The rise and fall of Mahinda Rajapaksa

Nothing has been going right for Sri Lanka’s powerful ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa this year.

Sri Lankan voters have rejected his authoritarian rule

Sri Lankan voters rejected his authoritarian rule

First he lost the presidential election in January to his former health minister Maithripala Sirisena, then took a further beating Aug 17 when he lost to his political rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe who won the parliamentary election and took oath as Prime Minister on Aug 21.

Rajapaksa, considered as Sri Lanka’s most powerful politician during the past decade, was convinced he would take on the political reins once again if his United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won the majority of the 225 seats in the country’s legislature.

However, his hopes were dashed as his party was able to secure only 95 seats while Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) won 106 seats with the remaining 24 seats being shared by other political parties.

In a surprise move, this time Rajapaksa contested from the Kurunegala district in the country’s North Western province, instead of his traditional seat, his hometown of Hambantota in the South.

He expected to put up a stellar performance as Kurunegala has a predominantly Sinhalese voter base. But he failed to make an overwhelming impact as his party secured just eight seats, including one for himself, against UNP’s seven seats.

Rajapaksa, however, topped the preferential vote list in the Kurunegala district with 423,529, but not enough to create a record. His rival Wickremesinghe, who contested from Colombo, set a new record by securing 500,566 votes, the highest ever preferential votes polled by any candidate at a parliamentary election in Sri Lanka.

Rajapaksa’s dwindling popularity has been connected to many factors, the chief among them being rising corruption, his authoritarian rule, and cases of abduction and killing of his government’s critics, including journalists.

His failure to address the grievances of the Tamil community for more than five years after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was defeated, and the rise of Buddhist radical groups such as Bodu Bala Sena, which launched attacks on the Muslim community, did not auger well for voters which eventually reflected during the past two elections.

Dr Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council, an independent advocacy links group, says the sense of insecurity felt by ethnic and religious minorities during Rajapaksa’s period, along with his gross abuse of power, corruption and impunity led to his election defeat.

“Rajapaksa lost this election because the ethnic and religious minorities were totally against him. The election results closely paralleled the results of the presidential elections. The UPFA won in the predominantly Sinhalese rural and suburban areas. But even there, its majorities were reduced compared with the past. He lost heavily wherever there was an ethnically mixed population,” he said.

“The main reason for this was the sense of insecurity felt by the ethnic and religious minorities during his period, with the rise in attacks against the Muslims, their places of religious worship and businesses by nationalist Buddhist monks, accompanied by police inaction,” he said.

The second term of Rajapaksa’s presidency witnessed gross abuse of power and rising corruption.

One example was the way he sacked the Chief Justice. There was also a climate of fear that affected those who were political dissenters. People were afraid to voice their opinion even on the telephone

“Politically conscious urban voters, civil society and ethnic minorities combined to deny the UPFA a majority,” he said.

However, despite his defeat, Rajapaksa said he will continue to engage in politics in keeping with the people’s mandate.

“I will function within parliament to safeguard the nation and the democratic system,” he said.

Incidentally, Rajapaksa will be the first ex-President in Sri Lanka to reverse roles from holding the highest office in the country and returning as a parliamentarian.

Dr. Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, founder of the Point Pedro Institute of Development, a research organization based in northern Sri Lanka, noted that the Rajapaksa mystique had been waning slowly but surely since the 2012 Eastern Provincial elections.

“Of course, the minority communities all around the country felt that not only Rajapaksa failed to address the ethnic problem politically in spite of the unprecedented popular support he enjoyed after the victory over the LTTE, but in fact he has been fueling further polarisation of Sri Lanka that was reflected in the Aluthgama riots against the Muslims in June 2014, which was completely swept under the carpet without helping the victims and ensuring such incidences does not re-occur again,” he said.

Enlightened voters dismissed rumours about the resurgence of LTTE and its possible threat to national security if a non-UPFA government comes to power

“The presidential election in January 2015 and the Parliamentary elections in August 2015 have proved that the people of Sri Lanka are much more knowledgeable and enlightened than the Rajapaksa family and cabal thinks,” Dr  Sarvananthan said.

The next few months will be crucial for the Wickremesinghe-led government. But he knows what he wants and how to achieve it.

He has promised a ‘new Sri Lanka in 60 months’ which centres at developing the economy, fighting corruption, ensuring freedom for all, investing in infrastructure and improving the education system.

Although Wickremesinghe’s party secured 106 seats in parliament, it was short of the 113 seat majority which is necessary to form a government, and he has invited all parties including the UPFA to form a national government.

It is unlikely Rajapaksa or his loyalists will play any role in the coalition government. The National government will comprise of UPFA parliamentarians who are loyal to President Sirisena, who is the chairman of the party.

Dr Perera believes Wickremesinghe will have an uphill task as he will be leading a potentially fractious coalition of parties, which includes Sinhalese hardliners, Tamil and Muslim parties and those who have crossed over from the UPFA.

“This will make it more difficult for the new government to tackle the fundamental problems of the country. The government faces difficult challenges,” he said.

The new government needs to revive the economy that became debt-ridden especially to China, and cope with the international attention on what happened in terms of human rights violations at the final stage of the war against the LTTE which ended in 2009.

“The new government also needs to address long standing grievances of the Tamils. If it starts to falter on any of these challenges, the Rajapaksa-led opposition can seek to make a comeback,” he said.

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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