The statement made by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Medamulana in launching his bid to run for parliamentary elections is more a repeat of history than a new development. It poses fresh challenges to at least three key spheres of Sri Lanka and could well send it down a more destructive path.
On the triple fronts of economic development, good governance and reconciliation, Rajapaksa’s presence in Parliament would be divisive. As economists call for economic growth dependent on investment and economic diversification, a return to Rajapaksa’s ill-planned, import substitution-based and loan-dependent growth would not result in sustainable growth. While it is true significant growth was experienced during his time in power few can deny that it was steeped in corruption and nepotism and would not have been sustained.
The mandate given to President Sirisena in January was specifically against corruption and bringing back its kingpin will not push Sri Lanka towards good governance but rather roll back the few steps already taken.
In this instance not only would it be Rajapaksa looking to return but also his fervent loyalists who have also had allegations of corruption against them. Therefore it is not a new chapter but a return to a rather well-thumbed one that has already been rejected by the people.
Perhaps the sphere that will be most challenged by a Rajapaksa return would be reconciliation. Even in the first speech uttered by him on Wednesday there was significant effort to give life to the LTTE ghost and play on sensitive ethnic issues. He clearly stated that national security was “under threat” and put forward warped examples to prove his misguided points. He spoke extensively on how law and order was protected and the Constitution respected during his time, statements that would have been greeted with bewilderment by a public capable of remembering the controversial impeachment of former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike and the passing of the 18th Amendment.
Voters will need to use these and many other memories collected during the last nine years to decide who they will vote for on 17 August. Democracy is a messy business but it’s the best kind of rule the world has and it is entirely dependent on responsible citizens who refuse to be hoodwinked by destructively outdated ideas.
Now that the obvious has happened, public attention will return to debate over which party will give Rajapaksa nominations. The former president is undoubtedly well aware that he will have a tough road if he contests through a different party. A parliamentary election is a different animal from a presidential one and the common practice is the leader of the party that bags the most number of seats will be given the Prime Ministerial chair.
This means Rajapaksa has to have enough loyalists to muster a simple majority in the 225-seat house, a difficult effort given the current political climate. But nominations from the SLFP would be a different ballgame as it would have sufficient parliamentarians who would be able to retain their constituencies, thereby making it easier for Rajapaksa to build momentum as the mere ‘face’ of the campaign.
A new contest has begun and for the sake of the country the only hope is that it ends with the old result.