Though Sri Lanka’s August elections have been timed to stop a comeback by war-time president Mahinda Rajapaksa, he may see his popularity rise in the coming months if he is criticised for war crimes in a UN report, government sources have said.
Rajapaksa’s crushing of a 26-year Tamil Tiger insurgency in 2009 won him support among the country’s Sinhalese majority and he still has a strong following. Thousands rallied to hear him announce his comeback campaign on a Buddhist holiday in Hambantota district last Wednesday (1).
“He is popular and a strong campaigner among Sinhala masses with the war victory,” said Kusal Perera, director of the Centre for Social Democracy, a Colombo-based think tank.
A UN report on the last days of the war is due to be released in September, but an aide to president Maithripala Sirisena said diplomatic sources had warned that it may be leaked in late August.
The possibility of an early release prompted Sirisena to call elections for August 17, in order to give his ally prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe an edge and hopefully deny Rajapaksa any chance of a political resurgence, said sources close to Sirisena.
“Even if is not said openly, the UN report was considered when deciding the date,” Champika Ranawaka, power and energy minister and one of Sirisena’s close allies, said.
Foreign diplomatic sources said some Western countries also worried the UN report could help Rajapaksa and urged Sirisena not to delay elections.
Dissolving parliament for August elections has also saved Wickremesinghe from a scheduled no-confidence motion over alleged mismanagement of the economy.
Sirisena has been trying to reverse some of the steps Rajapaksa took to consolidate power, by depoliticising state institutions such as the police, judiciary and public services.
A former minister in Rajapaksa’s administration, Sirisena defected last year to become president, promising fresh elections in 2015. But since taking office, he has failed to pass electoral reforms due to opposition from his main ruling coalition partner, the United National Party, and members of his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), who remain loyal to Rajapaksa.