Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s former President, is known as a king and dictator among his supporters and opponents.
He, however, holds the feather in his cap for militarily defeating one of the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfits, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during his reign in 2009.
After having lost the January 2015 presidential election by 449,072 votes, Rajapaksa is trying to make a comeback in the August 17 parliamentary elections.
This time, Rajapaksa, who was President for nine years in Sri Lanka, is contesting not from his southern hometown of Hambantota. Instead, he is contesting from the Kurunegala electoral district in the North Western Province of Sri Lanka where he cannot cast his own vote.
Rajapaksa’s media coordinator Rohan Welivita told Asia Times that his leader’s decision to contest from Kurunegala was because he wanted to develop Kurunegala, the same way he developed Hambantota.
Today, Hambantota is home to an international port, highways, and a massive conference centre, most of which are not, however, bringing in any economic benefit to the people. The airport is virtually defunct with no flights coming in.
“We are very confident Rajapaksa will win the election and form a government under the UPFA,” Welivita said.
Rajapaksa’s hope of becoming the next prime minister is shot down by Sirisena who holds the party leadership. Sirisena, in his address to the nation on July 14, said there are other senior party leaders who are more suitable to hold that post.
Political sources say there is another reason that led Rajapaksa to contest from the predominantly Sinhalese Kurunegala district.
He had secured 556,868 (53.5%) votes against Sirisena’s 476,602 (45.8%) at the presidential election in January.
Kurunegala is the third largest electoral district after Colombo, and Gampaha, which was secured by Sirisena at the presidential election. Incidentally, this is the first time a former president, who was defeated in a presidential election, is seeking a parliamentary seat in Sri Lanka.
In a Q & A session on Facebook on July 23, Rajapaksa, citing reasons for his decision to make a comeback, said: “I was ready to retire. But thousands of people came to see me during the past few months, and this was their request. The people want me to serve the country I love. I cannot ignore this request …. My commitment to Sri Lanka and all its communities is still unwavering.”
However, Rajapaksa is not popular among the Tamil and Muslim minorities, which account for 22 percent of the population. It was during his presidency radical Buddhist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena were formed which launched a series of tirades against Muslims in the country.
Like Muslims, the Tamil community too is upset with Rajapaksa as he did not make any genuine effort to address their grievances after the conflict with LTTE ended in 2009.
Sri Lanka’s main parties, the United National Front (UNF) led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the main opposition party United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) under which Rajapaksa is contesting, have released their respective election manifestos offering a bonanza of goodies to voters — from good governance to safeguarding the sovereignty of the country as well as salary increases to price reduction.
Addressing voters on July 23, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said his party (UNF) aimed to create a new country in 60 months with his five-point program.
“Our primary aim is to remove poverty from the country and allow the youth to progress. We have to move away from family rule and make the future of everyone secure,” he said.
Rajapaksa, during his rule, had come under constant attack for allowing his immediate family to hold powerful positions in the country.
His brother Gotabaya was the secretary to the defense ministry. Another brother Basil was made minister of economic development. Chamal, his elder brother, was made speaker of Parliament. Several other relatives were given key positions in various powerful organisations as well as in diplomatic missions, ignoring more qualified individuals.
The UNF manifesto aims to create 1 million jobs, fight corruption, ensure freedom for all, and invest in infrastructure to make the western province of Sri Lanka a mega city of South Asia.
The UPFA manifesto titled ‘A Guarantee for the future’ says it will recommence 58,000 stalled development projects, thereby giving more job opportunities, reduce prices of essential commodities, increase the wages of public sector employees and provide financial allowance for youth and protect the sovereignty of the country.
Speaking at the launch of the manifesto, Rajapaksa said, “It appears that people have once again placed their faith in us. Today, we are thinking anew, and we have people with us who love this country, and we will create a country which is new, and united.”
Rajapaksa said that once the UPFA regains power at the parliamentary elections, they will launch a program to develop all cities in the country and ensure a cleaner and more developed Colombo, the commercial capital of Sri Lanka.
“We are not a front portraying different ideologies, we are a single front which is against the United National Party (Front), and we are a front that loves our country,” he said.
The run-up to the election did not limit to just verbal attacks between the two main political opponents. It also witnessed the first ever pre-election killing. On July 31, an armed gang clad in black opened fire on supporters of UNF candidate and finance minister Ravi Karunanayake during an election campaign. A woman was killed and 12 were injured.
Soon after the incident, Karunanayake tweeted: “This was an attack on the people who support good governance. We will not allow the Rajapaksas to raise their heads again.”
Munza Mushtaq is a senior journalist based in Sri Lanka, and former news editor of The Nation and The Sunday Leader newspapers
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