The South Asia Channel

Rajapaksa on the Ropes

Sri Lanka's former president faces an uphill battle in his quest to become the country's next prime minister.

Sri Lanka's former president Mahinda Rajapaksa lights a lamp in Colombo on May 18, 2015 in commemoration of those who died six years ago in battles between Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighters and government troops at the end of the three decades old separatist conflict.  Rajapaksa urged against any separatist wars in the future. The sixth anniversary of the killing of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is being marked in the first anniversary of the event under the new government of President Sirisena. AFP PHOTO / ISHARA S. KODIKARA        (Photo credit should read Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images)
Sri Lanka's former president Mahinda Rajapaksa lights a lamp in Colombo on May 18, 2015 in commemoration of those who died six years ago in battles between Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighters and government troops at the end of the three decades old separatist conflict. Rajapaksa urged against any separatist wars in the future. The sixth anniversary of the killing of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is being marked in the first anniversary of the event under the new government of President Sirisena. AFP PHOTO / ISHARA S. KODIKARA (Photo credit should read Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images)

Eight months ago, it appeared that Mahinda Rajapaksa wrote the script for his own presidency in Sri Lanka. When Rajapaksa wanted more power as president, he got it. When political opponents drew too much attention, they disappeared. When he wanted to change the constitution and run for a third term as President, he did.

But Rajapaksa’s presidency had a plot twist last November, when seven weeks before the presidential election, a member of his own cabinet defected and ran against him. Maithripala Sirisena, the Health Minister and Secretary General of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), surprised the political establishment on January 8th and squeaked out a narrow victory against his former boss to become president.

If the story of January’s presidential election was the unexpected fall of a king, the sequel—parliamentary elections on August 17th—has been a story of the king’s attempted revival and the realization of his earthy limits. Predictably, Rajapaksa announced he would run for parliament and seek the prime ministership. But with the election less than a week away, the odds are stacked against Rajapaksa’s return to the limelight.

Rajapaksa has the narrow support of the Sinhalese population, who make up roughly seven out of every ten Sri Lankans, but has almost no support from minority populations according to a recent poll. His government’s heavy handed methods used to defeat the Tamil Tigers in 2009 have led to accusations of war crimes, and have alienated members of the minority Tamil and Muslim population in Sri Lanka. As fate would have it, it is the very Sri Lankans that Rajapaksa alienated could cost him the role of Prime Minister. The Tamil and Muslim political parties appear to tip the election away from Rajapaksa’s SLFP party.

“Polling shows little minority support for Rajapaksa, and therefore the SLFP will have a hard time forming any sort of coalition with other parties because of it,” says Iromi Perera, a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Sri Lanka.

Rajapaksa’s campaign has been hampered in the past week by a high profile murder investigation and arrests over the disappearance of a prominent Sri Lankan journalist.

The body of former rugby star Wasim Thajudeen was exhumed Monday in Colombo, amidst allegations that members of Rajapaksa’s former security force were responsible for his torture and ultimate death. Many speculate that Thajudeen was killed after a dispute with the president’s son, Yoshitha, regarding a woman. The BBC reports that new evidence has emerged which indicates Thajudeen was abducted by a car linked to former President Rajapaksa’s wife.

And last week, two former members of the Sri Lankan army were arrested over the disappearance of Sri Lankan journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who was abducted on January 24th, 2010. According to the Tamil Guardian, Eknaligoda’s wife said the Rajapaksa regime is connected with the disappearance of her husband, possibly in an attempt to silence his criticism.

“It is potentially a damaging case for Rajapaksa and his family and those in the military who may have been were working with them. Everyone has suspected that this kind of thing happened, but the detail and the proof has never been there. There are many other of these sorts of cases” says Alan Keenan, a Senior Analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Yet even if the SLFP pulls off an upset and form a ruling coalition, it is unlikely Rajapaksa will be cast in the role of prime minister. In a bid to shut out his former boss, President Sirisena has stated that he would not call on Rajapaksa to form a government.

“It is not a mechanical process, where the leader of the party with the most seats is the prime minister—it is the person who the president says he believes has the confidence of the parliament. Odds are that Sirisena will not select Rajapaksa as the prime minister, because he genuinely dislikes him. Should the UPFA (the coalition of parties headed by the SLFP) get to form a coalition, Sirisena will likely try to find someone else in the party,” Keenan says.

So far, Sri Lanka has avoided large displays of election violence that typically plague the country, but with one exception. Unidentified gunmen opened fire on an election rally in support of Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake on July 31st, killing two. Karunanayake blamed supporters of Rajapaksa for the attack, which party members denied.

Some of the biggest acts of political violence have come after elections in Sri Lanka because of political retribution from the winning party. Experts say the election for prime minister is unlikely to follow a similar path, because President Sirisena is not taking part in the campaign.

“The tradition in the past has been that when there is a change, particularly after a long period of one party being in power defeated, there is a prospect of the victor taking a certain amount of revenge. It cannot be discounted, but I don’t think it’s likely” says Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Co-Convener of the Center for Monitoring Election Violence in Sri Lanka.

Yet if there is one Sri Lankan politician capable of a pulling off an upset, it is Rajapaksa. Many politicians in the SLFP are still loyal to him, and polls in Sri Lanka should be taken with a grain of salt. The script for Rajapaksa’s future remains unwritten.

Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

Justin Lynch is the associate editor of Fifth Domain, which covers cybersecurity for Sightline Media. He was previously based in South Sudan and has written for the New Yorker, the Associated Press, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Daily Beast. Follow him on twitter @just1nlynch.

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