Rajapaksa calls early Sri Lanka election as popularity slumps - Bloomberg
Friday, 21 November 2014 01:17
Bloomberg: Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa called an early election today as he seeks to extend his decade-long rule amid signs of a drop in popularity and opposition allegations he’s creating a family dynasty.
Rajapaksa signed a proclamation declaring his intention to hold a presidential election, according to a post on his official Twitter account. His ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party picked him as its presidential candidate last night after he completed four years of his second six-year term, a statement on the president’s website said. No date has been set.
A loss for Rajapaksa, 69, would dismantle a government dominated by members of his family that has been accused by opponents of misusing state resources, allowing human rights violations and making Sri Lanka overly dependent on China -- all charges he denies. The president is banking on South Asia’s fastest growth rate to see him through as memories fade of his victory over ethnic minority Tamil separatists.
“When the same regime has been in power for a considerably long period of time, a culture of abuse of power and corruption sets in,” Jayadeva Uyangoda, professor of political science at the University of Colombo, said by phone. “People are now aware and weary of this.”
The island’s main stock market index, which surged more than 200 percent in the two years following peace, has climbed 28 percent this year. The government forecasts a budget deficit of 4.6 percent of gross domestic product next year, a 40-year low, and economic growth of about 8 percent.
Fatigue with Rajapaksa’s administration is growing among lower-middle class residents who aren’t seeing the benefits of economic growth and are concerned about corruption, according to Romita Das, Singapore-based South Asia analyst at Control Risks.
“Holding elections earlier would make sense strategically, but even then the president is likely to receive a weaker popular mandate compared to the previous election,” she said. “The Rajapaksa-led administration no longer comfortably basks in the glow of its 2009 victory.”
Rajapaksa won about 60 percent of the 10.4 million votes cast in the January 2010 presidential election, the biggest majority in 16 years, which came shortly after the end of a civil war that killed as many as 40,000 people. His United People’s Freedom Alliance won 64 percent of parliamentary seats in a separate election a few months later.
Support for Rajapaksa’s coalition has eroded this year, with its vote share falling in three parliamentary by-elections. The biggest decline was a 21 percentage point drop in Uva province two months ago, triggering speculation about an early election to stem the opposition’s momentum.
The president’s opponents have accused him of nepotism and pressuring the judiciary, saying the impeachment of former chief justice Shirani Bandaranayake in 2013 was politically motivated. The U.S. State Department said in a 2013 report that Sri Lankan polls have been “fraught with election law violations by all major parties, especially the governing coalition’s use of state resources for its own advantage.”
Rajapaksa holds Sri Lanka’s defense and finance portfolios as well as ports, highways and aviation. His brother Basil Rajapaksa is minister of economic development. Another sibling, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is the defense secretary, and the president’s son Namal is a member of parliament.
Rajapaksa denies charges of wrongdoing, spokesman Mohan Samaranayake said by phone on Nov. 18.
“The president has used his executive powers to prevent the division of the country, usher in peace, stability and reconciliation and ensure rapid development,” Samaranayake said.
Rajapaksa’s woes have come even after the $67 billion economy has grown an average 7 percent each year since the civil war ended and inflation last month was the slowest since 2009. To boost his popularity, Rajapaksa has cut fuel and electricity prices while increasing state employees’ wages, raising pensions and lifting guaranteed crop prices for farmers.
Rajapaksa is preparing a fresh manifesto “aimed at improving people’s quality of life, and encouraging business and a service economy,” Environment Minister Susil Premajayantha said by telephone on Nov. 14. “It will be an extension of his development plan, to help continue the growth momentum.”
The main opposition United National Party will back a candidate selected from among opposition parties to defeat Rajapaksa, leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said on Nov. 12. Champika Ranawaka, Sri Lanka’s technology minister, resigned Nov. 18 saying his Jathika Hela Urumaya party wants constitutional amendments to balance power between the parliament and president.
The opposition would also pursue a more balanced foreign policy, according to Harsha de Silva, a UNP lawmaker. Sri Lanka has seen Chinese government lending increase 50-fold over the past decade to $490 million in 2012, more than double the amount from Western countries, while allowing Chinese submarines to dock at a port in its capital.
“We will certainly not follow the current policy of almost using China to intimidate India,” de Silva said. “We aren’t going to depend so much on any one country.”
Rajapaksa will be the front-runner due to his control over state machinery, said Sasha Riser-Kositsky, an analyst at Eurasia Group in Washington. He predicted Rajapaksa will allow more communal violence to project himself as the “champion” of the majority Sinhalese Buddhists as the government refuses to cooperate with a United Nations panel to probe allegations of human rights violations during the civil war.
“Most opposition parties support most of Rajapaksa’s populist economic policies and would likely continue them,” Riser-Kositsky said. “But at the same time a non-Rajapaksa government would likely do more to improve Sri Lanka’s international standing.”