From what started as a safe re-anointment of his god-king style of presidency, Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa now faces the fight of his political life in Thursday’s election, writes HAMISH McDONALD. Tony Abbott, Xi Jinping and James Packer will be among the cronies who’ve invested in his survival.
Insouciance is the hallmark of Sri Lanka’s ever-beaming president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. It’s hard to think of another politician who’d campaign in Jaffna, the city once capital of a breakaway Tamil Tiger homeland, and ask its cowed population to vote for “the devil you know”.
But that’s routine for a leader who, since annihilating the Tigers amid great atrocities and civilian bloodshed in 2009, has taken his victory as a life-time licence for he and his family to behave as they like with the institutions and assets of the state.
As put by HL Seneviratne, a Sri Lankan professor of anthropology in the United States: “They have defined this victory as a license to eat, drink and be merry, amass wealth by means foul or fair, tax the poor, sell national assets, commit any illegality with impunity, and in general, do as they please in anything and everything, with no one allowed to ask any questions.”
Among those overlooking such things is Prime Minister Tony Abbott, beholden to Rajapaksa for blocking boat escapes by Tamils to Australia; Chinese leader Xi Jinping wielding hard and soft power in the shape of loans and nuclear submarine visits; and James Packer, planning a casino-resort in once prudish Colombo.
Does Rajapaksa need to worry about his critics? Until recently, he did not. He held control over the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), appealing to the 70 per cent Sinhala majority spread across rural villages. Add to this a clutch of parties supported by significant minorities, the more chauvinistic Buddhists among the Sinhala, Muslims, and even the surviving representative of the Tamils in mainstream politics, the Tamil National Alliance.
Chinese money allowed lavish spending on the island-republic’s dilapidated roads, connecting villages to markets. Critics among the urban elite were bundled away in white vans, either disappearing or persuaded to adopt silence or foreign exile, while compliant police and a neutered judiciary looked the other way.
After a sharp fall in his party’s vote in local elections last September, Rajapaksa must have worried that the victory magic was wearing off, however, and called an election two years early. This week’s vote would be the first exercise of his removal in 2010 of a constitutional limit of two presidential terms.
Things have suddenly turned worse. His previously docile health minister and SLFP secretary-general, Maithripala Sirisena, resigned from the government and declared his own candidacy. Rajapaksa called him a “Judas”: the two men had shared a dish of “hoppers” (rice-flour pancakes) just the night before.
Sirisena declared he would return Sri Lanka’s political system to its constitutional past if elected, ending the executive presidency adopted in the 1980s and restoring the parliamentary system left by the British in 1948. He’s also promised to fight systemic corruption.
He was joined by opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe, a former prime minister and finance minister, who leads the United National Party which is also largely Sinhala-based but appealing to a usually narrower bank of urban and business voters. The minority parties representing Tamils, Buddhists and Muslims also exited the government ranks to support Sirisena.
Significantly, former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, whose Bandaranaike family provided the SLFP’s first post-independence prime ministers, has also split from Rajapaksa.
The election has got quite dirty. Bombs have gone off at Sirisena’s rallies, stones hurled into crowds. Rajapaksa’s campaigners have ignored red flags put up by the election commission. Their publicity, including giant roadside “cut-outs”, is everywhere. Officials and recalled diplomats have been deployed to campaign blatantly for the government.
The crudity of government campaigning has been epitomised by one minister’s statement on television that Kumaratunga would be stripped naked and chased through the streets once Rajapaksa won. Another minister has warned that government members have already enriched themselves and electing a new regime would only invite another round of plunder.
A deep concern is that the Sri Lankan Army, still 200,000-strong five years after the enemy disappeared and cleared for domestic security duties in 2013, will be deployed to block Tamil and Muslim voters from getting to the polls. The defence minister is Rakapaksa’s brother Gotobaya, one of a clutch of close relatives occupying key positions.
In the worsening atmosphere, the United Nations secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, and the European Union’s envoys in Colombo have put out statements in the last week calling for a free and fair vote. Canberra has been silent, and regrettably the election has got scant coverage in the Australian media.
Depending on the turnout of the minorities, Rajapaksa’s hope of a victory swings on achieving a large margin among the Sinhala.
He still has a lot going for him: development largesse, support particularly among women for ending the war that had been taking away their sons, the reach of a slavish state television network into the countryside, and a rustic appeal as “one of them” from a small southern town, despite education as a lawyer and hereditary succession into politics.
But Sirisena might outflank him on the rural front. A Sinhala who speaks little English, despite attending one of the elite’s top two private schools modelled on Eton and Harrow, he worked in agriculture and cooperatives in his northern farming region and was detained in 1971 for alleged leanings towards the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna, a millenarian communist movement that has popped up twice among Sinhala rural youth in the last half-century.
His previous role as SLFP’s secretary-general gives him a network of support among local branches that, with the addition of Kumaratunga’s dynastic appeal, could draw SLFP voters away from Rajapaksa.
The question is whether Sirisena’s message about corruption, nepotism, licentiousnes and constitutional balances will resonate in the villages as much as it does among urban elites. Another is whether Rajapaksa and his brothers think they can afford to lose.
Hamish McDonald is a former correspondent in South Asia and Journalist-in-Residence at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.