The Sri Lankan presidential election is turning into a battle between two politically influential families; the Rajapakse and the Premadasa families. Gotabaya Rajapakse, a former defense secretary is the younger brother of former president Mahinda Rajapakse, while Sajith Premadasa, Housing Minister, is the son of former president Ranasinghe Premadasa who was assassinated by the LTTE in 1993.
Other prominent candidates for the November 16 presidential elections are Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the Janatha Vimukthi Peranuma (JVP) and former army commander Gen Mahesh Senanayake, who are expected to cut into the support base of Premadasa and Rajapakse respectively.
Mahinda Rajapakse is the former president during whose tenure the three decades long civil war came to an end with the defeat of the Tamil separatist group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. But his ten-year long tenure as President ended in a surprising defeat in the 2015 presidential election, when he was ousted by a former colleague Maithripala Sirisena who formed a coalition with Ranil Wickremesinghe and his United National Party to win the presidential election.
Gotabaya is seen as the front-runner for the election; his campaign got an early start while Sajith Premadasa entered the fray much later as he had to force the acceptance of his candidature within the UNP’s old guard. But Sajith Premadasa’s chances got a significant boost after the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) indicated its support to him. The younger Premadasa is banking on the support that his father had among the people. Ranasinghe Premadasa is remembered in Sri Lanka as a grassroots leader who did not belong to Colombo’s ruling elite; he had a strong pro-poor outlook and had initiated several welfare schemes.
During the 2015 elections the UNP had the full backing of the TNA, but the Tamil Alliance has since been disappointed with the government’s failure to implement pre-poll assurances. The Tamil community has voiced their discontent at the incumbent government, but would be unwilling to vote for Gotabaya Rajapakse. Premadasa is seen as the better option. Both the main candidates have been wooing the majority Sinhala vote. The other significant minority, the Muslims are still shaky after the bombings on Easter Sunday in Colombo and the resulting polarization that had led to communal violence. The Tamils and Muslims are not as united as they were in 2015, and voting may get fragmented, with many people disinterested in casting their votes.
Mahinda and Gotabaya, as defence secretary were credited with the victory over Tamil Tigers, but they also faced charges of human rights violations and killings of civilians and surrendering LTTE cadres during the last stages of the civil war. Isolated from Western countries over the human rights charges, the Rajapakse government turned to China, borrowing huge sums of money to build infrastructure, but eventually ending in a debt trap.
In the post-conflict political scene, the Rajapakse family increased their dominance as various members were appointed as heads of several important institutions. The Rajapakse dominance alienated many Sri Lankans, including several in his own party. The Tamils and other minority groups felt marginalized in the atmosphere of Sinhala chauvinism in the post-war period and the absence of any efforts towards national reconciliation.
Five years later, the mood has changed after the bombings in Colombo on Easter Sunday when 250 persons were killed in the terrorist attacks. There is a desire to elect a strong leader to deal with the challenges facing the country. Confidence in the present government was shaken after it became evident that the Sirisena government had ignored repeated intelligence warnings from India regarding possible terrorist attacks.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinge combine had promised good governance, accountability and national reconciliation in 2015 but its poor performance, inefficiency and corruption together with the infighting between the two groups lost it much of its support. The rivalry reached its lowest point last year when President Sirisena dismissed Wickremesinge as Prime Minister and offered the position to Mahinda Rajapakse. Sri Lanka was plunged in a constitutional crisis as
Wickremesinge refused to leave office and Rajapakse was unable to cobble a majority in the Legislature. The crisis was resolved after the Supreme Court held Rajapakse’s appointment as illegal.
Though Mahinda Rajapakse is not an electoral candidate, he remains the guiding force of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s (SLPP) campaign. A recent constitutional amendment enhanced the powers of the Prime Minister for running the government and set a two-term limit for the President’s position. Barred from contesting for a third term, Mahinda Rajapakse is widely believed to be aiming for the Prime Minister’s post after the National Assembly elections due to
be held next year. This may hurt the chances of a Rajapakse comeback to the presidential palace by reviving the memories of the Rajapakse dominance.