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.