Photo courtesy IPS

Today, January 8, approximately 15 million Sri Lankans will seek to elect the island’s next president at a tightly-contested presidential election.

The chosen day is a special one. It is the birth anniversary of the founder of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), S.WR.D Bandaranaike and the sixth death anniversary of Lasantha Wickrematunga, the founder editor of The Sunday Leader.

Incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa now seeks a third term as the island’s president, having removed the two-term constitutional restriction imposed on an executive president, through a 2010 constitutional amendment.

Many consider Rajapaksa to be the forerunner in the presidential race, closely followed by the common presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena, the former health minister of the Rajapaksa administration and former general secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the main constituent party of the ruling coalition.

The gap however, is said to be closing by the minute, making it a keenly-contested election.

Until Sirisena entered the fray and altered the electoral dynamics, a Rajapaksa victory was a foregone conclusion. There was lethargy among voters and a sense of déjà vu, about the possible outcome of the presidential election, held two years ahead of schedule.

For victory, President Rajapaksa heavily leans on the military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), achieved in May 2009, ending 27 years of war. His additional credentials include road and other infrastructure development, achieved during his nine-year rule.

In contrast, the common presidential candidate, Maithripala Sirisena has linked his campaign to issues of governance, including the need to address nepotism, corruption and financial mismanagement during the Rajapaksa rule. Unsurprisingly, Sirisena’s campaign appeared to gather momentum even at its final stages.

Following the announcement of Sirisena as the common presidential candidate, there was a series of defections from the ruling coalition to the opposition, in support of Sirisena’s candidature, taking Rajapaksa and his government by surprise. As one government minister privately commented: “It was a huge shock when Sirisena defected. The issues he raised, however, are only too familiar.”

Sirisena’s rainbow coalition finds within its folds, the main opposition party, United National Party (UNP), ultra nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and others. Two ethnic-based political parties, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) publicly expressed thier support to Sirisena last week.

The mass crossovers to the opposition have enraged the ruling administration, prompting President Rajapaksa to repeatedly declare from his political platform that he would never allow the dissidents to return. Outraged he may be by Sirisena’s decision to turn on his former leader and the politically party of which he was a a member since the tender age of 17, but it may be wiser for Rajapaksa to turn the search light inwards and analyze why his own flock has suddenly decided to desert his camp.

It is not as if Maithripala Sirisena, a simple villager who has risen within the SLFP ranks to reach top positions, holds the island enthralled. Instead, what he represents in terms of ideas and promises, matter to a large majority of the people who have silently observed an elected president turn increasingly authoritarian and triumphalist.

“Irrespective of the final electoral outcome, there are reasons for Sirisena’s electoral gains so far, some of which Rajapaksa may have to regret at leisure,” notes UNP parliamentarian, Harsha de Silva.

Indeed, there appear to be many reasons for regret within the Rajapaksa camp.

The incumbency has caused serious disappointment to the rank and file by the concentration of power within the UPFA itself. While publicly unexpressed, there are many within the government who feel that the Rajapaksas control both the administration and the economy in a manner that does not allow any role for others. Ministers have been reduced to mere rubber stamps whose role is to agree and approve decisions, in contrast to the powerful role played by ministers in the past. If anyone enjoyed political clout, there is no argument that such persons were either Rajapaksas themselves or those closely associated with them. Maihripala Sirisena is therefore, the embodiment of the disillusionment felt by many others within the administration who did not enjoy the privileged position of a few.

The victory over the Liberation Tigers has made Rajapaksa invincible, contributing to his own conviction that he is an uncrowned king and not to be questioned, and his actions, only to be applauded by his loyal subjects.

The administration has, in a calculated manner, also suppressed ethnic and religious minorities, contributing to their growing insecurity and the fear of the unknown.

If the war victory resulted in driving fear into the minds of the ethnic and religious minorities, there were no genuine attempts made to achieve reconciliation in a country that had experienced nearly three decades of war.

Instead, there was new room created for the growth of groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena(BBS), a fringe extremist Sinhala outfit, going on the rampage, with their twin achievements being the shame it brought upon the government that directly or indirectly blessed its behaviour, and its efforts to portray the Sinhalese as extremists out to crush other identities. With the shifting of loyalties just days ahead of the election, the island’s two main minority political parties have sent a strong message to the incumbency.

In his post-war euphoria, Rajapaksa whose main constituency is in the south, has overlooked the political crisis he may have to face, in the event of a strong swing by ethnic minorities, which could create a serious dent in his popular base.

There would be many who feel that only Rajapaksa had the determination to bring the war to end, style and consequences notwithstanding. They may also concede that despite allegations of corruption and embezzlement, this administration has contributed to the development of the island’s infrastructure, specially rail and road connectivity.

Yet, there may be others who feel that while road and rail connectivity was being achieved, the incumbency has severed connectivity among the island’s communities that lived in harmony for decades, causing serious divisions on ethno-religious lines.

It is that negative difference that has fuelled an electorate’s call for a political change, perhaps at great risk, still with the hope that a new administration may have the political maturity to tolerate dissent and celebrate a plural Sri Lankan identity.

  • Malawi Sooriyage

    Appriciate maturity of article…….

  • CitizenKane

    Intelligence report predictions are MR 52.03% to 49.12% @ projected loss scores, AND Singapore Think Tank prediction MS 56.51% to 47.85% @ linear regression? score adjusted to gains in ground.

  • disgustman

    This PE is not a matter of exchanging SLFPer to another, but a change to good governance. MRs claim can be
    settled by giving him a Nobel Prize (Chinese made) and with that he should go home instead of a 3rd Term. The
    Statement by a fraternity of Teachers sums up MRs track-record:, which makes anyone voting MR a lunatic.

    (Statement by the United Front Of The Peradeniya University Lectueres And Alumni)

    “Friends, time has come to educate one another about the massive corruption that
    happens in Sri Lanka under the Present Regime. The Executive has taken the lead
    in this process resulting in massive debt, virtually mortgaging our mother land
    to foreign countries. Each individual and even the unborn in Sri Lanka owes
    close to Rs 400,000.00 as debt to China and other lending agencies. Country is
    in the threshold of bankruptcy. Today more than 50% parliament members have not
    even passed the O/L examination. Present regime has no respect for education.
    Country’s development could be achieved only by educating people. We emphasise
    that more than 6% of the GDP need to be allocated for education, which the
    emerging new leadership has promised. Hence we strongly feel that the present
    regime should be removed for a more thoughtful, compassionate and considerate
    leadership to take reins to spearhead this beautiful nation to be a DEVELOPED
    NATION devoid of corruption, family favouritism and protected independent
    Judiciary. This Government ……… 1. Promised that the presidential system will be
    repealed, in the “Mahinda Chinthanaya”, instead extended the number of times a
    president could contest from two times to unlimited. 2. Robbed around 95
    Million LKR from the “Tsunami” fund ( Helping Hambantota ) donated by the
    Japanese government. This was his first political robbery apart from what he
    made as the Minister of Fisheries. 3. Let all the ministers of his cabinet to
    rob at their will, hence he could blackmail them. He turned a blind eye when
    his Prime Minister imported Drugs and few members of his cabinet importing
    illegal ethanol and drugs. 4. Alienated the country towards China resulting in
    India developing bitterness with Sri Lanka. 5. Obtained loans from China at
    rates higher than Libor (London Interbank Offered Rate) to earn commissions.
    These commissions in billions were routed to Swiss bank accounts via
    Seychelles, where MR opened a branch of Bank of Ceylon and also an Embassy in a
    country where only 92000 thousand people live. Sri Lankan airline flies to Seychelles.
    6. Built a port where no ships come. Air Port where no Airplanes land. He made
    billions of commissions doing these projects. 7. Made money building Roads :
    The cost per km of the Outer Circular Highway from Kadawatha to Kerawalapitiya
    financed by China is US$ 56 m(Rs.7.3billion) This cost is three times higher
    than the Kottawa Kaduwela extension of the Southern Highway financed by Japan
    ,which is Rs.2.4 billion per km. 8. The cost per km of Extension of the
    Southern Highway from Mattala to Hambantota will cost Rs.2.14billion, whereas
    per km cost of the Southern Highway cost only Rs.975m 9. Bid price of A9 road
    was Rs.140 m per km when the departmental estimate for an A class road was Rs.
    20m. 10. Construction of the Norochchole Coal Power Project was awarded to a
    well- established Chinese contractor at US$280.00M in 2005 by the previous
    regime. Soon after present regime came into power it cancelled the contract and
    awarded it to another inexperienced Chinese firm at US$520 million-almost
    double the previous price. Plant is inoperative even after 2years of
    completion. 11. On a dispute between Essential Services Commissioner and Asset
    Maritime (Pvt) Ltd arbitrator-a retired High Court Judge awarded Rs.600,000.00
    as compensation to the company. A Committee appointed by the President on the
    intervention of the First Lady awarded Rs.180 million to this company owned by
    Dhammika Perera and Nishantha Wickramasinghe- latter being a brother of First
    Lady. 12. Due to the ill-conceived Hedging deal of the Ceylon Petroleum
    Corporation headed by Asantha de Mel (a person connected to the political
    establishment) lost Rs. 230 billion in2007. No one has been held accountable
    for huge loss of public funds. 13. Failed to initiate investigations on 29
    journalists murdered or disappeared. Lasantha W, Pradeep Eknaligoda 14. Failed
    to initiate investigations into the deaths of Members of Parliament 1. Raviraj
    and one other. 15. Appointed 38 numbers of the Presidents family and extended
    family, to diplomatic missions. 16. Turned a blind eye on losses at Mihin Air
    to the tune of 6-8 Billion, made by his closest buddy Sajin vas Gunawardane who
    had been criminally charged previously. He appointed his brother in Law
    Nishantha Wickramasinghe to Sri Lankan Airlines who has no formal education and
    made losses to the tune of Rs 70 billion to date. 17. Influenced the judiciary
    to President’s benefit. Impeached the 43rd Chief Justice for no reason. Makes
    judicial appointments to his benefit. 18. Allows Presidents children to play
    (Car races) on the streets of Colombo at their will by closing roads. He over
    ruled Mahanayake Theroes to hold car races for his children in Kandy town. 19.
    Failed to nominate Election, Police, Public Service and Judicial services
    commissions. 20. Udayanga Weeratunga – Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia. Cousin
    of President Rajapakse. Accused of involving in a shady deal to purchase MIG
    Fighters for the Sri Lankan Air force. 21. Paid 700.00Million rupees to
    Prabhakaran to purchase weapons to kill innocent Sinhalese using Karuna Amman
    who is now a deputy Minister and a Vice President of the SLFP. He uses Kumar
    Pathmanathan alias LTTE arms dealer to his personal benefit. 22. How Karuna was
    sent to London “ On August 30, 2007 the Department of Immigration and Emigration
    issued a diplomatic passport number D1944260 in the name of “Kokila Dushmantha
    Gunawardena” whose occupation on the passport was given as Director General of
    Wildlife Conservation. The photograph on the passport was that of Karuna Amman.
    The Department of Immigration, it is pertinent to note, comes under the
    Ministry of Defence, Public Security, Law and Order of which Gotabaya Rajapakse
    is Secretary and President Rajapakse the Minister”. 23. Failed to conduct an
    impartial inquiry into killing of around 43 prisoners at the Welikada Prison.
    24. Did nothing to improve the economy and failed to introduce workers charter.
    Economy in shambles. 25. Arranged for his son to sit for the Law exams in an
    isolated air-conditioned room, away from the other candidates. 26. Killed
    protesters in Rathupaswala (8), Free Trade Zone (1) and Chilaw (4). He used
    maximum force on all protestors.”