Sri Lanka’s parliamentary elections could see the return to the political centre stage of its former strongman president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
In January he lost the presidency to a former ally, who also took the leadership of Rajapaksa’s party, the SLFP. President Maithripala Sirisena says he won’t lead it again.
Rajapaksa’s 10 years in power began in 2004. Now he wants to be prime minister. But Sirisena has forged a cross-party alliance led by the rival United National party, and sought to weaken the presidency and reform government. He wants to end Sri Lanka’s long history of political feuding.
Rajapaska’s trump card is his victorious waging of war against the minority Tamil separatists. Six years ago he ended 26 years of bloody civil war by storming the Tamil Tiger’s last bastion, but not before it had cost at least 70,000 lives, with 140,000 people unaccounted for. It was a victory tainted with accusations of a massacre, and in the aftermath Rajapaksa put the accent on triumph, not reconciliation, and behaved in an increasingly autocratic fashion.
He proclaimed victory before parliament, claiming it for all of Sri Lanka’s ethnic groups.
“I am addressing this session of parliament at a historic time of ridding the country of terrorism and fulfilling the decades-old hopes of the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burgers and Malays of this country,” he said to loud cheers.
In practise victory seemed to smile more on Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority. of the population of some 20 million, the Tamil Hindus make up 15%.
But corruption affects everyone and Rajapaksa was increasingly criticised for being dirty, ignoring human rights, dynastic and brutal.
He also took Sri Lanka closer to China, which poured in billions of development dollars, but anti-corruption demonstrators demanding his resignation in 2010 were a warning of the fall to come.
This is how Sirisena, a sober man of modest origins, was able to outflank him, promsing to rebalance power, reach out to the disenfranchised, and attack corruption. Eight months in office gives him little to campaign on.
His partnership with the UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appears to work well and both are confident the alliance can capture the parliamentary majority they need to speed up reforms, and keep Rajapakse in opposition.
Voters have a clear choice between future promise or past glory, a unity or nationalist government.