Rajapaksa comeback thwarted
The recently concluded Parliamentary elections held on August 17
brought to conclusion the process of political change that the January 8
presidential election had initiated under the good governance platform.
This election was closely contested between the forces that wanted to
reverse the January 8 mandate and those who wanted to continue with the
reform process. The elections was significant as it decisively put an
end to the political ambition of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa who,
after his shocking defeat in the January 8 presidential election had
aspired to become the Prime Minister.
Nevertheless, there will be several challenges that the government
may face from Rajapaksa supporters in the United Peoples Freedom
Alliance (UPFA) to have a smooth sailing, both in terms of resuscitating
the economy and delivering on long pending political grievances of the
Tamils who have pinned their hopes in this reformist government.
The election was closely fought between the UPFA and the United
National Front(UNF), competing mainly for the Sinhala Buddhist votes.
The UPFA went to the election with a one-point agenda to make Mahinda
Rajapaksa the Prime Minister and many of the candidates tried to
piggyback on his personal charisma and his image as war hero to win
The common thread that ran through the campaign of the UPFA was the
issue of national security and saving the motherland from international
conspiracy and Tamil separatists. The familiar argument that the UPFA
had always peddled in the past was how Ranil Wickremesinghe's victory
will undermine the country's security.
President Sirisena who rejected Rajapaksa's aspiration to become the
Prime Minister in an open letter during the election campaign accused
that his brand of politics was a crime against the country and was
responsible for the degeneration of the SLFP from a party that
represented the plurality of the country to denote narrow ideologies and
converting itself to a Sinhala Buddhist party.
The UPFA campaign line gave prominence to national security and how
the victory of UNF would allow the reemergence of the Liberation Tigers
of Tamil Eelam(LTTE). Arrest of some LTTE cadres with cyanide capsule in
Chennai was given publicity to underline the emerging threat.
They also highlighted how President Sirisena engaged a Tamil lawyer
to fight the case of suspension of 13 Central Committee members of the
UPFA. However, the rejection of the UPFA and also the TNFP in the North,
reflected the post-war political situation that is not favourable to
extreme nationalist parties.
It is important to note that notwithstanding the UPFA impressive
total it was convincingly defeated by over one million vote and losing
out in districts that were earlier strong bastion of the party.
While the UPFA - in spite of division within the party - managed to
get 95 seats, the UNF received only 106 seats, seven seats less of
absolute majority. Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the political
conglomerate that represents the Tamils minorities managed 16 seats and
winning most of the seats in North and East, reflecting the segregated
pattern of voting by the two communities representing two different
political aspirations within a united Sri Lanka.
The UNF would be forming a coalition that would be similar to the one
that it is set to replace. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has signed
a MoU with the UNP to form a national government and work on the broader
agenda of January election. Other constituent of the UPFA like National
Freedom Front, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna and the Democratic Left Front
have decided to sit in opposition.
The removal of 13 of Mahinda's supporters from the Central Committee
of the UPFA and replacing them with his loyalists before the election by
President Sirisena was a move to deal with the post-election situation
and to prevent the the Rajapaksa comeback.
However, with a new Central Committee replacing the Mahinda
loyalists, President Sirisena would take steps to reconstitute the party
and pave the way for the smooth functioning of Ranil-led national
Though the Colombo District Court has issued an interim injunction
allowing Duminda Dissanayake to function as SLFP General Secretary and
Prof. Wisva Warnapala to perform his duties as acting General Secretary
of the UPFA till August 28, the party tussle needs to be put to rest.
President Sirisena as the leader of the UPFA and SLFP needs to
establish firm control over the party to succeed in fulfilling the
promises that he made when he assumed the office of Executive
There will be several challenges before the government. The UN
investigation report is expected next month. The government needs to
take steps to move towards the resolution of long-pending Tamil issue.
It will really be a challenge how to resolve the issue that meets the
Tamil political aspirations, and at the same time, acceptable to the
Sinhala majority population. With the Rajapaksa group being active and
ready to derail any such resolution, the peace process is going to be a
long drawn one.
However, it needs to be stressed that after President Sirisena
assuming office took several measures that signaled a new era of ethnic
relations. For example: removing the check post in Omanthai that eased
travel between North and South, release of land in the North, replacing
the retired military personnel with a civilian one as Governor of the
Northern Province, replacing the Chief Secretary - a longstanding demand
of the TNA and allowing the national anthem to be sung in Tamil.
While the TNA's victory suggests that Tamils continues to repose
their faith in the party which they consider as their own, their
overwhelming support to President Sirisena in the presidential election
which played a decisive role in his victory attest to their faith on the
regime in Colombo. Ranil Wickremesinghe, who earlier preferred a
peaceful settlement to the longstanding ethnic crisis, is considered as
a leader who would not approach the Tamil issue from the standpoint of
victorious Sinhalese. While Mahinda Rajapaksa won the war, he lost the
peace by overplaying ultra Sinhala nationalism that had no compassion
for Tamil political grievances.
The change of government is likely to create an enabling environment
that would provide space to reconciliation as essential precursor to
The government, that has larger international support as many in
international community held the view that under the Rajapaksa regime
the country had taken a decisive turn towards authoritarianism.
Banking on China's support to rebuff international pressureon
accountability and reconciliation; Mahinda Rajapakse did not hesitate to
mortgage the country to provide China a strategic foothold in the Indian
Ocean at a huge cost to Sri Lana's economy.
As the new government gears up for the UNHRC report that may have
implications for the domestic politics, the TNA that now represents the
Tamils needs to be supportive of the UNF effort to keep the radical
separatists Tamil diaspora and their domestic constituent at a distance.
This will not only provide space to the new government but would help
TNA to meaningfully engage the new government to seek a solution to the
Sri Lanka political transition from de-democratisation personified by
Rajapaksa regime to democracy and accountable government will surely
have a salutary effect on larger issue of democracy and inclusive
government of which the Tamil minorities are inalienable partner and
would be a greater beneficiary.
(Dr. Smruti S Pattanaik is a Research Fellow at the new Delhi-based
Institute of Defence and Strategic Analyses (IDSA)