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Rajapaksa Seeking a Third Term as President: Not a Cake Walk Anymore!

Dr Gulbin Sultana is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • December 01, 2014

    Presidential election will be held in Sri Lanka on January 8, 2015, two years before the current term is slated to end. President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced his intention to hold a Presidential Election seeking another term by signing a proclamation on November 20, 2014. It was well known that Rajapaksa was contemplating such a move and reactions to it were mostly negative. Now that it is official, opposition parties are responding to it in the most predictable manner.

    Objections to Snap-poll

    Various opposition parties, particularly Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), have objected to Rajapaksa seeking a third term as President. According to the 1978 constitution, the President can be elected for one six year term at a time and one candidate can hold office only for two terms. This restriction (of two terms) was removed by the 18th amendment in 2010. The JVP has, nevertheless, raised objection on the ground that Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected to office in 2010 before the constitutional amendment came into effect. To the JVP’s distress, the legality of Rajapaksa seeking a third term has, however, been endorsed by the Supreme Court.

    Although there is no legal objection for the conduct of a snap election, many of the alliance partners of the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) are also not in favour of holding the election in January 2015. They argue that the President has another two years to go and the Parliament has around 18 months to complete its tenure. Hence, the election, according to them, should be held after bringing about constitutional amendments particularly on reducing the powers of the Executive Presidency.

    Ironically, many of these partners had endorsed the amendment (18A) granting dictatorial powers to the office of the President and removing the two-term restriction. The realisation that presidential powers need to be clipped has dawned on them only now after they saw Rajapaksa going back on his promises in this regard. And they are in no mood to give Rajapaksa the benefit of the doubt when he is assuring them now that he would abolish the additional powers vested in the executive presidency soon after the election.

    Rajapaksa undaunted, but nervous

    Rajapaksa is undaunted by such challenges. He is adamant that the election must be held in January 2015. Among the alliance partners, the National Freedom Front (NFF) led by Minister Wimal Weerawansa has extended its support to the President after Rajapaksa approved all its demands. The Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) has also provided unconditional support to Rajapaksa.

    Parties like the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and left parties have not made their stance clear on the issue. The Muslim alliance partners were unhappy about the Government’s handling of the issues relating to their community. SLMC supporters are pressing their leadership not to support Rajapaksa. SLMC leaders are reportedly seeking the Government’s firm assurance on its demands such as the creation of a separate administrative system along the coastal belt of the Ampara district for the Muslims in return for their support.

    The right-wing Jathiya Hela Urumaya (JHU) had put forward some 35 proposals demanding that the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) implement these to obtain its backing. The JHU, in its demands, has urged the government to prune some powers of the Executive Presidency, to uphold the independence of the Judiciary and to strengthen anti-corruption laws. It may be noted that the JHU quit the Government since it did not receive a satisfactory response from Rajapaksa on its demands.

    Against this backdrop, the obvious question that comes to mind is: “Why is Rajapaksa in such a desperate hurry to hold the elections so soon? Rajapaksa was elected as President in 2005 and won a second six-year term in a snap presidential election in 2010, riding the wave of popularity in the wake of the “victory” against the Tamil separatists in 2009. In 2005 he secured a little over 50 percent of the votes polled, but in 2010 he polled 57 percent of the votes. In the subsequent Parliamentary and provincial council elections also the SLFP-led UPFA performed well.

    Rajapaksa’s popularity on decline

    During the last few years, however, Rajapaksa’s popularity has been sinking. This was quite clear in the recent Uva provincial council election. The UPFA won the council election by a narrow margin. There is a growing sense of frustration with the Rajapaksa Government due to rising inflation, the increasing cost of living, communal riots, and the international isolation that Sri Lanka is facing because of the recent UNHRC resolution. Critics in Sri Lanka are attributing this to the inept handling of both internal and external affairs by the Rajapaksa Government.

    Even though the economy seems to be doing well on paper, in reality it is in poor shape. The massive infrastructure projects undertaken by the government have led to a huge debt burden. On the external front, Rajapaksa’s supporters hold that international investigation would further strengthen Rajapaksa’s position; however, others are arguing that Rajapaksa could have avoided the resolution had he seriously worked on the issue of political reconciliation during the last four years.

    The UNHRC is expected to submit its report in March 2015. Since there is a real possibility of this report being negative, the Rajapaksa brothers fear its impact on an election held in 2016. According to one view, it is precisely to avert such a sequence of events that Rajapaksa has called for snap elections in January 2015.

    At another level, the Rajapaksa brothers must have felt threatened by the popular demand for the abolition of the Executive Presidency and a third term for any aspirant. They must have thought that given the popularity of such demands, the Rajapaksa Government would be under compulsion to bring about the 19th amendment as demanded by various parties including some alliance partners. All this would mean that Rajapaksa would lose the opportunity of becoming President for a third term.

    Opposition ascendant

    Looking at the turn of the events, the opposition United National Party (UNP) had introduced a no-confidence motion in May 2014 on the basis that the government had failed to curb the drug menace in Sri Lanka. The motion was defeated in Parliament by a majority of 94 votes. But now that many of the SLFP’s alliance partners are expressing dissatisfaction with the government, there is a possibility of the opposition succeeding in its efforts to further corner the government with similar moves in future. The JHU has already come out of the alliance. Other partners are becoming increasingly critical of the government’s policies.

    As an indication of the declining popularity of the government, some of the ruling UPFA leaders like Gampaha District parliamentarian Wasantha Senanayake have defected to the main opposition UNP. A former cabinet minister for health and the general secretary of the SLFP, Sirisena Maithripala has resigned from the party and emerged as the Common opposition candidate even though he has not yet joined the UNP.

    Sirisena as Common Opposition Candidate

    The opposition parties had been mulling over nominating a common candidate for quite some time now. Initially it was speculated that the Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero would be the common candidate given that he was a leading force behind the move to put forward a common opposition candidate. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s name was also suggested as a common candidate. Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the UNP was in favour of a candidate from his own party. However, the UNP is facing an internal leadership crisis. Moreover, some parties like the JHU categorically denied support to Ranil Wickremesinghe as a common candidate. Two other important leaders from UNP— Karu Jayasurya and Sajith Premadasa— could also not inspire confidence in other opposition parties as the common presidential candidate.

    Therefore, finally, former General Secretary of the SLFP Sirisena Maithripala has been chosen as the common candidate. He is reportedly backed by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and some other UPFA members like Rajiva Wijeysinghe, Rajitha Senaratne, Duminda Dissanayake, M.K.D.S Gunawardena and Vasantha Samarasinghe. The SLFP has termed it as a foreign conspiracy to defeat Rajapaksa. Reportedly, UNP leaders Mangala Samaraweera, Karu Jayasuriya and Ravi Karunanayake met with some influential foreign diplomats accredited to Colombo to discuss matters related to the strategy to win the presidential election.

    Winning may not be easy this time

    According to Sri Lankan analysts, it is difficult but not impossible to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa. In their view, the withdrawal of JHU from the alliance and the defection of individual members from the UPFA/SLFP indicate that there is an anti-Rajapaksa wave beginning to emerge. Therefore, there is a sense of optimism in the tentative political alliance taking shape in Sri Lanka in the form of the Common Opposition.

    According to media analysis, for a clean victory from only the South (excluding North and East) a candidate needs 58.3 per cent or 5.25 million Sinhala votes. In the 2010 presidential election, Rajapaksa got 6.02 million (57.9 per cent) votes from the South and the East (mostly Muslims).1 However, in the coming election, Rajapaksa may not be able to repeat such a performance. The JVP, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the SLMC are yet to announce their decisions about supporting Rajapaksa. Media reports also suggest that some parties who had extended their support to Rajapaksa earlier were reconsidering their decision after Sirisena announced his candidature. Moreover, due to regular attacks on Muslims, and the defection of the JHU, Rajapaksa is unlikely to reap a good electoral harvest in the East and South. Thus, if the Sinhala opposition parties, the Tamil TNA, and the Muslim parties support the common candidate, there is a possibility that they may be able to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa. But the big question is: will these political forces come together?

    While the issue of abolition of the executive presidency has brought some of the opposition parties together, there are other important issues that divide them. For example, the TNA is pushing for political reconciliation and the JHU is advocating a repeal of the 13th amendment. It will be interesting to see how political parties deal with their differences while taking a decision to support a common candidate. However, one thing is very clear. For Rajapaksa, winning this election will not be that easy.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India