Rajapaksa’s political resurrection: Is he the next Sri Lankan Prime Minister?

Rajapaksa’s political resurrection: Is he the next Sri Lankan Prime Minister?
Rajapaksa’s political resurrection: Is he the next Sri Lankan Prime Minister?
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On January 9 2015, the people of Sri Lanka stunned the entire world. The strongest leader they had seen in decades, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had been ousted by the electorate in the Presidential elections. The world media collectively dubbed the defeat a ‘shocker’ and a new democratic dawn for the island nation. Though seasoned commentators were cautious, the overall mood was that the Rajapaksa era was over.

But in the face of recent political developments in Sri Lanka, confidence of Rajapaksa’s opponents seem to be waning. There is renewed hope in the Rajapaksa camp. His supporters believe that he might very well make a resounding political comeback as the Prime Minister through the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Sri Lanka is a presidential representative democratic republic, where the President is the head of the state, head of the cabinet and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The Prime Minister is a member of the cabinet, and is appointed by the President from the pool of parliamentarians. Maithripala Sirisena is the President of Sri Lanka.

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Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena

Rajapaksa’s return is not an easy task and there is a long way ahead, from being able to get the prime ministerial nomination before elections to making sure post-election political bargaining works to his favour. But for now, he seems to be making all the right moves.

In her column for the Daily FT, journalist Dharisha writes that emboldened by the slow and painful road the Sirisena government has taken towards democratisation, the Rajapaksa family is refusing to go down without a fight. In the article titled “Paving the way for Rajapaksa renaissance”, the journalist writes, “Today, the former President has media spokesmen and a well-oiled propaganda machinery all set to get back to work. Offices and staff are being set up to conduct strategic planning for the Rajapaksa rebirth.”

On the one hand, Rajapaksa is in talks with Sirisena to unite the faction-ridden Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and declare Rajapaksa as the Prime Ministerial candidate. On the other hand, he is forming his own electoral alliances bolstered by the belief that the huge vote-bank which the SLFP has is actually his own, and he could win the elections even if he were to contest as an independent candidate. There is a general consensus that Rajapaksa lost presidential elections because of the minority-community votes in Tamil and Muslim dominated areas. In the areas where there is Sinhala majority, he won massively.

Burying the hatchet: Rajapaksa and Sirisena

After the Presidential elections in early 2015, the SLFP, to which both the present President and Rajapaksa originally belong to, has been split into two camps in support of the two. Before the presidential elections, Sirisena had quit SLFP and contested as the 'common candidate' for all parties opposing Rajapaksa. Even though Rajapaksa lost the presidential elections, he maintained a hold on his loyalists thanks to his Sinhala majority voter-base. Now, both the camps are negotiating over who will be the prime ministerial candidate, if at all there will be one.

There have been several rounds of talks between the two camps recently, even a face-to-face between the two leaders. Even if there has been no resolution in sight, things could be moving towards one.

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Rajapaksa and Sirisena have open channels of communication

Observers say that at the SLFP Parliamentary Board meeting held on June 16, several members of the party pushed hard for Rajapaksa to be nominated as the party’s PM candidate. Rajapaksa loyalists say that 60% of the party is with Rajapaksa and want to see him come back. “One set of people are fully in support of Rajapaksa, but there are also others who don’t want Sirisena to fight with Rajapaksa, and want both to work together,” says Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s former Representative to the United Nations, and a known Rajapaksa sympathiser.  “Even those who are against Rajapaksa are not open about it, they are sitting on the fence. There is even a possibility that some Sirisena supporters will join Rajapaksa camp,” says senior journalist Veeragathy Thanabalasingham, who edits the magazine Samakalam.

The Rajapaksa camp has three demands. One, the end to the ‘victimization’ of his supporters and family members - which means all the criminal investigations against him and his family must be dropped and the cases buried. Two, they want the nomination of Rajapaksa supporters as SLPF candidates for upcoming elections, which also means declaring Rajapaksa as the PM candidate. Third, Rajapaksa camp wants a government without the support of United National Party (UNP) headed by Ranil Wickramasinghe, who is the present Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and Rajapaksa’s arch enemy.

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Sri Lankan Prime Minister and UNP leader Ranil Wickramasinghe

Sirisena is said to have formed a six-member committee to negotiate the terms with Rajapaksa. But these demands are not easy to be met. And in the eventuality that this political engagement does not lead to an alliance, Rajapaksa has other plans. He is appealing to his core base of Sinhala supporters who take pride in the defeat of LTTE and the ‘development’ by Rajapakse government.

Mahinda’s massive outreach

In the past few days, Rajapaksa has kicked off a massive outreach program to be visible in the public domain. His team is conducting what they call a ‘grassroots test’ to gauge the mood of the people.  “It is a centre-left movement, which is not just about Rajapaksa, but a patriotic, anti-west, populist movement. These are people who believe in nationalism and the development agenda of the previous government,” says Jayatilleka. Quite obviously, Buddhist Sinhalas and fundamentalists support this surge.

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Rajapaksa meets people in public meetings

According to Rajapaksa supporters, four political parties have joined hands together to push for Rajapaksa’s political return. They are the left-wing political party Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna or National Freedom Front, the Democratic Left Front and the relatively new and smaller party Pivithiru Hela Urumaya. This coalition is engaged in creating the atmosphere of support for Rajapaksa.

Through this platform, and independently, Rajapaksa is said to be creating a vitiating political climate, raising fears of LTTE’s return and playing the communal card to appeal to Buddhist fundamentalists. A month ago, he reportedly alleged that LTTE flags have been raised in the Northern Province. The Sri Lankan government has since denied it. “After the brutal rape of a girl in Jaffna, there were protests against police inaction. Rajapaksa said that these were signs of revival of LTTE and militancy,” says Thanabalasingham, “He is recreating the fears of LTTE among the Sinhala people.”

There are several factors which could compliment Rajapaksa’s return.

First, it is a minority government at the helm which has the perception of being weak and unable to run a smooth government. Observers, though, say that it is because the new dispensation has chosen the harder path of democracy. Several Rajapaksa supporting MPs are also known to be creating blockades for the government’s reform agenda.

Second, Rajapaksa camp says that the cases against Basil and Gotabaya Rajapaksa have created the impression among the Sinhala voters that the Rajapaksa family is being targeted, thereby giving way to sympathy for the former President.

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Third, the Sri Lankan economy is performing poorly and several ‘development’ projects have stalled, according to some. “The value of the (Sri Lankan) rupee has fallen and unemployment is on the rise, and people have a feeling that cronyism is a small price to pay for development of the nation,” says Jayatilleka.

Fourth, the dynamics of Presidential elections are different from those of Parliamentary elections. While Rajapaksa might have lost the Presidency, he still has his core vote-bank. And in the Parliamentary elections, the crucial minority vote which consolidated to defeat him earlier might get split among the smaller minority parties. “The minority votes against Rajapaksa went to Sirisena earlier, but now they might get disintegrated into smaller parties. This counter-polarization might help Rajapaksa garner more seats,” says Thanabalasingham.

Even so, Rajapaksa does face several challenges.

If he is not able to get enough seats, then the UNP might be able to ally with minority parties and form the new government. Any such post-election scenario will not be in favour of Rajapaksa.

“His rhetoric could fail. As Sirisena has said, people voted for change as a response to the unlimited power enjoyed by the Rajapaksa family. They don’t want another authoritarian government,” says Thanabalasingham. He also points out that now Rajapaksa does not have access to state machinery and the might of the military which he enjoyed in the presidential contest. Without that, he may not be able to get as many votes as he did in the presidential elections.

Journalist Dharisha further points out in her column that if the UN report on war crimes report is released before elections, it could be to Rajapaksa's advantage. The report is likely to indict senior military officers. With the UN report being seen as a western conspiracy, and Sirisena being perceived close to western nations, this will further dent the image of the present government and help Rajapaksa’s campaign.

With every passing day, it seems, Rajapaksa is only getting stronger.

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