Rajapaksa, people are not for ride

Sri Lankan voters have thwarted former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid to return to power as the country’s prime minister. With the United National Party (UNP)-led United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) winning 106 seats and expected to secure the support of Tamil parties to form the government, Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) is the runner-up and relegated to the Opposition benches. Rajapaksa will have to be content with the role of an opposition member of parliament.  

His defeat in the parliamentary elections, a little over seven months after he was denied a third term as president, indicates that Sri Lankan voters have not forgiven or forgotten his autocratic, corruption-ridden presidency. Although Sinhalese nationalists are grateful to him for having ended the civil war and defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, it is evident that he cannot draw electoral benefit from this endlessly. People are looking for economic growth, reconciliation etc, which he failed to deliver as president. Besides, in the seven months since his ouster from the presidency, he was not willing to mend his ways. His election campaign focused on stirring fear, dividing the country along ethnic lines and raising the LTTE bogey. It failed to strike a chord with liberal Sinhalese and others. It cost him dearly, resulting in his defeat at the parliamentary election.

However, this is not the end of the political road for Rajapaksa. He is an ambitious politician and has enough support in parliament to create trouble for the UNP government. He will seek to block the UNP government’s constitutional and electoral reform agenda. The government needs a two-thirds majority to amend the constitution and to secure this, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe must reach out to opposition MPs to build a consensus to take the reforms forward.  Reconciliation with the Tamils too must be a priority of the government. This has waited for far too long.

India, which was apprehensive over Rajapaksa’s possible return to power, will be relieved with the election result. Bilateral relations had frayed considerably during the final years of the Rajapaksa presidency; his regime’s business and other deals with the Chinese were undermining India’s security interests.  In the past six months, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had begun taking steps to correct Sri Lanka’s excessive tilt towards China. India will be hoping that with the renewed mandate, they will go further to rebuild relations with India. India must facilitate that process by being a supportive neighbour, not a hectoring big brother.

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