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China's shadow looms large in Sri Lanka local election

Former leader Rajapaksa attempts comeback as corruption probes falter

Large crowds at an election rally of Mahinda Rajapaksa's in Ampara town, some 350km away from Colombo (Photo courtesy of Office of Mahinda Rajapaksa)

COLOMBO -- On Feb.10, Sri Lankans will go to the polls to vote for their local representatives. But the outcome of these village elections will have much wider repercussions as they will ultimately determine if China will play a bigger role in Sri Lanka's development. 

The battle for Sri Lanka's heartlands is being fought out by the country's twice defeated pro-China former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and the incumbent pro-India coalition government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. 

The local council election is the coalition government's first test since it came to power in January 2015, and will also determine Rajapaksa's political future. Rajapaksa is looking at making a comeback with his new party, Sri Lanka People's Front. More commonly known in Sinhala as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the party is attempting to take control of local authorities including municipal councils. 

Sri Lanka's relationship with China had deteriorated after Rajapaksa lost to the coalition, which had focused on strengthening ties with the West and mending links with India that had soured as Rajapaksa cozied up to Beijing. 

In the event Rajapaksa's SLPP wins the majority of local authorities, it will mean that his party will have control of finances for those councils. This in turn means that he may once again beckon his favorite lender and builder, China, to kickstart the development of infrastructure, waste facilities and even housing in these villages. 

Although Rajapaksa was successful in changing Colombo's skyline and for initiating a sizeable number of mega infrastructure projects backed by China, many of them were plagued by allegations of corruption. The opposition then had claimed that Rajapaksa and his immediate family received large payoffs by giving fast-track approval of the Chinese-funded projects that included highways, ports, airports and even an offshore city close to Colombo. 

President Maithripala Sirisena   © Reuters

Addressing the media in Colombo last week, Sirisena continued to level such accusations on Rajapaksa. Sirisena said that some nine trillion rupees ($58 billion) worth of foreign loans that the country had received during the decade-long rule of Rajapaksa was unaccounted for. 

"We know that 10 trillion rupees came into Sri Lanka during the regime of Rajapaksa, but the finance ministry can only account for one trillion rupees. We do not know what happened to the remaining money," Sirisena told a breakfast meeting attended by editors of local media. 

But parliamentarian Keheliya Rambukwella, who was the official spokesperson of the Rajapaksa government, pointed to the country's developments as a defense. "They are saying there was corruption, but it is obvious to anyone that every loan that was taken by the former president was utilized for development projects," Rambukwella told Nikkei Asian Review. 

"If you look around the country you can see the results of the development and where the monies went. This government [referring to the coalition] has only been taking loans but we see nothing in terms of physical development for the past three years," he said. 

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe came to power promising large-scale foreign investments in the country, but turned their backs on Chinese-funded projects. The most significant of those was their suspension of the offshore city that commenced work during Rajapaksa's tenure.  Yet, they were unable to secure any notable foreign investments from other sources. 

Early last year, the government was also embarrassed when both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe laid what they claimed was the foundation stone for a Volkswagen vehicle assembly plant in Sri Lanka, only to have the German automaker issue a rebuttal denying it had anything to do with the factory. The only significant development in Colombo since their election was a recently completed 533m-long flyover in a suburb. Wickremesinghe's United National Party has repeatedly pointed to this achievement so far in the election campaign. 

Despite the coalition's allegations against Rajapaksa, they had not been able to prove any of it. Just months after Sirisena won the 2015 presidential election, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera claimed that Rajapaksa and his immediate family had siphoned off some $18 billion in offshore accounts in Dubai and Seychelles. Even though the government in 2015 sought assistance from those authorities, there was no breakthrough in the investigations. 

Lightning strikes behind commercial tower near a financial city in Colombo.   © Reuters

Rambukwella said of the coalition: "They came to power promising to catch the culprits who were involved in corruption, but three years later nothing has happened. So, either this government is really inefficient or their allegations have turned out to be baseless." 

Three years is a long time in politics and with the dying down of these allegations, Rajapaksa has a real chance of regaining power. During one of his campaigns this month, Rajapaksa said to voters: "Now is the time to correct the mistake made in 2015 by voting for the flower bud symbol [referring to the party emblem]. I am sure we will be able to gain power of the local authorities including municipal councils in the country." 

The February vote will elect 8,293 members to local authorities including 24 municipal councils and 41 urban councils. A total of 15.8 million Sri Lankans are eligible to vote.

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