MR's desperate bid for power
Deutsche Welle asks some pertinent questions from
Sri Lanka's wartime president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is set to contest
in the August parliamentary election. But how would the return of the
long-time leader impact the nation's politics?
Former President Mahinda
A coalition - formally headed by Sri Lankan President Maithripala
Sirisena - has nominated Rajapaksa to run in the upcoming parliamentary
polls, due on August 17. The 69-year-old, considered a war hero by the
country's majority Sinhalese for ending a three-decade civil war in
2009, will stand in the South Asian nation's third-largest electoral
district, Kurunegala, where many voters have relatives in the military.
The former president's allies say he will stand for the post of Prime
Minister. Should Rajapaksa win and succeed in becoming the country's
next premier, he will have more powers than his predecessors, after the
current president enhanced some of the powers of the post with reforms
back in April.
Sirisena, a former minister in Rajapaksa's administration, defected
last year to run for president, and succeeded in defeating him in a
bitterly fought election in January on promises of full-scale political
reforms, which included reducing powers of the presidency and changes to
the electoral system. But Sirisena is facing resistance from lawmakers,
as his six-month-old coalition government with PM Ranil Wickremesinghe
has struggled to pass key political reforms.
In an interview with Deutche Welle, Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka analyst at
the International Crisis Group (ICG), talks about why he believes
Rajapaksa has decided to contest the upcoming election, the implications
for the country's politics should he be elected, and the rivalry between
Rajapaksa and Sirisena.
Q:Why has Rajapaksa decided to run for the post of prime
A: Rajapaksa, like many in Sri Lanka, was shocked by his loss
to Sirisena in January's election. He has blamed his defeat on Tamil and
Muslim voters, implying that the majority he won among Sinhala voters -
who make up about 75 percent of the population - should have been enough
to keep him in office.
He and prominent supporters have claimed he was the victim of an
international conspiracy, led by India and the United States.
Rajapaksa is also likely wishing to protect himself and his family
against possible prosecution for alleged corruption - and war crimes -
committed under his administration.
Were he to gain the premiership, there would be little chance that
any of the current investigations into corruption would result in
prosecutions. Many of his close parliamentary allies are also being
investigated and have encouraged his return to power.
Rajapaksa is not technically running for prime minister, however, but
is instead contesting for a parliamentary seat as a candidate with the
United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the coalition that he headed
when he was president from 2005-2015.
With the president constitutionally required to name as prime
minister the person whom he believes commands the confidence of the
parliament, Rajapaksa and his supporters hope that the UPFA will win a
majority, or large enough number, of seats in parliament to force
President Sirisena to name Rajapaksa as the next prime minister.
This seems unlikely to happen, however. Sirisena strenuously opposed
Rajapaksa gaining a UPFA nomination and has said he would name another
UPFA leader as prime minister, should it win a majority in parliament.
Q:Was Sirisena in some way forced to give Rajapaksa the
A: Within weeks of being elected president, Sirisena was named
the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) - the party whose
general secretary he had been until he decided to challenge Rajapaksa
for the presidency in November 2014.
Later he was made UPFA Chairman, a coalition of parties dominated by
Many expected that gaining these leadership positions would give
Sirisena effective control over the parties, but this never
materialized. Sirisena has spent much of his time in office struggling
to gain control and keep Rajapaksa at bay, but without success.
News that Rajapaksa - after a months- long campaign by UPFA and SLFP
supporters - had been given a nomination for the upcoming election was
met with anger - and even cries of "betrayal" - by many of those who had
campaigned for Sirisena against Rajapaksa. In fact, however, under party
rules, Sirisena had no ability to block the nomination.
Despite Sirisena's repeated promises that Rajapaksa would not get a
nomination, lacking a majority of the SLFP and UPFA in agreement,
Sirisena was outvoted.
The key policies Sirisena campaigned on and has begun to implement as
president are fundamentally at odds with Rajapaksa's favoured policies.
Sirisena did have the option of breaking with the majority of the
SLFP leadership, but this would have split the party. As a loyal member
of the SLFP for more than 40 years, Sirisena didn't want to go down in
history as the man who divided the party and led it to a major
parliamentary defeat. It would have ceded party control to Rajapaksa and
hurt the prospects of Sirisena's supporters in the party.
In hindsight, some think it was a mistake for Sirisena to take over
formal leadership of the SLFP and UPFA, as it trapped him in a drawn out
negotiation process with Rajapaksa and his allies that weakened
Sirisena's leadership and damaged his claims to be a reformer.
Sirisena's clear rejection of Rajapaksa in his July 14 statement to
the nation, however, with his call for Rajapaksa's defeat in the August
17 election, opens up another scenario: Rajapaksa's candidacy may lead
not to his return to power, but to a second and even more humiliating
defeat, leaving Rajapaksa in charge of a weakened rump faction of the
UPFA in a parliament dominated by the UNP and its allies. Only time will
Q: What are Rajapaksa's chances of getting elected?
A: Many have been expecting the election to be close, and
Rajapaksa and the UPFA should win a sizeable portion of the vote.
Nonetheless, the broad coalition of parties the UNP has put together
- which, like the coalition that brought Sirisena to power, brings
together Sinhala, Muslim and Tamil parties - would appear at the start
of the campaign to have the momentum and a strong chance of victory.
Their campaign was given a big boost by Sirisena's July 14 statement
to the nation, in which he reiterated his strong opposition to Rajapaksa
contesting and becoming prime minister. Nonetheless, Sri Lankan politics
has already produced big surprises over the last year and further twists
cannot be ruled out.
Rajapaksa remains popular among large numbers of Sinhala voters, due
in large part to his leadership in the 2009 military victory over the
LTTE, which ended nearly 30 years of war.
Rajapaksa is expected to campaign on Sinhala nationalist themes,
warning that the opposition United National Party (UNP), led by Prime
Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, has weakened the military, supported
Tamil separatists and put Sri Lanka's national security at risk.
January's presidential election, however, suggested that Rajapaksa's
Sinhala nationalist themes have lost some of their resonance with
voters. Without any Muslim candidates and very few Tamils, the UPFA
would have to win big victories in Sinhala districts to gain a majority.
Rajapaksa will also be weakened by the many allegations of
large-scale fraud and corruption by members of his family and officials
in his administration. Ongoing police investigations into scores of
cases have been given wide publicity in the media over the six months of
The fact that no indictments have yet been made, however, has made it
easier for Rajapaksa and allies to brand the investigations as a "witch
Q: If his bid is successful, Rajapaksa will likely have more
powers than any of his predecessors. What are these new powers and why
were they enhanced by President Sirisena?
It's not so much that the next prime minister will have new powers,
but that the president now has fewer. One of the central, and very
popular, promises in Sirisena's January 2015 presidential campaign was
to end the near absolute powers of the executive presidency, which had
badly distorted Sri Lanka's democratic system. Sirisena's two
predecessors as president, including Mahinda Rajapaksa, had promised to
change the system but failed to do so.
While many of Sirisena's supporters hoped he would be able to abolish
the executive presidency as a whole, his lack of a parliamentary
majority, and resistance from the UPFA, meant he had to settle for more
The 19th Amendment, passed in late April, limits the president to two
terms, restricts his ability to dissolve parliament early and call snap
elections, ends the absolute immunity from court challenge to a
president's actions, and gives the prime minister significant control
over cabinet appointments.
The president nonetheless retains considerable powers, with the 19th
Amendment effectively creating a dual executive. How this system will
work in practice, particularly if the president and prime minister do
not agree on key policies, remains to be seen.
Sri Lanka still faces many deep challenges such as nurturing post-war
reconciliation and justice, and finding a lasting solution to its ethnic
and religious divisions
Given his tense relationship with the current President, how would
Rajapaksa's return as PM affect Sri Lankan politics?
Sirisena has said that he feared he would be killed if he had lost to
Rajapaksa, so there is no love lost between the two men.
Even if the UPFA does very well, Sirisena has stated he will appoint
another SLFP leader, rather than Rajapaksa, as prime minister. Should
this fail, it would produce an unprecedented situation in Sri Lankan
The key policies Sirisena campaigned on and has begun to implement as
president, with the support of the UNP, are fundamentally at odds with
Rajapaksa's favoured policies.
While a modus vivendi might be found, a Sirisena-Rajapaksa
cohabitation would lead to a tense and volatile situation and block
progress on Sri Lanka's many deep challenges: ending large-scale
corruption, strengthening independent institutions and the rule of law,
reducing the role of the military, nurturing post-war reconciliation and
justice, and finding a lasting settlement to the country's longstanding
ethnic and religious divisions. This potential scenario, and Sirisena's
continuing popularity, may offer an additional incentive for some voters
to reject the UPFA and back the UNP-led coalition.
Analyst Alan Keenan is Sri Lanka project director at the
International Crisis Group (ICG) in London
- Deutsche Welle