Sri Lanka prepares for what could be the closest presidential contest in its history.
THE plan seemed such a simple one. Mahinda Rajapaksa called an election in November expecting to breeze past a shambolic, divided opposition and take an unprecedented third term as Sri Lanka’s president. The poll, on January 8th, would be two years earlier than necessary. It would also be the first after a constitutional amendment in 2010 that abolished a two-term limit for presidents. Everything had appeared set for Mr Rajapaksa to remain in power.
Now his prospects look far less certain. The campaign has been marked by a series of defections by former allies who call him authoritarian and nepotistic (among relatives in important political jobs are a brother, Basil, who is in charge of running the economy; another brother, Gotabaya, who is defence secretary and a third, Chamal, who is parliamentary Speaker). Most striking was the exit of Maithripala Sirisena. He was both health minister in Mr Rajapaksa’s cabinet and general secretary of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). On November 21st he became the main opposition candidate. The president complains bitterly that Mr Sirisena dined with him only the night before.
Mr Sirisena, at 63, is six years younger than the president and has spent four decades in politics. In a country where a spell in jail is often a badge of pride, he can also point to 18 months behind bars (beating Mr Rajapaksa’s stint of three months). He appeals especially to rural voters: he calls himself a farmer, speaks only Sinhala and has said he would govern from the agricultural heartland of Polonnaruwa.
He is thus popular within the Sinhala Buddhist majority that was once solidly behind Mr Rajapaksa. Mr Sirisena promises sweeping changes within 100 days, including constitutional amendments; the end of corruption; energy security; even a “moral society” without drugs, liquor or cigarettes. He can point to support from prominent political figures, including a general who was defeated by Mr Rajapaksa in the last election in 2010. Mr Sirisena is backed by nearly 40 political parties and groups, notably the main opposition United National Party and some from the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance, of which the SLFP is a member. Of the alliance’s 161 parliamentarians, 23 have defected to his side. If others are included who have switched allegiances at provincial and local levels, the defection rate in this campaign has been among the highest seen in any election in Sri Lanka.
For Mr Rajapaksa, a heavy blow was the departure from the alliance of the Jathika Hela Urumaya, or National Heritage Party, which counts many saffron-robed Buddhist monks among its Sinhala nationalist members. On December 28th the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress also defected, saying Sri Lanka needed to be better governed. The Tamil National Alliance, an opposition group that is normally at odds with the Sinhala majority, says everyone should vote for Mr Sirisena. It accuses Mr Rajapaksa’s government of having been “particularly harmful to the well-being of the Tamil-speaking peoples of Sri Lanka”.
Mr Rajapaksa thus looks squeezed. Muslims and Tamils together make up nearly a quarter of the 21m-strong population. Muslims are furious at the Bodu Bala Sena, or “Buddhist Power Force”, which is avowedly anti-Muslim and supports the president’s re-election.
The president’s campaign promises include universal housing, development, industrial growth and jobs. He vows to defeat drug and other gangs. He also says he will not let anyone who fought the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a rebel organisation that was crushed in a military campaign by his government in 2009, “answer to any international judiciary or tribunal”. His ending of a long civil war that year, by defeating the Tigers, is still his strongest electoral asset; he has been flogging it heavily to everyone but the Tamil northerners (they are told instead to be grateful for better roads and railways). To stir nationalist support, he invokes conspiracy theories. Supposedly Mr Sirisena’s campaign is backed by the West who want to replace a strong leader with a “spineless puppet”, though no proof of Western meddling is ever offered.
Mr Sirisena’s rallies draw huge crowds—as do the president’s, even if most of Mr Rajapaksa’s supporters are ferried to them on public buses. With his frequent use of state-run media and official vehicles to help his campaign, Mr Rajapaksa looks increasingly jittery. His eldest son, Namal Rajapaksa, even invited Bollywood actors to add glitz to the re-election bid. All the signs are that this will be the closest presidential race yet.