The stage is set. The special statement by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa will direct the upcoming parliamentary election and with it the future of Sri Lanka.
At present the fall of cards is anyone’s guess. Conflicting reports have spewed confusion with Rajapaksa loyalists insisting the former president is readying to contest even without the support of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Yet others insist President Maithripala Sirisena will give nominations to his predecessor paving the way for a joint push with the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA).
Many would agree Rajapaksa’s best chance is a do-or-die moment on 17 August. Nearing 70 years, the former president cannot afford to wait another five years to stage a comeback when his key achievements of winning the war and infrastructure based development have faded in the minds of the people. A United National Party (UNP) parliament will also undermine his loyalists, expose corruption and create a space where his particular brand of narrow nationalism will be tempered with more open minded reconciliation. Therefore, he has to make a last stand now and use his loyalists within the SLFP and parliament to cut out a path to power, in such a journey though the variables are many.
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 Minister chair. This means Rajapaksa has to have enough loyalists to muster a simple majority in the 225-seat house, a near-impossible 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.
With the honeymoon period of the UNP Government largely over, the public may see a case for Rajapaksa’s particular brand of development. Yet few would be blind to the fact that if the UPFA manage to make it to the election battle under a Rajapaksa banner it would push minority and other parties towards the UNP.
This is surely not the image President Sirisena set out to build when he ousted Rajapaksa in January. Reports have indicated Sirisena has dispatched his loyalists to minority parties to sound them out but any tentative exchanges will pale before the re-entry of Rajapaksa.
Other parties such as the JVP and JHU would also have to see where there alliances would fall in a new parliament. Clearly the JVP will contest independently, the JHU may consider a coalition but they would find matching policies with the UNP difficult having aligned themselves with Sirisena in the past six months.
Nonetheless, directly appealing for votes may also prove to be a gamble as they would be vying for the same vote base as Rajapaksa and the new entry party of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).
With so many political permutations the next few weeks will be anything but straightforward. If Rajapaksa renters the fray a bitter battle will ensue but it will not end with the vote. The worry is that political polarisation of ethnicities will become the norm in the new parliament derailing critical reconciliation efforts and the best chance Sri Lanka has had to clear its international reputation.