By R. Hariharan –
Unfazed by his surprise defeat in the last presidential polls, Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa appears to be back with a bang on the nation’s political centre stage with the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition nominating him to contest the August 17 parliamentary election. as a candidate. Six months ago, when Rajapaksa went into a sulk after his defeat, nobody would have imagined that he would bounce back so soon and so strongly with the support of UPFA.
His nomination ended weeks of suspense, as his bête noire President Maithripala Sirisena, chief of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), tried to persuade the party, the UPFA coalition and even Mahinda to prevent the latter’s comeback. But Rajapaksa seems to have made up his mind, well before political manoevures began, to contest the election with or without SLFP support as the anti-corruption bodies were making life miserable for him and his siblings. But no one, probably not even Mahinda, was certain of the UPFA nominating him.
Sirisena is reported to have confessed to his loyalists that he could not carry the UPFA coalition with him to prevent Rajapaksa’s nomination. Civil society leaders and political leaders who put their faith in him to clean up the administration and ensure Mahinda does not reincarnate called Maithripala’s decision a betrayal of the 8 January mandate.
Meanwhile, caretaker Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe-led UNP has announced the formation of the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) to contest on the same plank of corruption free governance it had used successfully in the presidential election.. The UNFGG brings together disparate political parties and elements like the rightwing Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), which never saw eye to eye with the UNP all along, dissidents from the UPFA front, some important leaders and close confidants of Sirisena like Ranjitha Senaratne from the SLFP and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and his Democratic party and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) are likely to extend support to the UNFGG even if they do not join it.
It is not going to be a cakewalk for Mahinda. Though the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine’s investigation of all mega projects finalized during the Rajapaksa regime has not found evidence to prosecute Rajapaksas, the allegations remain fresh in public memory. Ditto is the fate of allegations that Rajaaksa family had stashed their illegal wealth abroad in secret accounts.
President Rajapaksa ruthlessly used his executive powers to put down opposition from all quarters using political goons and even the military while rule of law remained only in statute books. Such callous exercise of power, more than anything else rallied the masses to vote against him in the presidential poll.
A massive turnout of minorities against Rajapaksa helped Sirisena gain the vital lead in January. Though Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine has not fully met with the long standing demands of the minorities, particularly Tamils, it had taken halting steps to improve the situation. A few thousand acres of land in the north occupied by the Army have been returned to the rightful owners. Colombo has removed minor pinpricks under which the TNA-led Northern Province government functioned. Even on the vexing issues of missing persons and war crimes there had been positive movements. The government had met Tamil Diaspora representatives including the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) to muster their support for evolving a solution to the Tamil minority issue. So the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has little option but to support the UNP-led front.
The Muslim vote is likely to go more for UNFGG as memories of anti-Muslim campaign during Rajapaksa regime is fresh in their memory.
Of course, it is difficult to predict who will gain a majority in the parliament as the political line ups are not yet final. However, one thing is certain; Rajapaksa’s image as modern day Duttugemunu, the legendary Sinhala King who defeated the Tamil King Elara, for eliminating the Tamil Tigers may not be enough for a comeback. He will have to be seen as an inclusive and more democratic leader. And that may not be easy.
*Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: email@example.com Blog: http://col.hariharan.info