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Sri Lankan strongman eyes presidency in upcoming elections

Former leader Rajapaksa's brother vows security after Easter bombings

COLOMBO -- Sri Lanka's most influential political clan is eyeing a return to power by naming a hawkish former defense secretary as its candidate for presidential elections later this year, a move being billed in ultranationalist quarters as a timely return of a strongman to govern the strategically located Indian Ocean island.

The nomination of Gotabaya Rajapaksa by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, a party headed by his elder brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, ended months of speculation about who the Rajapaksa family would pick. The elder Rajapaksa, whose two terms spanning nearly 10 years was marked by his autocratic grip and his pro-China tilt, lost his bid for a third term in a surprising defeat in January 2015.

In planning their comeback, the Rajapaksas are tapping into a mood of anxiety that continues to shape the national conversation after the country was hit by its worst terrorist bombings in a decade in April on Easter Sunday. It was the first time a group of Sri Lankan Muslims had staged a suicide attack. Three churches and three hotels were targeted in Colombo and other cities, killing over 250 people and injuring hundreds.

The attacks shattered the fragile ethnic peace that had prevailed after a nearly 30-year civil war, which pitted government troops against Tamil Tiger separatists, ended in 2009. The death toll in that ethnic conflict exceeded 100,000 victims.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa wasted little time in promoting his strongman credentials when he hit the campaign trail with his speech at the mid-August convention of his party. "My top priority will be ensuring security in the country without allowing extremist terrorists to raise their heads," he said to wild cheers from the party faithful.

It is a message that has begun to resonate with the country's majority Sinhalese-Buddhist community, which has swelled into a rich vote bank for the Rajapaksas after both Mahinda and Gotabaya presided over the defeat of the Tamil Tigers during the former's first term. Posters along the streets of Sri Lankan cities affirm that the majority wants a defender of national security and a protector of the faith, the two issues that are expected to frame this year's elections.

Analysts say the Rajapaksa campaign has a strong political tailwind behind it as it fans out to gather support for its candidate. The only hurdle has an international twist: uncertainty over the U.S. government approving Gotabaya Rajapaksa's decision to renounce his U.S. citizenship -- he also holds Sri Lankan citizenship -- enabling him to run for political office. His name did not appear in a U.S. register released on Aug. 15 of individuals who have renounced their citizenship.

But that has hardly dampened voter appetite for the return of a Rajapaksa presidency. Observers regard this shift as further hints of discontent against the political alliance now governing as a coalition. The government is blamed for squandering the mandate it received in the last election to restore democratic governance and "dismantle the architecture of the Rajapaksa autocracy."

The current coalition government campaigned during the 2015 poll against the Rajapaksa regime by framing the contest along three broad themes: corruption and nepotism by the regime, the spate of alleged human rights violations ranging from the murder and disappearances of critics to claims of war crimes, and its open embrace of Chinese development projects funded through high-interest loans.

That resonated with the public, leading to Maithripala Sirisena winning 51.2% of the presidential poll over Mahinda Rajapaksa's 47.5%. But since coming to power, the coalition has been slow in its quest for justice of the charges it leveled against the Rajapaksa regime.

"The failure of the democratic experiment has legitimized the claim by the Rajapaksas for authoritarian politics," said Jayadeva Uyangoda, a former political science professor at Colombo University. "They are making the case that Sri Lanka needs a strong authoritarian leader as a panacea for security, economic development and safety of the citizens -- or a case of a strong ruler coming to repair the damage of the weak, liberal, democratic government."

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo last November. Some diplomatic sources expect a voter backlash against Wickremesinghe if he is the United National Party's presidential candidate.   © Reuters

Colombo-based diplomatic sources also contend that the United National Party headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the senior partner in the ruling coalition, faces a moment of reckoning.

Some expect a voter backlash against Wickremesinghe if he remains the UNP's favored presidential candidate in the wake of public discontent over the Easter bombings, policy inconsistencies, alleged corruption and the frequent squabbling among the deeply divided coalition. The incumbent president, Sirisena, whose popularity has declined since the April 21 bombings, is not expected to seek another term.

"Ranil has lost elections before and will lose again because he cannot attract grassroots votes," said a diplomat from a Western embassy. "Ranil as the UNP's frontman will be no match for the Sinhala nationalist wave that the Rajapaksas are trying to ride to return to power."

But signs were afoot before the current presidential election cycle. Emerging political tides surfaced early last year, when the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, which was formed in 2016, secured an impressive 44.65% of the total votes cast in its first outing in local elections. It affirmed that the Rajapaksa vote bank among main its supporters, the Sinhalese-Buddhists, had remained loyal as they had done in the 2015 election, when 47.58% voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa in his bid for a third term.

Analysts say the UNP will not be able to sidestep the political fallout from the Easter bombings, hindering its hope for a repeat of its 2015 achievement. Much support for Sirisena was drawn from progressives among the Sinhalese majority, and with sizable backing from the Tamil and Muslim minorities.

But pockets of voters from the Catholic minority deeply scarred by the bombings have grown disillusioned with the UNP and are turning toward the security that the Rajapaksa presidency is promising. Even Tamil voters along Sri Lanka's southeastern coast, where one of the attacked churches is located, are being drawn to the Rajapaksas' national security guarantee, turning against the politics of the UNP they endorsed previously.

Voters are weighing their options differently at a time when anxiety about security, race and religion are palpable, says Jude Fernando, a Sri Lankan economic anthropologist.

"I expect the race card to be played a lot during the campaign, and also the push for a strong leader as a protector," Fernando said. "What is worrying is it can lead to a campaign of hate."

The country's Muslim minority has already gotten a taste of such race-baiting in the wake of the Easter bombings. Gangs of Sinhalese, sometimes led by Buddhist monks, have vented their rage by attacking Muslim-owned shops, vandalizing mosques, orchestrating a boycott of Muslim businesses and even persecuting Muslim professionals, including doctors.

"Racism is now more institutionalized," said Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, a civil society network. "I cannot see it going back to pre-4/21."

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