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'Imperial' Rajapaksa finds his throne at risk

A vendor sells plastic swans, the symbol of the main opposition party at Maithripala Sirisena's final campaign rally in Colombo. Photo by Marwaan Macan-Markar

COLOMBO -- Sri Lanka's 15 million voters go to the polls on Jan. 8 in an election offering voters a choice between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and challenger Maithripala Sirisena. After a slow start, Sirisena seems to be making headway with voters, raising the possibility of defeat for a leader who ended the nation's 30 year civil war and had earlier appeared unbeatable. 

    Critics say Rajapaksa has monarchical leanings. He called the election two years before his second term expires, after overturning a constitutional ban that prevented him from running a third time.

     Rajapaksa is said to relish being called Maharajano -- meaning "great and virtuous king" in Sinhala, the language of the majority Sinhalese -- and comparisons to Dutugemunu, an ancient Sinhalese warrior king from the south, where Rajapaksa's political roots lie. Both names were applied to him after Sri Lankan troops defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels in a blood-soaked campaign that ended in May 2009.

I am the state

A series of constitutional changes and other measures have turned the civil service, the police and the election commission into appendages of the executive president, as the head of state is formally known, and have placed Rajapaksa virtually above the law. The judiciary, which had displayed some independence from the presidency, has been largely cowed by the 18th amendment to the constitution, which allows the president to appoint and remove senior judges and other public officials. Shirani Bandaranayake, the chief justice, was removed in January 2013 after opposing one of Rajapaksa's policies.

     Rajapaksa's autocratic rule has been widely criticized by international observers. Transparency International, a Berlin-based group that monitors corruption, said in a 2014 report that the 18th amendment undermines the independence of Sri Lanka's election and anti-corruption commissions, as well as that of the judiciary. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based watchdog, wrote in its 2014 World Report that the government has tortured Tamil opponents since the war and intimidated the media and civil organizations. Amnesty International, a U.K-based rights group, said in December that the government had fostered "a climate of impunity" that encourages violations of civil and political rights.

A supporter of President Mahinda Rajapaksa walks with a bundle of promotional materials in front of billboards of Rajapaksa in Colombo. Photo by Marwaan Macan-Markar

Stacked deck

Some Sri Lankans agree. "We cannot expect justice in the court[s]," said one resident in Kolonnawa, a town on the eastern edge of Colombo. "The president's men blatantly get away after breaking the law."

     Unseating the 69-year-old Rajapaksa, South Asia's longest-serving leader, will be a tall order for his challenger. The government electoral machine is working hard in support of the president, who won his first term in 2005 by only 180,000 of the 9.59 million votes cast.

     Using the state's resources, every corner of the country has been plastered with posters praising Rajapaksa, giving the impression that the election is a one-horse race. Images of a muscular and triumphant president in short-sleeved shirts, arms aloft, have been carefully crafted to "appeal to the female voters," according to one political observer.

     Sri Lanka's military triumphs, rapid road and infrastructure development, and the creation of a more attractive capital are all credited to the president, as is strong economic growth since the end of the civil war. The Asian Development Bank forecasts gross domestic product growth at 7.5% in 2014 and 2015.

     But after nine years in office, Rajapaksa's clan has become a serious liability -- one the 63-year-old Sirisena has exploited during the monthlong campaign. He is well placed to do so. Until mid-November, when Rajapaksa announced he would seek a third term, Sirisena was a senior cabinet minister and general secretary of Rajapaksa's Sri Lanka Freedom Party, making him second in command of the dominant party in the governing coalition.

     His defection to the opposition camp, which Sirisena justified as vital to restore Sri Lanka's embattled democratic culture, dimmed the president's aura of invincibility. Sirisena has pledged to abolish the executive presidency within his first 100 days in office, making the president accountable once again, and to restore the independence of the commissions that oversee the civil service, police, elections and judiciary. "The president will be made answerable to the legislature," he says.

A family affair

The battle over accountability gives this presidential election a different complexion from previous ones, where the fault lines lay between rural and urban voters, or between the country's ethnic groups. This time the vote is a referendum on the Rajapaksa style of leadership and the family privileges it entails.

     Some are well-known: One brother, Basil Rajapaksa, is a powerful cabinet minister who oversees the economy. Another, Gotabaya, is the hawkish defense secretary. Elder brother Chamal Rajapaksa is the parliamentary speaker. Namal, the president's eldest son, is a young parliamentarian who has been promoted to rub shoulders with international leaders. The government budget highlights the family's clout: More than 50% of public spending is overseen by family members.

   This concentration of power in one clan -- cousins, nephews, a brother-in-law and others -- has given Sirisena a weapon, helping make up for his wooden speeches. "One family has captured the country's economy, wealth, administration and the management of the [SLFP] political party," he told reporters recently.

Chosen few

On the campaign trail, Sirisena has unsettled voters with accounts of the opulent lifestyles of the first family, including imported sports cars and thoroughbred horses. The allegations have helped to undermine the president's carefully cultivated image as a man rooted in the pastoral world of the Sinhalese village. Sirisena, who comes from a family of rice farmers, appears to many more like a true man of the people.


Posters of opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena began popping up on street corners in Colombo late in the campaign. Photo by Marwaan Macan-Markar

   The controversy over Rajapaksa's high living has resulted in a rare setback for a leader with a record of savvy politicking. As the campaign drew to a close, 25 parliamentarians from the government's ranks followed Sirisena into opposition, disillusioned with the Rajapaksa family's dominance over the state and its leading political party. Their appearance at Sirisena political rallies has breathed life into an opposition campaign that at the outset appeared chaotic, short of cash and limited in reach.

   "There is a great shift towards the opposition candidate, but is this shift strong enough to overcome the statistical advantage from previous polls that Mahinda enjoys?" said Jayadeva Uyangoda, a professor of political science at Colombo University. "The three reasons for this [shift] are regime fatigue, the abuse of power and corruption, and [Rajapaksa's] authoritarian style of governance."

Sticks and carrots

Among sections of the country's mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority, especially those who live in Sri Lanka's rural heartland, Rajapaksa's imperial style has a strong appeal. They consider it a given that this approach helped defeat the Tamil Tigers, and that it is needed to protect the country from continuing security threats.

     This strongman quality also appeals to business leaders in Colombo. They are prepared to throw their weight behind Rajapaksa to maintain the political stability he has ushered in since the war ended. Their mantra is continuity. 

   The key to Rajapaksa's political future will be the Sinhalese majority, which accounts for 70% of the population. He needs to win 70% of this community's vote. Sirisena also needs its support, but he could settle for 35%, say analysts, because he has a strong lead among Sri Lanka's ethnic and religious minorities, the Tamils and Muslims, who make up 30% of voters.

    The political parties representing these communities have thrown their weight behind him. The Muslim shift is significant because of its timing: The Muslim parties defected from Rajapaksa's camp as campaigning headed into its final stretch. Muslim votes helped Rajapaksa secure 57% of the vote in the last presidential election in January 2010.

    This may explain why signs of panic are appearing among once-confident Rajapaksa supporters. No official effort is being spared to keep Rajapaksa in power. On Jan. 1, People's Action for Free and Fair Elections, a local electoral watchdog, said government thugs had attacked pro-Sirisena rallies. Meanwhile, the rural poor are being wooed with a grab bag of gifts from the government, including chickens, shoes, and goats.

   Rajapaksa gave an intriguing glimpse of his fears at a northern rally aimed at winning support among Tamils. "The devil you know is better than the unknown angel," he said. "I am the known devil, so please vote for me." Was that a slip of the tongue or a moment of panic by a strongman worried that his days are numbered? 

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