Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was voted out of office in early January. This came as a surprise to many. First elected in 2005, Rajapaksa was widely credited with winning Sri Lanka’s civil war against the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009.Maithripala Sirisena, a cabinet member in Rajapaksa’s administration who was alsoacting defense minister during the end of the war, is now president.
Trying to win an unprecedented third term, Rajapaksa called a snap election two years early, thinking he’d be reelected handily. Just a few months ago, it seemed that no one could credibly challenge him or the United People’s Freedom Alliance, the political coalition led by Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party.
Sirisena was supported by a broad coalition, including leading Tamil and Muslim parties and the United National Party. This was a close election and more than 81 percent of Sri Lankans turned out to vote. Rajapaksa still earned more support from the Sinhalese community than Sirisena, the ethnic group that comprises about three-quarters of the country’s population.
Sri Lankans were fed up with Rajapaksa’s authoritarian brand of governance, widespread corruption and nepotism. And even though both candidates ignored the concerns of minority (Tamil and Muslim) voters during the campaign, the potential to address those issues is greater with Rajapaksa out of power.
Almost immediately after Rajapaksa conceded, commentators were already speculating that his political career may not be over.
Sirisena campaigned on a platform focused on good governance and anti-corruption, but he also outlined significant constitutional reforms — including abolishing the country’s executive presidential system and reintroducing a parliamentary system.
Shortly after the election, a split in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party emerged — one group backed Sirisena and the other supported Rajapaksa. Historically, Sri Lanka has been led by one of the two big Sinhala-Buddhist parties, either the Sri Lanka Freedom Party or the United National Party. Most Sri Lanka Freedom Party members did not back Sirisena’s candidacy, but profound divisions could have had wider implications. Yet less than a week after the Sri Lanka Freedom Party split, Rajapaksa announcedthat he was resigning as head of the party so that Sirisena could take his place.
Parliamentary elections are expected in late-April and Sirisena has made it clear that he hopes to abolish the executive presidency before then, though he’d need to muster a two-thirds majority in parliament to make that happen. If Sirisena were able to make such a change, that would mean that the real fight for power would be the parliamentary election. And, since Sri Lanka’s recent presidential election was so close, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (the political party which currently holds the most seats in parliament anyway) would have a good shot at winning that election.
So is Mahinda Rajapaksa down, but not out?
In theory, Rajapaksa could eventually be appointed as a national list member of parliament — though that seems unlikely. As the current head of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Sirisena would have to approve of such an appointment, something he’s unlikely to do. Sirisena needs to prove he can govern and that the situation in Sri Lanka — particularly as it relates to corruption and the rule of law — will change under his watch. Cutting a political deal with Rajapaksa would be politically unwise, weaken his credibility and open the door to a Rajapaksa resurgence.
There have been other rumors that elements of the United People’s Freedom Alliance would unite behind a new, Rajapaksa-led political party. That would be an intriguing development though its’ not clear how much support the former president would be able to garner if he were to form a new party.
Furthermore, allegations of an attempted coup (moments after he discovered he’d lost the election) are not going away, which does not help. The Sirisena administration has requested an investigation, but official statements regarding the findings of the inquiry have not yet been made. In addition, evidence of widespread corruptionduring Rajapaksa’s tenure will likely receive significant attention in the coming months.
Corruption and coup allegations coupled with the fact that Rajapaksa no longer heads the Sri Lanka Freedom Party makes a comeback very difficult, but ruling it out completely seems premature.
For the past decade, Rajapaksa and his family dominated Sri Lanka’s political scene. Two of his brothers held senior positions in government. Another brother, Chamal, is the speaker of parliament. Rajapaksa’s son, Namal is also a member of parliament and was obviously being groomed for a larger role on Sri Lanka’s political stage. Rajapaksa’s web of nepotism also extended to the civil service and government-run businesses.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is a savvy, charismatic political operator and the Rajapaksa brand isn’t toxic — not yet anyway. He lost a close election and his name will always be linked to the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. Nonetheless, the political space for Rajapaksa to return to power is clearly shrinking.
So is this South Asian autocrat retreating or resilient? The former is far more likely, but the latter isn’t out of the question. Political comebacks have been borne out of more dire circumstances.