Mahinda Rajapaksa's SLPP wins big in Sri Lanka's local body polls: Is former president on comeback trail?

Mahinda Rajapaksa seems to be back in the reckoning since his party registered a spectacular victory in the recently-concluded local body elections in Sri Lanka. The former Lankan president's party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), won 225 out of the 340 directly-elected councils in the island nation, while routing the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Maithripala Sirisena and United Nationalist Party (UNP). Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe belongs to UNP.

Buoyed by the victory, Rajapaksa has now demanded an early election in the country. "These results show people want a change now. The government has lost its mandate," Reuters quoted him as saying.

While the election is scheduled to be held only in 2020, the president can dissolve the parliament if over two-thirds of the members pass a resolution to that effect. A confident Rajapaksa, according to The Hindu, has said that his supporters in the parliament may support such a resolution.

For Rajapaksa, this is the first major victory after failing in his bid to become the prime minister in the August 2015 parliamentary elections, where the Wickremesinghe-led UNP gained enough seats to form a stable government.

In January 2015, no one expected Rajapaksa to lose the top job given his strong hold over the government, boosted by his role in eliminating the 26-year-long civil war in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province. Sri Lanka has been following executive presidency since 1978. However, Rajapaksa soon landed in trouble, along with his two brothers who held the high office, for alleged corruption and abuse of power during his time in office.

 Mahinda Rajapaksas SLPP wins big in Sri Lankas local body polls: Is former president on comeback trail?

File image of former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Reuters

After a surprise defeat at the hands of his former cabinet colleague Sirisena, Rajapaksa is making a comeback of sorts by rallying his support base of rural Sinhala Buddhists, who form the majority of the country's population, noted Reuters.

Two factors are augmenting Rajapaksa's so-called comeback chances — Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo's failure to bring economic reforms which was promised in 2015 and SLFP's dysfunctional coalition with rival UNP.

The Economist noted that Sirisena has been unable to fulfill many of the promises like devolution of more power to the parliament, boosting federalism, and sending leaders from the Rajapaksa-era behind bars on corruption charges. The report also noted that faulty economic policies as well as UNP's own corruption embroglio helped Rajapaksa make a comeback in the local body elections.

Rajapaksa's campaign targetted an uptick in inflation, higher taxes imposed by the government and its moves to privatise state assets.

After the victory, Rajapaksa said, "To overcome this economic crisis, we are urging the government to hold parliamentary elections immediately in order to set up a stable government."

With the poor showing in the polls, Sirisena also faces the prospect of defections by leaders of the ruling SLFP, media commentators have noted.

While believing that the government may not fall for now, Sri Lanka Guardian, in an oped, noted, "The former president and his supporters have been campaigning on the basis that this poll will be a ‘referendum’ on the popular view of the government. This is undoubtedly true even though local issues could have had some bearing on how people voted. However, it is unlikely to have been the dominant factor."

With inputs from Reuters

Updated Date: Feb 13, 2018 11:47:10 IST