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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Mahinda Rajapaksa: Once Bitten, Twice Try

[Sit back to setback: Mahinda Rajapaksa ruled Sri Lanka for a decade; he now faces allegations of corruption and attempted coup. AP Photo]

By Frances Bulathsinghala/Colombo –
Though defeated in the presidential poll, Mahinda Rajapaksa can still become the prime minister

Sit back to setback: Mahinda Rajapaksa ruled Sri Lanka for a decade; he now faces allegations of corruption and attempted coup. AP Photo
Sit back to setback: Mahinda Rajapaksa ruled Sri Lanka for a decade; he now faces allegations of corruption and attempted coup. AP Photo

His defeat in the presidential election on January 8 seems to have opened a Pandora’s box for Mahinda Rajapaksa. The new government, headed by former colleague Maithripala Sirisena, seems determined to bring him down along with his legacy of lavish lifestyle and corrupt administration. Rajapaksa and his family are alleged to have embezzled millions from the state exchequer to buy luxury cars, planes and horses for private use. Mega development projects that bear the Rajapaksa stamp are being reviewed for costs, commissions and frauds. It seems the much-hyped ‘Maithree governance’ of Sirisena would not be benevolent for Rajapaksa.

But it is too early to write him off. Sri Lanka will hold parliamentary elections in April, almost two years ahead of schedule. Though the political winds favour the current government, the elections have given a window of opportunity to Rajapaksa and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). He will take on Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party, who was appointed prime minister in the wake of Sirisena’s victory.

Ever since he left the President’s House in Colombo on January 9, Rajapaksa has been trying hard to rouse nationalistic sentiments among the Sinhalese. In his public speeches, he has said that he lost the presidential election because Tamils and Muslims voted against him. Amid speculation about the fate of executive presidency (the powers of which Sirisena has promised to reduce or transfer to the prime minister), the fear of separatism and western conspiracies¯two pet themes of Rajapaksa¯has been gathering momentum among the rural Sinhalese. This could pull votes away from the UNP in the parliamentary polls. Also, the investigations into the 10-year corrupt rule of the Rajapaksas, though credible, could also be seen as political vendetta.

If the SLFP wins, the prime minister could be Nimal Siripala de Silva, the current leader of the opposition, or Rajapaksa, if he contests the election and wins. Politically, Rajapaksa’s win would not have any effect on Sirisena, who now heads the SLFP. A victory of either the UNP or the SLFP does not upset his status quo, except if he does away with his current executive powers as promised. Rajapaksa then could well be the decision-maker if he becomes the prime minister.

However, Rajapaksa’s comeback bid may not be successful, with his party deserting him to cast its lot with Sirisena. Having meekly yielded the chairmanship to Sirisena, the party is no longer in Rajapaksa’s hands. A seasoned politician, Sirisena will use this to strengthen his following. As with previous presidents, his rule will see a new set of people in the party and the government. Most of the old guard will be relegated to the sidelines, and Rajapaksa could be one of them. No matter how popular he is, Rajapaksa cannot win elections without the support of the party machinery.

The UNP, on the other hand, is a key ally of Sirisena. At best, it is perceived as a pro-western, pro-Tamil and pro-Christian party. At worst, it is seen as pro-separatist, especially by the rural Sinhalese in south Sri Lanka, who have not stopped shedding tears for Rajapaksa. Sceptics say Wickremesinghe needs an image makeover to win the parliamentary elections. To those who argue that he is not a Sinhala Buddhist mass leader, his supporters cite the 2005 election when a ‘lacklustre’ Wickremesinghe contested against the ‘Sinhala Buddhist icon’ Rajapaksa, and the latter won by just 2,00,000 votes. Also, the Sinhala Buddhists, seen as anti-Tamil, could have voted Rajapaksa in for the continuation of the development works and not just for his communal agenda.

If the Sirisena government delivers on its economic and political agenda, especially its 100-day ‘programme of action’, it could sway the masses. One of the key elements of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe agenda for the first 100 days is constitutional reform. The excessive powers of the executive presidency are to be pruned, giving more power to the parliament and cabinet ministers. They have promised that the executive, judiciary, police and the election department will be overseen by independent commissions comprising people of proven integrity. And that there will be a drastic reduction in the prices of commodities, corruption cases will be investigated, and a solution to the ethnic problem will be sought constitutionally. Wickremesinghe said in the parliament that an amendment would be introduced to preserve the unitary status of the country.

Already, fuel prices have been brought down sharply. This could hurt Rajapaksa as it was during his time that prices shot through the roof even as the government was spending recklessly on grandiose infrastructure projects of little use to the masses and borrowing money at high rates from China.

The SLFP has pledged support to the 100-day plan, and it hopes to benefit from it. But if well-implemented, the Wickremesinghe-led UNP could also claim credit for the plan as it was a joint idea of the coalition that backed Sirisena’s presidency. Therefore, the UNP may do well in the elections. But there is also a possibility of the UNP and the SLFP coming together. In that case, Rajapaksa loyalists may leave the party and form their own cult-oriented, ultra-nationalistic, Sinhaha Buddhists party, functioning in the fringes of Sri Lanka’s political space as all extremist parties do.
Based on the complaint of Sri Lankan foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera, the attorney general has given the criminal investigation department the go-ahead to probe an attempted coup by Mahinda Rajapaksa and his supporters, including Supreme Court Chief Justice Mohan Peiris, to avert defeat in the presidential election. Rajapaksa’s brother Gotabaya, who was defence secretary, former foreign minister G.L. Peiris and Western Provincial councillor Udaya Gammanpila will also be investigated.

The controversial chief justice is under extreme pressure to resign and make way for the reinstatement of his predecessor, Shirani Bandaranayake, who was sacked by Rajapaksa. Sources said Peiris is resisting in the hope that Rajapaksa will come back after the April parliamentary elections.
Tough challenges

Mahinda Rajapaksa
* Dealing with corruption charges
* Facing investigation into the allegations of attempted ‘coup’
* Upcoming parliamentary elections
* Retaining followers, as they might flock to Sirisena, the president
Maithripala Sirisena
* Regaining India’s lost trust
* Working with Wickremesinghe
* Keeping the public happy; justifying the anti-corruption drive, which they might see as a political vendetta
* Handling Rajapaksa loyalists in his own party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party
Ranil Wickremesinghe
* Winning back the trust of the Sinhalese population, Rajapaksa’s vote bank
* Working together with Sirisena
* Improving diplomatic relations with India and China
* Ensuring corruption-free governance

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