Mahinda Rajapaksa faces grim battle for survival in presidential polls
Colombo: Mahinda Rajapaksa, hero of the military victory over the LTTE that earned him a second term without fuss in 2010, is now locked in a grim battle for survival in this week’s presidential election, facing strong internal revolt.
Capping the revolt is a series of defections including the desertion by his health minister and General Secretary of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Maithripala Sirisena, who is now his challenger in the January 8 polls.
69-year-old Rajapaksa, who amended constitution soon after his victory in 2010 to give himself a third term, for once looks vulnerable and less assured of victory after the defections to the fragmented opposition ranks.
A confident Rajapaksa had called the election two years head of schedule, hoping to win a record third six-year term before the defeat of Tigers fades in the memory of the people of the island which saw a three decades war over the demand of a separate Tamil Eelam.
The next day, though, Sirisena – who had publicly called for Rajapaksa to run again – made his own surprise announcement of walking out on him and to challenge him.
That set off a wave of political turmoil and energised a long-dispirited opposition that had not been looking forward to the election.
Achala Jagoda became the 26th legislator to join the opposition unity candidate 63-year-old Sirisena in the endless stream of defections.
Both the president and his challenger belong to the majority Sinhala Buddhist community and much depends on how the minorities Tamils and Muslims vote in the elections.
Muslim parties and groups had major grievances over the handling of the anti-Muslim violence last year.
“One family has captured the country’s economy, wealth, administration and the management of the political party,” says Sirisena as he campaigns for an end to the vice-like grip the president and his family members have over the system.
Rajapaksa’s brothers – Gotabhaya and Basil – are defence and economic ministers respectively besides a number of his family members who are holding key posts and positions.
So confident was the President that he called elections two years ahead of schedule but may now be regretting why he was in a hurry.
Things began to turn wrong for him from that point. The opposition argument over his eligibility to contest a third term was rubbished by the judiciary.
Unknown to him, the joint opposition was having secret meetings to plot a serious plan to see the end of the Rajapaksa aura.
The President ignored an early warning from his key ally the Buddhist nationalist JHU or the Heritage Party. The JHU support was key to Rajapaksa’s wafer thin win in 2005 for his first term.
The party of the Buddhist clergy urged Rajapaksa to implement urgent democratic reforms before the snap poll. The 19th amendment envisages a less powerful presidency, reforms in electoral, judicial and public service – in a nutshell to break the shackles of what his detractors called the authoritarianism of the President’s rule.
The JHU policy maker and Rajapaksa’s minister of technological research, Champika Ranawaka was a powerful defender of the Rajapaksa regime. He bolstered the opposition effort to find a common candidate and significantly caused the erosion of Rajapaksa’s Sinhala majority rural base.
Cometh the hour cometh the man – Sirisena left the government along with two other Cabinet colleagues.
Hailing from the rural north central province, he appears even more grounded than Rajapaksa. He does not speak English, is ever seen in the national dress unlike the President who only turned to it after becoming the Prime Minister.
Sirisena has no background of hobnobbing with the Colombo elite and socialites. No old boy of a leading Colombo school, he is more than a match for Rajapaksa’s rural appeal.
“Crossovers weakened Rajapaksa’s front line team, leaving ministers of low quality and lacking integrity, whose delivery is ineffective and poor. Like rats abandoning a sinking ship, more crossovers will further erode Rajapaksa’s credibility before a wary electorate,” columnist Dushy Ranetunga wrote.
“The impact of the crossovers means that the opposition has been able to show the door of defeat to Rajapaksa at the very outset of the campaign,” Victor Ivan of the influential ‘Ravaya’ tabloid said.
The incumbent has so far suffered the loss of 26 from his two thirds parliamentary strength of 161 in the 225-member assembly. They include an assortment of majority and minority community politicians of standing.
In essence symptomatic of the Rajapaksa rule of power politics and the resultant internal discontent.
Among them is Prof Rajiva Wijesinghe, a staunch Rajapaksa defender in the international fora on the administration’s human rights accountability.
Duminda Dissanayake from rural Anuradhapura is a younger face representing the SLFP’s old guard. Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne, a long standing Rajapaksa family aide, and Navin Dissanayake, a youthful main opposition defector to the President at his peak of popularity.
All of them can be a thorn on the side in their own ways. The minority party defections which the Rajapaksa camp seemed to take as inevitable and argue to be of little impact on the contrary adds to the ground swell of support for Sirisena.
The main Muslim party and the main Tamil party, TNA were both in the opposition camp when Rajapaksa won a convincing 58 per cent of the vote in 2010 for his second term.
In a bid to woo the Tamils, Rajapaksa campainged in Vavuniya and appealed to the people there to vote “a known devil instead of an unknown angel”.
High-profile defections at national level apart, the ruling party has suffered a host of defections to the opposition camp from their second and third tier political leadership.
“The majority community grass roots sense the end of the Rajapaksa’s time,” an opposition activist commented.
In the rural heartland the incumbent stands tall on the visibility – high spending in decorations, life size cut outs. Yet the President loses support under his feet according to the opposition.
Overwhelming minority opposition and a serious erosion of his favourite Sinhala majority voter base has made Rajapaksa’s re-election bid hang in balance as the campaign entered its final phase.
But while it is Rajapaksa’s biggest electoral challenge since he came to power in 2005, he still has immense advantages, from popularity among the majority Sinhala ethnic group – which makes up more than 70 per cent of the country’s 21 million people.
Plus, the economy has been growing since the end of the civil war, although there are complaints that it has not reached the grassroots.