Election Watch: Sri Lanka’s unsurprising surprise

Global media are surprised that Sri Lanka’s strongman former president performed so well in this month’s local elections. The real mystery is why he lost power in 2015.

Sri Lanka's election

Local troubles

Sri Lanka staged local council elections in February. The result was a decisive victory for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), a vehicle created in 2016 for former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, a man vilified in the West for his brutal – but effective – tactics that defeated the Tamil Tiger insurgency in 2009.

When Rajapaksa’s brother Basil founded the SLPP in November 2016, Allan & Associates forecast that:

The new party could substantially weaken the SLFP, which controls the presidency, and the United National Party (UNP), which provides the prime minister in Sri Lanka’s unusual French-style system. At the moment, this arrangement is cast as an alliance. The new party is likely to draw pro-Rajapaksa legislators away from the SLFP.

In the 14 months since, 54 legislators have defected from the SLFP, inducing panic in the party and whittling down the majority of the incumbent SLFP-UNP coalition government. That the new party won 45 per cent of the vote in the local elections, more than the SLFP and UNP combined (33 and 9 per cent respectively), was thus part of an ongoing trend.

The major surprise was the surprise of Western media. Reuters described it as an ‘unexpectedly strong showing’. It quoted Shailesh Kumar, a director with political risk consultants Eurasia Group, who said that: ‘Rajapaksa’s electoral performance comes as a surprise.’ CNN said the ‘return of Rajapaksa to public life marks an unlikely turnaround’ in his fortunes. This was despite Rajapaksa’s 2015 defeat being widely reported at the time as a ‘shock’.

What next?

Already, there are signs that the government’s legal purge of the Rajapaksa family is faltering in the face of the new party’s success. The Rajapaksa brothers were accused by their detractors of cronyism and corruption when in power, with Mahinda promoting his siblings to high office. Last month President Sirisena, the man who so sensationally defeated President Rajapaksa three years ago, admitted that he had ordered the government not to arrest Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former defence secretary, unless it was absolutely sure of its case. The SLFP is publicly urging the Rajapaksas to return to its fold, though it is hard to see why they now would.

Strategically, the implications are limited until 2020, when Sri Lanka holds its next general election. Thereafter the ramifications should worry investors.

Much of Rajapaksa’s victory in the local elections was won on the basis of scaremongering against Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority.

Much of Rajapaksa’s victory in the local elections was won on the basis of scaremongering against Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. His party claimed that the government intended to revive the concept of a ‘Tamil Eelam’, an autonomous Tamil homeland in the north and east of the country that was the main goal of the defeated Tamil Tigers. Again, this line of political attack, effective amongst the island’s Buddhist Sinhalese majority, was foreseen by Allan & Associates upon the formation of the SLPP two years ago:

The Rajapaksa bloc can be expected to oppose any constitutional concessions to Tamils, for instance a federal system that gives them provincial autonomy or any dilution of Buddhism’s role as the official religion. Tamils are mostly Hindus.


Rajapaksa’s surprise defeat in 2015 remains the real shock. He is considered a hero by many members of Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-speaking Buddhist majority for the way in which he shrugged off international condemnation to win the country’s civil war, with little regard for Tamil civilian life. His election defeat led to a widespread belief amongst his supporters that Rajapaksa had fallen victim to an electoral conspiracy staged from abroad, with the finger most often pointed at India…

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