[Mahinda Rajapaksa in January before his election defeat. Photograph: Chamila Karunarathne/Demotix/Corbis]
Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former president of Sri Lanka, is planning to stand in parliamentary polls to launch an attempt to return to power, aides have said.
The veteran politician, who suffered a surprise defeat in snap presidential polls he called in January this year, has been taking a break from politics and has yet to formally declare any campaign.
However, he has been meeting hundreds of supporters who visit his residence in the town of Hambantota, and travelling widely around Sri Lanka to see elected members of local and municipal authorities.
“You wait and see,” Rajapaksa said, when asked last week if he was a spent force. “I am yet to take a decision on contesting, but if people request me, I can’t refuse.”
The victory of Maithripala Sirisena by six percentage points in a runoff vote on 8 January was welcomed by India and western nations including the US. Analysts had described the election as the most significant in the country for decades and a last chance for democracy.
Rajapaksa came to power in 2005, led the military to a bloody victory over violent separatists from the Tamil minority four years later and surfed a wave of popularity among the Sinhala majority to win again in 2010. He then had the constitution changed to allow the third term he hoped to win in January’s poll.
However, allegations of corruption, violent intimidation of political opponents, attacks on journalists, growing resentment among Tamils and mounting sectarian violence led to concern at home and abroad.
The benefits of economic growth were not passed on to ordinary Sri Lankans, undermining domestic support, while a strategic tilt towards China worried the US and India. The constitutional changes led to accusations of authoritarianism, and the appointment of two brothers, a nephew and a son to key posts prompted charges of nepotism.
Rajapaksa’s aides say that soon after the surprise defeat he was downcast. But they say he “picked up fast when he saw people coming to see him”.
“When he saw that he still had that following, he was back to his old self,” said one friend whose relationship with Rajapaksa goes back more than 18 years.
Observers point out that Rajapaksa remains popular among his core Sinhala, rural, conservative Buddhist support base. He is also acknowledged to be an effective campaigner, working a crowd with avuncular ease.
“He wants the government to feel that he is its main threat, and he has succeeded in doing that. There is no opposition without Rajapaksa right now,” an aide said.
Three rallies have been organised in different parts of Sri Lanka to call for the ousted president to contest the parliamentary polls.
Rajapaksa has blamed his defeat on a conspiracy involving Indian and western intelligence agencies.
The first step to a return to power would involve getting a nomination from his own Sri Lanka Freedom party (SLFP) to stand in parliamentary polls expected in June. The former president told the Guardian he was confident he would be wanted as a candidate.
“I am SLFPer, I have been a SLFPer all my life. Why should the party refuse me nominations? I plan to contest from the SLFP. The fact that I am a SLFPer can not be ignored,” he said.
An alternative might be to join another party that appeals to his support base. “Rajapaksa will come from a platform that will contest on a Sinhala nationalist agenda. That is where his power base is, these are the voters that never deserted him,” the aide said.
This will raise fears of increased tensions in what is an already polarised nation. Votes from the Tamil-dominated former warzone in the country’s north and from areas with large Muslim communities played a key role in Rajapaksa’s defeat. According to one report, Sirisena got nearly three-quarters of the vote in the Tamil stronghold of Kilinochchi.
In a speech this week, the new president called for unity. “Throughout history our strength as a nation has come from the mutual understanding and co-existence that made us rise together to defend our motherland,” Sirisena said.
However, Sirisena and the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, a veteran of Sri Lanka’s convoluted and bitter politics, face significant challenges. One problem is the instability of the ruling coalition. Essentially united only by a desire to oust Rajapaksa, the government needs to consolidate its hold in the national assembly at the coming elections.
Sirisena is trying to rebalance executive power by reinforcing Sri Lanka’s judiciary and parliament, while stripping the president’s office of the extensive powers accumulated under Rajapaksa. However, this will need new legislation and possibly a referendum.
There are also deep economic problems and the bruises of the 26-year war are still livid. In the closing phases of the conflict, thousands of Tamil civilians were killed in army bombardments and confused fighting with separatist extremists from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
According to Wickremasinghe, there are still more than 200 detainees loosely categorised as political prisoners in Sri Lankan jails.
Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based thinktank, said any decline in the new government’s popularity would open an opportunity for a comeback by the ousted president.
“As long as the government’s popularity keeps eroding, Rajapaksa becomes a factor, he becomes an obvious choice for disgruntled voters, especially from the majority Sinhala community,” he said.
Rajapaksa’s aide said the former president was in no hurry to mount his comeback bid. “He knows how to wait, he waited 35 years before he showed anyone he had presidential ambitions. Now he will wait till this government makes its moves,” he said.
Amantha Perera in Hambantota and Jason Burke in Delhi