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Will Sri Lankan voters bring back Rajapaksa?

Sri Lanka

The former president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, during his 2011 visit in Russia. Rajapaksa now wants to become Prime Minister. Alexander Nikiforov under a Creative Commons Licence

The stakes are high for the country in today’s election, writes Lasanda Kurukulasuriya.

Sri Lanka votes today, on 17 August, to elect representatives to its 225-member parliament in one of the most important elections in recent times.

Former strongman president Mahinda Rajapaksa was unseated in January by Maithripala Sirisena, a challenger from his own centre-Left Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). But he’s back again, this time vying for the prime minister’s post with incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the rightwing, pro-Western United National Party (UNP), who was appointed prime minister in January by Sirisena.

The prime minister in the newly elected government will wield more power than before, on account of a constitutional amendment that reduced the powers of the much-abused executive presidency.

Wickremesinghe heads an unstable minority government while his opponents in the SLFP, though they form a majority, remain divided between factions loyal to President Sirisena and former president Rajapaksa. Sirisena, who assumed leadership of the SLFP as well as the SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) after he became president, has made no secret of his hostility toward Rajapaksa.

The UNP’s well-funded campaign has focused on the same anti-corruption, anti-nepotism platform on which it helped Sirisena win the presidency. But some high-profile financial fraud allegations have marred the party’s own record during its 6 months in power. One case implicates the Governor of the Central Bank – a Wickremesinghe appointee – in a bond scam running into hundreds of millions of dollars. The president dissolved parliament a day before a Parliamentary Committee appointed to investigate the matter was due to release its report, which is now in limbo.

Mahinda Rajapaksa still enjoys huge popularity in Sinhala-majority areas, where he is seen as the war-winning leader who delivered the country from the scourge of terrorism. But he alienated the minorities who, by his own admission, brought about his defeat in January. However, analysts say that in a parliamentary poll the outcome will be decided in the Sinhala-Buddhist heartland’s electorates where higher population figures will translate into more seats in parliament. Ethnic Sinhalese form 75% of the country’s population, Tamils 11%, Muslims 9% and Tamils of Indian origin 4%.

Sri Lanka’s highly literate and election-savvy voters have typically delivered unambiguous verdicts. But this time observers say it may be too close to call, and the result may be a hung parliament. Uncertainty also stems from an opportunistic political culture, where post-election cross-overs to the winning side have become all too common.

In the present climate of ‘corruption fatigue’, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a small Marxist party which currently has just 3 members in parliament, could gain the most. It claims that none of its candidates face allegations of wrongdoing. It lambasts both mainstream political formations with relish. Though its support base is in the South, it has demonstrated its organizational prowess by fielding candidates in all 22 electoral districts, including the North and East. Undeterred by accusations of having abandoned its socialist ideals, and of tacitly backing the capitalist UNP, the JVP hopes to be kingmaker in the new parliament.

The UNP says it will introduce what it calls a ‘social market economy’ that will benefit the masses, though critics say the concept is incompatible with the UNP’s neoliberalism. The appeal of a government led by Rajapaksa would seem to lie in its record of rapid post-war infrastructure development, assurances on national security and a generally anti-imperialist orientation.

The most encouraging aspect of this election has been the relatively peaceful nature of the run-up period. This has been largely attributed to the Elections Commissioner who has made it known he will implement the law to its fullest extent to ensure a free and fair poll.

The police too have been credited with greater impartiality than in previous years. Though there have been over 1,000 complaints of election-law violations, the gravity of the incidents is less this time, according to Rohana Hettiarachchi, Executive Director of election watchdog PAFFREL, who assured that ‘overall the environment is fairly okay’.

Between 13,500 and 15,000 local election observers are being deployed to monitor the election, while around 120 foreign observers will be present on polling day, including teams from the European Union and the Commonwealth, Hettiarachchi added.

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