Mr. Rajapaksa in the fray

Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision to contest the parliamentary elections in August has come hardly as a surprise. Ever since he was unexpectedly defeated in the presidential election in January 2015, he has been rallying his supporters in an apparent comeback bid. As President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved Parliament and announced elections, Mr. Rajapaksa has seized the opportunity. What is intriguing, however, is the immediate decision of the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which is formally led by Mr. Sirisena, to nominate Mr. Rajapaksa as its candidate. Mr. Sirisena, who headed a combined Opposition campaign led by the United National Party (UNP) to defeat Mr. Rajapaksa in January, has remained silent on this. But UPFA general secretary Susil Premajayantha has said “Mr. Rajapaksa will be the leader of the election campaign with the blessings and advice of President Sirisena.” Mr. Sirisena’s critics see this as a signal that he has capitulated to pressure from the Rajapaksa faction in the alliance.

Though Mr. Sirisena officially took the leadership of both the UPFA and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the dominant constituent in the coalition, he has not been able to gain full control over either. A major section of the SLFP remains loyal to Mr. Rajapaksa and considers him the best bet in the parliamentary polls against a resurgent UNP under Ranil Wickremesinghe. In the first six months of his government, Mr. Sirisena has struggled to hold the party and alliance together. Most of his plans to undo the Rajapaksa legacy met with resistance from his own MPs. Even the constitutional amendment limiting the powers of the presidency, seen as a big legislative victory for the President, was watered down in the face of opposition from UPFA lawmakers. This shows the President is either too pliable or not fully committed to the promises he made during the campaign. He had promised to build reconciliation. His lack of resolve and authority has upset some of his allies and opened avenues for his opponents. Mr. Rajapaksa’s likely return to Parliament should be seen against this background. Although his brand of Sinhala nationalist politics suffered a setback in the presidential polls, it is still popular among the Buddhist majority. Going by his speech announcing the candidacy, where he accused the government of “undermining national security” and “supporting terrorists”, the former President will bet on that political plank. This could pose fresh demands before Mr. Sirisena and on his reform promises. Sri Lanka’s post-war challenges are huge. Though the army won a brutal war over Tamil rebels six years ago, the political and ethnic wounds remain. The country’s future lies in ensuring a path of lasting reconciliation on all fronts.

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