A bullish Mahinda Rajapaksa said he was confident of staging a shock return to power as Sri Lanka’s prime minister in elections on Monday (17), held just months after he was toppled as president.
Voting was brisk in the early stages of the nine-hour election for 225 parliament seats, called by president Maithripala Sirisena a year ahead of schedule. Polls close at 4pm (1030 GMT), with results due on Tuesday.
Since his surprise victory over his former mentor in a January 8 presidential election, Sirisena has struggled to impose his authority over his United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and was powerless to prevent Rajapaksa from standing as one of its candidates.
And although Sirisena has threatened to invoke his executive powers to prevent Rajapaksa from becoming prime minister, his combative predecessor is hoping a strong showing will force the president to back down.
“We will win and that is certain,” Rajapaksa said shortly after voting in his home constituency of Hambantota at the astrologically auspicious time of 10.53am.
“My message is to remain calm and peacefully enjoy our victory.”
There were no reports of unrest in early voting, with officials putting the turnout in the first three hours at around 30 per cent.
Rajapaksa’s optimism is at odds with analysts’ predictions that no single party will win a majority and that the former president’s hardline nationalism will undermine his quest for coalition partners.
The 69-year-old remains hugely popular among big sections of the majority Sinhalese community for presiding over the crushing defeat of Tamil guerrillas in 2009 after their 37-year war for a separate homeland.
But while he has drawn big crowds to rallies, his denunciation of his successor for “selling out” to the Tamils has underlined his polarising nature on an island still struggling to come to terms with the past.
Sirisena is thought to prefer the United National Party (UNP) of outgoing premier Ranil Wickremesinghe to form the next government, with backing from Tamil and Muslim parties which have little love for Rajapaksa.
Speaking after he voted in Colombo, Wickremesinghe said he was confident of forming a new government that could “consolidate the January 8 revolution”.
“Let us now respect the verdict and let us all work together to build a new Sri Lanka without any disruptions,” he told reporters.
There have been no reliable opinion polls and most observers were taken by surprise when Rajapaksa was defeated after a decade in power.
Sirisena had been the secretary general of the UPFA as well as health minister before he split to run for the presidency.
Although Sirisena is now UPFA leader, his reluctant agreement to Rajapaksa’s candidacy in the parliamentary elections highlighted his shaky grip on the party.
His decision to call early polls stemmed from frustration at the blocking tactics deployed by Rajapaksa loyalists in parliament.
The former president cultivated close ties with China during his decade in power, with Beijing helping to finance a host of infrastructure projects.
During the campaign Rajapaksa pledged to press ahead with the mega projects which have partially stalled since he left power.
Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have been trying to steer Colombo away from Beijing’s close embrace and have made concerted efforts to improve ties with giant neighbour India.
The UNP has been emphasising its commitment to economic reforms and reconciliation, which it argues will be impossible under Rajapaksa.
Opponents say Rajapaksa’s real objective is to secure parliamentary immunity against possible future prosecutions.
Since his defeat in January, Rajapaksa has seen his wife and two of his brothers accused of corruption. One of his sons has also been implicated in the alleged murder of a former rugby star.
The perception that corruption flourished under Rajapaksa has damaged his reputation in the eyes of many voters.
“Ranil (Wickremesinghe) is not a thief unlike Mahinda (Rajapaksa),” said N Jayasekera, a taxi driver in Colombo, after he voted for the UNP.
His support, though, appeared as strong as ever among loyalists.
“Rajapaksa is a great man for ending the civil war in 2009. In the history of my country, there is only one hero and that is Mahinda Rajapaksa,” said Jagath Kumara, 34, after voting in Hambantota.
Rajapaksa was shunned by Western governments over the brutal end to the island’s ethnic conflict, which prompted calls for international investigators to carry out a war crimes probe.
The UN says some 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final stages of the war, one of the bloodiest in post-colonial Asia.