GIVE credit to Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former president of Sri Lanka (pictured), for his fighting spirit. In early January voters unexpectedly and narrowly denied him a third successive term in office. An opposition alliance of Tamil, Muslim and disaffected Sinhalese had tired of his authoritarian rule and the presence of several of his brothers in government. Despite steady economic growth, voters disliked inflation, rising debt and blatant corruption. His overly powerful presidency also appeared to threaten democracy.
Rather than accept the end of his political career, however, Mr Rajapaksa has since been plotting his return. After his defeat he gave up both the presidency and his leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the dominant party of the ruling coalition. His successor in both posts was Maithripala Sirisena, a former colleague. Luckily for Mr Rajapaksa, the new president has shown little authority or resolve.
Mr Sirisena has been slow at delivering on promises made during the presidential election, a problem shared by his ally, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who became prime minister of a minority government. They have faced strong opposition from Mr Rajapaksa, whose loyalists launched no-confidence motions and prevented parliament from agreeing even to routine financial measures, such as a proposal in April to extend government borrowing.
Thus cornered, the new government has achieved little. It did push through a constitutional amendment reintroducing a two-term limit for the presidency, which Mr Rajapaksa had scrapped in 2010. It also removed some of the president’s powers. But it failed to move ahead on promises to overhaul the voting system, shrink government or deliver a right-to-information bill. Worryingly, on July 2nd Mr Sirisena re-established a press council that can wield wide-ranging and punitive powers against journalists, a move that editors condemned as threatening.
In the meantime, Mr Rajapaksa has been rallying supporters, especially in the south of the country. He remains popular among the majority Sinhala Buddhists, notably for his record in leading a victory over Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, putting an end to civil war. Fans have crowded to his home every day since he left office. He has toured temples, offering flowers to deities and delivering speeches to cheering crowds. In effect he has been campaigning ever since his defeat.
The fact that Mr Rajapaksa’s political fortunes have brightened, however, hardly explains a baffling decision announced on July 3rd by the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), now headed by his successor and rival, Mr Sirisena. The president had earlier dissolved parliament and called parliamentary elections for August 17th. The UPFA, of which the SLFP is part, said it would field none other than Mr Rajapaksa as its prime ministerial candidate. And, through gritted teeth presumably, Mr Sirisena said he would offer “blessings and advice” to Mr Rajapaksa in the election.
All this smacks of betrayal to those who united behind Mr Sirisena precisely in order to keep Mr Rajapaksa as far as possible from government. The decision came after weeks of negotiations between the two men in which Mr Sirisena evidently lost out. Critics accused him of political skulduggery and claimed that, despite his protestations of being “apolitical”, he cares mostly about the interests of his party, the SLFP. It is likely to do fairly well in elections with Mr Rajapaksa at the front, who is expected to whip up a sense of nationalistic triumph over his war record.
Voters will get their say. To keep Mr Rajapaksa at arm’s length they could instead back the interim prime minister, Mr Wickremesinghe, and his United National Party. However, he has difficulties of his own, notably questions over the behaviour of a friend, the central bank governor, who faces allegations of impropriety in office. It is unlikely that Mr Rajapaksa will be swept aside in the forthcoming polls. A fragmented result, with nobody getting a comfortable majority, is quite possible. If so, much would rest on politicians’ skills at horse-trading and building coalitions of small parties. It is worth remembering that Mr Rajapaksa, with his fighting spirit, has a record of being especially good at that.