By R Hariharan –
Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s hopes of coming back to power as Sri Lanka’s prime minister crashed when the. United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which fielded him as a candidate, lost out narrowly to the United National Party (UNP)-led coalition in the parliamentary election held on August 17.
In the most peacefully conducted election in Sri Lanka in recent times where over 70 per cent of the people are said to have voted, the UPFA could win only eight of the 22 electoral districts as against its rival UNP’s victory in 11 districts. The Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK)-led Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won in three predominantly Tamil districts of Jaffna, Vanni and Batticaloa South. It would support UNP-led government rather than that of UPFA.
In Sri Lanka’s electoral system, out of the 225 parliament members, 196 members are elected through proportional representation system from 22 electoral districts. Each party is allocated a number of seats from the quota assigned to the district in proportion to votes secured by the party. The balance of 29 seats known as national list are allotted to parties according to the country-wide proportional votes they obtain in the election.
Rajapaksa conceded defeat in the morning of August 18 even before results were officially announced. He told the AFP news agency “My dream of becoming prime minister has faded away…I am conceding. We have lost a good fight.” Though a message from his twitter account later contradicted this, he must have seen the writing on the wall early in the day.
As Wickremesinghe described, the presidential election was in a way a referendum. Over 15 million voters of Sri Lanka had to decide whether they wanted Rajapaksa’s return to politics after a decade in power. Once hailed as Sri Lanka strongman, Rajapaksa must be a disappointed man to be rejected once again by the people in his bid for national leadership within a year after he lost the presidential election in January 2015. He had high hopes of coming back to power as prime minister after the powers of executive presidency were cut down to size by President Maithripala Sirisena. Rajapaksa also had to overcome the efforts of Sirisena as chairman of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), to prevent him from contesting as a UPFA candidate.
Though neither the UPFA nor UNP-led alliance is likely to have a majority in parliament, Ranil Wickremesinghe, victorious leader of the UNP having larger number of seats, is expected to be sworn in once again as prime minister. President Sirisena is likely to pick his loyalists within the SLFP to join the national alliance government led by Wickremesinghe. Thus both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe will be able to follow up in action to fulfill their agenda for structural and constitutional reforms and pull up the sagging economy.
Rajapaksa’s failure is a political triumph for Sirisena, particularly after senior members of the SLFP central committee challenged his leadership and tried their best to bring back Rajapaksa to the detriment of Sirisena loyalists. Sirisena sent a strong message of his authority and sacked 13 senior members of the central committee including the all important secretaries of UPFA and SLFP and appointed his own nominees soon after polling ended on August 17.
But Sirisena’s action could be challenged when the Supreme Court reopens on August 31 from vacation. According to a former chief justice, as per the party constitution only the secretary of the party has to nominate the national list members. On the other hand court action may well be deferred as some of those affected appear to be making friendly noises to get back into good books of Sirisena.
Rajapaksa as a successful member of the UPFA will have to sit in the opposition benches in the same parliament where his writ ran unchallenged when he was president. If he is chosen as a leader of the opposition by UPFA members, he will be presiding over an anomalous situation when some of the members join the cabinet. Would he do it?
Out of power and after two successive failures, Rajapaksa’s political influence has been slashed. But his support base among the conservative Buddhist nationalist southern Sinhalas appears to be largely intact. Will he bounce back into politics? Apart from Rajapaksa, two other people – Sirisena and Wickremesinghe – also are probably pondering over this question
In addition to former president Rajapaksa, his brother Chamal Rajapaka and son Namal Rajapaksa have also won. This would ensure an element of protection for the three Rajapaksas as they cannot be arrested when the parliament is in session. This becomes important in the investigations into cases of corruption and misuse of office now underway.
But this will spell trouble for Rajapaksas. Mahinda is facing cases of corruption in handling of public funds and his brother and former minister Basil is tangled in another similar case in the law courts. These cases are likely to move on a fast pace. But we can expect both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe to tread carefully lest they antagonize Sinhala nationalist segment by vindictive action.
As far as India is concerned the news of Wickremesinghe combine’s victory would be welcome though even had Rajapaksa come to power he would have handled India with kid gloves. As far as China is concerned, probably it would rue the failure of Rajapaksa as a lesson learnt, and court the new leadership to get its stalled projects through and get back to business. Nothing moves Chinese like money and President Xi Jinping like 21st Century Maritime Road. Sri Lanka is important for China on both counts.
*Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Blog: http://col.hariharan.info