Sri Lanka

Tough fight ahead

Print edition : December 26, 2014

President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Photo: ISHARA S. KODIKARA/AFP

Sri Lanka’s United Opposition: (From left) United National Party leader Ranil Wickremasinghe, presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, former Army chief Sarath Fonseka and Arjuna Ranatunga in Colombo on December 1. Photo: ISHARA S.KODIKARA/AFP

As Mahinda Rajapaksa seeks a record third term in office, the opposition, for once, is united and has the support of an influential leader of the Buddhist clergy too.

Sri Lanka is decking up for Christmas. Malls and restaurants are sporting Christmas trees and the weather is mildly colder than usual.

Adding to the usual Christmas paraphernalia are posters of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, plastered on many of Colombo’s walls. “Ape Janapathi” (Our President), they declare in Sinhala, about a month ahead of the presidential elections, scheduled for January 8. The President, in his characteristic white shirt and the traditional maroon sataka (shawl) around his neck, smiles brightly, as it were, at passers-by from the posters. Rajapaksa has been President since 2005. He is hoping for a record third term in office, and his supporters would like the words in the posters to hold good after January 8 too. But this time around, the fight may not be easy.

With one of Rajapaksa’s senior Ministers, Maithripala Sirisena, breaking ranks with the government recently to lead a common opposition platform to challenge the incumbent, and with former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe backing him fully, the political matrices appear far more complex.

Setting aside their own ideological and political differences for the moment, parties keen on ousting Rajapaksa are slowly joining hands, lending considerable energy to the opposition. It would not be surprising even if the minorities—the Tamils and the Muslims—decide to join them sooner or later. “This is a do-or-die election. If the President gets a third term, then the country has no hope,” said a senior politician requesting anonymity.

The opposition will not have it easy, though. Rajapaksa is perceived as one of the most charismatic politicians of the island. His supporters readily connect with his rural upbringing, admire his ability to reach out to people and, most importantly, see him as an invincible leader who won a three-decade-long war against terrorism.

To his fierce critics, however, Rajapaksa is a President facing disturbing war-crimes allegations. To them, he is a leader who has consolidated his power by rewriting the country’s Constitution, thereby allowing himself a third term. The country, they argue, is highly militarised and corrupt. Democratic spaces have steadily shrunk, and media and religious freedoms have been brutally threatened. Absence of the rule of law and an independent judiciary have only helped strengthen his position. Spiralling cost of living and falling incomes during his tenure in rural areas have left many sections helpless, they say. The united opposition has promised to abolish executive presidency within 100 days of assuming power. The government, on the other hand, is exploring attractive election doles. Speculation pervades the island where some of its people are still piecing together their lives after a bloody civil war. Election discourses are just shaping up. Chandrika Kumaratunga, in the first common opposition press conference, made an emotional appeal to her party’s supporters to restore the glory of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) founded by her father, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. The Rajapaksas, she charged, had destroyed the party.

The United National Party (UNP), the main opposition party, has, over the last few years, come across as a weak political party, often preoccupied with internal disputes. Its leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe, faced severe criticism from different quarters, but in September, things started looking up for him. His party gave the ruling party a tough fight in the provincial elections to the Uva Province—the SLFP won by a narrow margin—and made considerable electoral gains. Even sceptics admitted that he had made the right move by joining the common opposition platform rather than going it alone in the presidential elections.

Dismissing all these developments as pointless, a confident member of the Rajapaksa camp said: “Oh, all that won’t matter. The President is loved by the entire south. He will win.”

His confidence, however, may not be shared by everyone. The influential Buddhist monk Sobitha Thero has observed that large sections of the Sinhalese population, which the President was counting on, were quite unhappy with the Rajapaksa government. Now a member of the common opposition platform, the monk has noted that the President’s popularity, even among his Sinhala-Buddhist support base, was surely waning.

Over five years after the end of the war, Sri Lanka’s Tamils in the north are still waiting for genuine reconciliation, reconstruction and substantive devolution of power. They have better roads and power supply than they did, but rebuilding the lives of those facing the aftermath of a war cannot be just about better infrastructure.

The relatives of many Tamils who went missing after the war, allegedly because of the security forces, are still searching for them. They are desperate for some closure. Many families are yet to come to terms with the reality of having lost their dear ones, their homes, their assets and, in a sense, their hope. Heavy surveillance, intense militarisation, an ongoing crisis in agriculture and fisheries, the lack of jobs and a widespread burden of debt have taken a heavy toll on the northern population.

While it is more or less certain that the Tamils will vote against the incumbent, it is not clear how much faith they have in the available alternative. Tamil-speaking Muslims have been targeted in the last couple of years by hard-line Sinhala-Buddhist groups, who, reportedly, enjoy state patronage. Places of worship of Christians and Muslims have also been attacked. “If we stay with this government, we cannot go back to our constituency anymore,” said a Muslim politician.

Different groups have different expectations from this election. But many of them are, apparently, hoping for change. Few would talk about it openly though.

Being the sharp politician he is, President Rajapaksa would be well aware of this. Amid considerable international pressure following the U.N.-mandated international probe into the country’s human rights violations record during the war, many countries are watching the developments in Sri Lanka closely.

As a political commentator put it, “Mr Rajapaksa has many promises to keep before he makes new ones ahead of elections.”

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