A few months ago, no one could imagine that a presidential election in Sri Lanka would be a real contest. The country’s sitting president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has consolidated his grip to such an extent in recent years that many observers see him as a de facto autocrat. In November, Rajapaksa decided to call early elections to extend his mandate beyond the decade he has already been in power. But the move backfired badly.
Maithripala Sirisena, a former defense minister and health minister in Rajapaksa’s governments, defected along with other prominent Rajapaksa loyalists and has marshaled the country’s disorganized and splintered opposition. Now, Rajapaksa is by no means guaranteed victory when Sri Lanka votes on Thursday. And fears of violence have shrouded the run-up to the polls.
Rajapaksa is a deeply controversial figure: he is credited with ending Sri Lanka’s bitter and bloody three decade-long war with Tamil Tiger separatists in 2009 and reviving the country’s economic fortunes. But critics point to a litany of alleged war crimes in the campaign to defeat the Tamil Tigers and the domineering hold Rajapaksa and his family have over Sri Lanka’s political and economic life.
One of Rajapaksa’s more famous detractors is Maya Arulpragasam, better known as the rapper M.I.A. The British musician is an ethnic Sri Lankan Tamil whose father had ties to the Tamil separatist cause and whose earlier life was shaped by the tumult and upheaval of the conflict. Over the weekend, M.I.A. issued a series of tweets condemning Rajapaksa, his grip on the levers of power in the country, as well as his government’s alleged intimidation of journalists:
But the outspoken musician is hardly supporting Sirisena, Rajapaksa’s former ally turned opponent. Like Rajapaksa, Sirisena is Buddhist and Sinhalese, the majority ethnic group in the island nation. Sirisena, 63, appeals most strongly to the country’s Sinhalese heartland, which is a world away from the plight of Tamil refugees and asylum seekers that M.I.A. seeks to champion.
Sirisena has already ruled out the prospect of more autonomy for Sri Lanka’s Tamils and sworn to preserve Buddhism’s prominence in the constitution (Tamils are mostly Hindu or Christian). His political battle with Rajapaksa comes amid an alarming backdrop of rising Buddhist nationalism in the country, which flared with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers and in recent years has led to a worrying trend of anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence. The contest also raises key geopolitical questions: Sirisena has vowed to cancel a $1.5 billion port development contract inked by the Rajapaksa government with a Chinese state company. Under Rajapaksa’s rule, Beijing has grown a considerable footprint in the country, and sees the island, much to India’s concern, as a key way station for China’s new “maritime” Silk Road through the Indian Ocean. Rajapaksa, whose three siblings all hold prominent political posts, is seen to be one of the prime beneficiaries of China’s Sri Lankan investment. Sirisena recently said he abandoned Rajapaksa “because I could not stay anymore with a leader who had plundered the country, government and national wealth.” He points to the opposition alliance he has cobbled together of 48 parties, which include Muslim and Tamil organizations, many of whom have rallied behind him purely to end Rajapaksa’s reign. There’s no reliable polling data to help WorldViews augur the outcome of Thursday’s vote. Some fear Rajapaksa may use his influence over the country’s security forces to guarantee electoral victory. Whatever the case, M.I.A.’s ire is unlikely to fade.