17 Aug 2015

Sri Lanka elections: Rajapaksa’s return?

Sri Lankans finish voting to elect a new parliament in what could herald a comeback for ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa, a man accused of overseeing war crimes at the end of the country’s civil war.

Mahinda Rajapaksa

Above: a poster of Mahinda Rajapaksa

Though this election will not see Rajapaksa return to his post as president, which he lost to former ally Maithripala Sirisena in elections earlier this year, he has set his signs on the post of prime minister.

What is the election about?

When President Sirisena came to power in January 2015 he promised a 100-day programme of reform, after which he would dissolve parliament and call new elections.

The elections will decide the make-up of the Sri Lankan parliament, and pit the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), of which Mr Rajapaksa was once leader, against the United National Party (UNP) of Ranil Wickremsinghe. Other parties such as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the largest party representing Sri Lanka’s Tamil population, are also competing.

President Sirisena will appoint a prime minister after the elections, and depending on how successful he is, this could be Mr Rajapaksa.

How come Rajapaksa is back?

The former “strongman” president never went away, and he still has a lot of support within the SLFP – support that is important to President Sirisena.

In January Mr Sirisena turned on his ally and was put up as the “common candidate”, using support of opposition parties including the UNP and TNA to win the election.

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena

Above: Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena

Mr Sirisena won on a campaign that he would reverse the corruption and nepotism alleged to have dominated Mr Rajapaksa’s era. His Tamil backers also hoped that removing Rajapaksa would mean a greater chance for justice in relation to alleged war crimes that took place at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, when Mr Rajapaksa was president.

However, Mr Rajapaksa still maintains popularity with Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority, and is painted by some as a war hero for crushing the brutal LTTE group, also known as the Tamil Tigers.

What are Rajapaksa’s chances?

Mr Rajapaksa is standing in the northwestern Kurungela district – a stronghold of Buddhist Sinhala support and is therefore likely to win his seat as an MP.

If Mr Rajapaksa and his coalition of backers win a landslide then President Sirisena would be under pressure to appoint his rival as prime minister.

Above: Mahinda Rajapaksa casts his vote

However, in a letter last week President Sirisena told Mr Rajapaksa that he would not appoint him as prime minister whatever the outcome of the election.

“It is not you who should become prime minister but another senior member of our party,” he wrote.

Mr Sirisena has also, in recent days, carried out a purge of Rajapaksa loyalists within the party.

If the UNP has a strong showing in the elections, it is likely that President Sirisena will seek to form a unity government with his supporters and the Mr Wickremsinghe’s party – sending Mr Rajapaksa to the opposition benches.

However, Mr Rajapaksa has been projecting an air of confidence. After voting in his hometown of Hambantota, the former president said: “We will win, that is certain. My message is to remain calm and peacefully enjoy the victory.”

What does it mean if Rajapaksa succeeds?

Under Sirisena a number of measures have been put in place to tackle corruption and improve Sri Lanka’s relationship with the west and India.

Mr Sirisena is also using his presidency to reverse changes Mr Rajapaksa made that increased the power of the president’s office.

It is feared that if Mr Rajapaksa is appointed prime minister, he will use his power in parliament to block such reforms and thwart President Sirisena’s ambitions.

The small steps that Sri Lanka has made towards investigating allegations of war crimes against the Tamil people at the end of the war would also be at risk, Tamils fear.

And it also raises the prospect that a UN-backed investigation into war crimes would be investigated in partnership with Mr Rajapaksa, as revealed in a Channel 4 News exclusive last month.