Sri Lanka’s current President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved, on 26th June, 2015, the parliament, which was headed by Prime Minister Wickramasinghe’s United National Party (UNP) in alliance with Sirisena faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). This dissolution has opened a window for a political comeback of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former Sri Lankan President. The election is due on 17th August, 2015. It is taking place ten months earlier than the expected period.
Rajapaksa was the sixth President of Sri Lanka, who served as President for two terms (first: 2005 to 2010; Second: 2010 to 2015). In his attempt for third term in 2015, he was defeated by Sirisena, a former minister of his cabinet. Rajapaksa also served as Prime Minister for a short period between 2004 and 2005 before his first victory in presidential election.
During Rajapaksa’s presidency, he crushed the 26-year old Tamil insurgency with the help of China. His victory made him a champion among the Sinhalese, the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka. General people have been experiencing the sense of living in a stable and secured environment since the end of the war. Change in security atmosphere paved way for significant increase in tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka. According to the tourism officials of the country, tourist arrivals grew by an impressive 50 percent just months after the war ended.
During Rajapaksa’s presidency, Chinese companies were awarded a number of development and infrastructural projects in Sri Lanka. China built ports, airports, highways and power plants in Sri Lanka and also provided more than $5 billiion in loans. During his term, Chinese submarines were allowed to dock in the Colombo port. Sri Lanka’s intimacy with China, which is India’s regional rival and the U.S.’s global rival, had angered India and annoyed the U.S to such an extent that they pursued a regime change in Sri Lanka during January’s presidential election, as alleged by Rajapaksa and a section of international and Sri Lankan analysts.
During January’s presidential election, Rajapaksa’s opposition campaigned heavily against him for suspected corruption, violent intimidation of political opponents, attacks on journalists, human right violations during war against LTTE, triggering rise in sectarian violence and total abuse of power.
Rajapaksa’s opposition criticized him for irregularities and corruptions related to the Chinese projects during his tenure. Sirisena’s new government suspended Colombo Port City Development project worth $1.5 billion that was awarded to China. Sirisena ordered a review of other Chinese projects and loans in response to the accusations of corruption. Sirisena made his first foreign trip to India, in the quest of restoring relationship that was damaged because of India’s annoyance over China-Sri Lanka intimacy. Sirisena annoyed the economic giant China only to win the trust of India & the U.S. However, Sirisena visited China at the first quarter of 2015 to balance the relationships with both sides – China and India-U.S.
President Sirisena has been struggling to consolidate his position within his own party SLFP, which is full with Rajapaksa loyalists. However, he gave in to pressure from his own party to grant Rajapaksa the nomination in the parliamentary elections to stand for the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which is led by SLFP. Sirisena rejected any possibility for Rajapaksa’s prime ministerial candidacy. However, Rajapaksa declared that if his SLFP wins a majority, he will seek the post of prime minister.
Wimal Weerawanse, a member of parliament and a former Minister to Rajapaksa’s government, stated that Rajapaksa should come back to win the freedom the Sinhalees are losing now. Rajapaksa always knew that the sense of superiority of the Sinhalese nationalism among the Sinhalese remains extreme. He and his loyalists did not fall short of capitalizing on this issue for his election campaign.
Rajapaksa’s camp never forgets to remind the Sri Lankans of the harsh days of civil war and how Rajapaksa appeared as a saviour to end the long civil war. He won the hearts of Sri Lankans with the victory over LTTE.
Rajapaksa has been trying to convince his audience at large that his attempt to comeback to politics relates to the safeguard of the nation. He criticizes the UNP government for undermining national security and intimidating to split the island. During a rally, he warned the Sri Lankans that the victory against the LTTE is in jeopardy today, accusing the government of making way for the LTTE to reorganize and revive. Rajapaksa claims that 59 out of 159 military camps in Tamil populated Jaffna peninsula was removed, paving the way for revival of Tamil separatists. Rajapaksa’s accusations would make people trust no other camps than that of Rajapaksa in regard to security and stability of the country as people, by such accusations, would be reminded of the days of sufferings, tensions and instability inside the country during the civil war.
Besides the issue of victory over LTTE, Rajapaksa is also capitalizing on the failures of Sirisena and weak UNP government. Sirisena came to power with the pledge of eliminating corruption and abuse of power from the political sphere. His key word and idea of January’s presidential election campaign was “good governance.” After he became president, the only visible promise he fulfilled from his election manifesto was the 19th amendment, and that is that. The good governance remained in hopes and statements; but in reality, no visible steps are seen to be taken to turn such idea into practice and reality.
Because of its lack of majority in parliament, the government was running with slow pace and could not take the decisions that were required to be taken. This factor was responsible for continuing deadlock in the parliament and was weakening the credibility of the government. Thus, government failed to convey tangible results to the public perception. Rajapaksa has been trying to capitalise on such public perceptions too.
Prior to granting nominations to Rajapaksa, President Sirisena directed his party (SLFP) members that they should not take part in any rallies in support of Rajapaksa’s comeback bid. But, in defiance of such direction, nearly one third of the total members of parliament, mostly from SLFP, attended Rajapaksa’s rally in mid-June. Moreover, huge crowds in Rajapaksa’s public meetings reflect his growing support against President Sirisena, who has been viewed by many Sinhalese as a weak leader.
The propaganda of Rajapaksa being autocratic cannot simply defeat a nationalist leader like Rajapaksa. Even if, say, the propaganda was true for once, a politician like Rajapaksa, whom the majority of Sri Lankans viewed as the saviour from the insecurity, instability and civil war, cannot be defeated simply because his rule was autocratic. It is the geopolitical issues that caused the regime change during January’s presidential elections.
Sri Lanka’s Intimacy with China during Rajapaksa’s tenure made the U.S. and its ally India concerned regarding their global and regional interests, respectively. It was necessary for the U.S. to make Sri Lanka fall into its political orbit. The U.S. had to do so in order to undermine China’s growing influence in the region. The U.S. seeks to do so by encircling China militarily through installing military inputs in countries that surrounds China, and by ensuring that not-so-warm relationships exist between China and those surrounding countries. Such U.S. policy is well referred to as ‘China Containment policy.’ Such a policy also goes in line with India’s vision of remaining a regional power by countering China’s influence in the region every now and then.
On the otherhand, India claims that China’s installation and development of facilities around the Indian Ocean to secure its own economic interests are also intended to counter the possibility of India becoming a strong economic power. In addition, the U.S. accuses China of having the intension of installing military inputs in the Indian Oceanic region, naming it ‘String of Pearls’ strategy of China.
UN report on war time abuses
The timing of the parliamentary elections is very important. The US-sponsored resolution at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR) in March last year established an international inquiry into human rights abuses during the final phase of the war against the Tamil insurgency in 2009. The UNHCR is expected to release the inquiry report in September this year. UN sources specified that as much as 40,000 Tamils civilians may have been killed in the final months of the fighting between Sri Lankan armed forces and LTTE (Tamil rebel forces), and largely blamed it on government shelling.
U.S. support for the inquiry is quite suspicious. Although the U.S. supported Rajapakse’s war against the LTTE, it raised the issue of human rights as a way of forcing Rajapaksa to distance himself from China. But Rajapaska’s supporters believe that a negative report for Rajapaksa may make Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese community perceive that he stood up to foreigners’ interfere in his efforts to secure national interests.
- In July this year, Sirisena declared that even if the SLFP wins a majority in the coming election, he would not appoint Rajapaksa as prime minister. On wining the majority, if Sirisena remains reluctant on this decision, it may instigate a major political, and perhaps constitutional, crisis after the election. This is because, although Sirisena is the head of SLFP, it is Rajapaksa who has good number of loyalists within the party. However, if Sirisena gives in to the pressure from his own party to accept Rajapaksa as prime minister, this would mean a troubled cohabitation of Rajapaksa as prime minister and Sirisena as president.
- With a history of bringing billions of dollars of foreign investments from China, creating a huge number of employments in Chinese projects and ending the suffocating war by defeating the LTTE, Rajapaksa is the candidate that most Sri Lankans, especially the Sinhalese, would not refrain from choosing in the coming election. Infact, Rajapaksa was the most popular candidate in this year’s January presidential election. But it was the geopolitical efforts that conspired his defeat in January’s presidential race and again such conspiracy could be the reason for his defeat in parliamentary election. Without such geopolitical issues, Rajapaksa sure would have won in presidential election in January. But unfortunately, we live in a globalized world, where although Sri Lanka is a separate island geographically, but it’s not separate from the global political and economic sphere. Therefore, Rajapaksa’s fate is too much connected with the geopolitics of the region.
Bahauddin Foizee is an international affairs analyst, and writes on Middle Eastern, greater Asia-Pacific & European geopolitics. Also a campaigner for environmental and social awareness, Bahauddin Foizee occasionally writes on environment and refugee issues.