The Tight Race for Sri Lanka’s Presidency

Photograph from Colombo Gazette

Photograph from Colombo Gazette

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, after completing four years of his second six-year term, called for early elections in the last November, hoping that the move would put a stop to his waning popularity. Already there were allegations that his family totally dominating the government, misusing the country’s resources. The human rights violations and making the island nation overly dependent on China garnered negative response from the World nations.

Despite the slow economic growth and all other accusations, Rajapaksa remained jubilant that there would be no serious candidate to oppose him in the upcoming presidential elections. But, the man who now stands in his way of winning an unprecedented third term was also the man who stood right with him over all these years. Maithripala Sirisena, Rajapakse’s trusted health minister claimed that he could not stay anymore with a leader, who has plundered his country’s wealth.

Initially, Sirisena only earned the name ‘traitor’, but in the recent weeks he has devised many political alliances and has made Rajapakse’s prospects look far less certain. After Sirisena’s desertion, 25 loyalists of Rajapaksa have also changed teams. Complaints of corruption, nepotism, and autocracy spread quickly eating away the once unassailable Rajapakse’s popularity. Mr. Sirisena (backed by main opposition United National Party) has also gained popularity among the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, which once solidly backed Rajapakse.

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Apart from promising economic reforms and constitutional amendments, Sirisena has vowed to the well-being of ethnic Tamils, who are increasingly marginalized (Sirisena himself was acting defense minister when the war against Tamil Tigers reached a very bloody climax in 2009). In the past few years, Rajapakse benefited from the lack of unity between opposition parties. But, all these organizations have now united under a common coalition (nearly 48 political parties).

However, issues significant to Tamils (makes up about 12 percent of the country’s population) don’t seem to be on the agenda of either Rajapakse or Sirisena’s combined opposition. The military rule over the Northern Province, the impunity for alleged war crimes are few of the important issues for Tamils for which either party have a solution. Although the Tamil National Alliance has signaled its support to Sirisena, the Tamils are distressed over JHU’s support for Sirisena alliance, which is totally opposed to any investigation for alleged war crimes and human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan military. If Rajapaksa family left the power there would be talks or negotiations about the grievances faced by Tamils and other minorities, but there seems to be no guarantee (for any meaningful power-sharing). Nevertheless, the opposition may pursue a more balanced foreign policy if it came to power.

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Currently, there are also growing fears over the conduct of Rajapakse and his powerful brothers if Sirisena receives majority of votes. The International observes have also stated that they have received complaints of voter intimidation. The opposition parties claimed that the Sri Lankan military had put up road blocks to discourage Tamil minorities, residing in former war zones, from voting freely.

Mr Rajapakse could still win the elections (fair and square). If not, and if he peacefully hands over his power, what kind of meaningful change could Mr Sirisena could bring?

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