaksa as President, it must decide whether it wants him back as Prime Minister. And though Rajapaksa is from the same party as President Maithripala Sirisena, the President is hoping his party loses, and the opposition wins.
In a sense, today’s election is an extension of the January presidential election between Sirisena and Rajapaksa, except that Sirisena is not a candidate this time. Both sides see the election, as P Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Policy Alternatives put it, as the “unfinished business of January”. For Rajapaksa, it is a chance to avenge his defeat; for Sirisena, to work with a government, even if it is from the opposition party, that will take forward the constitutional and economic reforms set in motion after he took office in January.
Monday’s election is for 196 of the 225 seats in Parliament — the rest will be filled through nominations. Rajapaksa is contesting to become Prime Minister, now a slightly more powerful office after the constitutional amendment passed earlier this year.
The bulk of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and its coalition partners, called the United People’s Freedom Alliance, are supporting him. President Sirisena heads both. Despite the clear mandate against Rajapaksa in the January vote, Sirisena could not stave off the pressure to give him a party ticket, even though the President did refuse to nominate him as the Prime Ministerial candidate.
That has not stopped Rajapaksa or his supporters from projecting him as one. Under the Sri Lankan constitution, the President selects as PM the candidate who he thinks enjoys the confidence of the House. Having tasted blood during the seat nominations, the Rajapaksa camp believes that bringing the same kind of pressure on Sirisena will force him to name the former President as PM if the UPFA is in a position to stake claim to form the government.
Rajapaksa is expected to win his seat Kurunegala, in central Sri Lanka, which he picked over the family borough of Hambantota. It is one of the largest constituencies in the country, and is expected to give his post-election claim to the Prime Ministership more weight and legitimacy than a victory in his traditional but small fiefdom in southern Sri Lanka. Kurunegala was also a catchment area for military recruitment, thus a constituency that might be more receptive to his refrain that the LTTE is raring to return, and that the present government has weakened the nation’s resolve against terrorism.
But Rajapaksa has not been able to wipe off the impression carried over from his two-term presidency — that of a leader who was authoritarian, heading a corrupt, repressive and thuggish government that was run by a cabal, most of them members of the President’s family.
There is a fair possibility that the UNP and Wickremesinghe-led United National Front for Good Governance will win more seats than the UPFA.
Wickremesinghe, who supported Sirisena’s campaign to defeat Rajapaksa in the presidential campaign, joined the government as Prime Minister, and is reaping the advantage of being associated with the President, whose Mr Clean image has grown stronger since the elections.
Under Sri Lanka’s complicated proportional representation-cum-preferential voting system, political parties have found it difficult to win the numbers to rule on their own. The work of government formation awaits the single largest political grouping.
Chief among the possible candidates for alliance with the UNFGG is the Tamil National Alliance, which is in the fray in constituencies in the Tamil-majority north and east. But the ease with which it won provincial elections in 2013 may not be possible this time, with the Tamil vote split between a number of groupings, including one called Champions of Freedom, comprising ex-LTTE members. The other party that could bring up the remaining seats for the UNFGG is the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, which carried out a deadly insurgency in southern Sri Lanka in the 70s, and again in the late 80s, but is now a mainstream political party.
While the Tamil parties are expected to play kingmakers after the election, in the main, this contest is being fought in southern Sri Lanka, for Sinhala-Buddhist votes. In the presidential contest, President Sirisena either lost these constituencies or won with narrow margins. The bulk of the votes that went into his victory in January came from Tamils and Muslims.
There has been no visible wave against Rajapaksa, nor in favour of Wickremesinghe. But if there is one thing going for the UNFGG and Wickremesinghe, it is the overwhelming perception that President Sirisena has given Sri Lankans their citizenship back.
“There is a definite sense of citizen empowerment in the last eight months,” Saravanamuttu of the Centre of Policy Analysis said. The Sirisena government is not perceived as thuggish or repressive. There is a sense that it made a genuine effort to chart a new course, even though it was not able to fulfill all its “100 day promises”.
Voters may plump for a government with whom Sirisena can work and carry forward his agenda for change, rather than bring about uncertainty by voting in Rajapaksa.
But if the UPFA manages to win more seats than the UNP, said Saravanamuttu, “the President may not be able to go against the demand that Rajapaksa be made PM.”
The only other option — that the President appoints another leader from the UPFA as PM — is unviable, Saravanamuttu said. And yet, in an open letter to Rajapaksa on Thursday, Sirisena said if the UPFA won, this was precisely what he would do. While the public assertion by Sirisena may hurt the Rajapaksa campaign, the fact that it had to be written at all shows how close the election is.
A lot rides on the results for New Delhi. Its relations with Rajapaksa were tense — India wanted him to address Tamil grievances quickly, and was uneasy with his cosying up to China; Rajapaksa was angry that India had not supported Sri Lanka in the Human Rights Council on war crimes issues.
The recent development in Maldives giving foreigners the right to own land has had India worried about growing Chinese influence on its two Indian Ocean neighbours. It sees Sirisena-Wickremesinghe as having a more neutral foreign policy, and would be relieved if this combination came out winners.