During his tenure in power, Mahinda Rajapaksa was considered a very clever politician. Some even called him Machiavelli. However, the way he behaved before and after the presidential election called into question his political judgment and even intelligence.
It was increasingly becoming clear for example in 2014 that Rajapaksa and his government were growing unpopular especially among minority communities. Tamils of course disliked Rajapaksa. The Muslims were also becoming wary of his attitude. With limited support within the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency and almost no support within the two major minority communities, even a political novice would know that Rajapaksa could not win a presidential election in 2015. He however, had two more years to go as president.
An intelligent leader would have used the remaining two years to address the issues that made his government unpopular and then called the election at the end of his term in office. Rajapaksa was overconfident, which coupled with the arrogance produced by the war victory prevented him from looking at his chances in the presidential election realistically. The contribution of Rajapaksa’s advisors within and outside of his government for his downfall cannot also be underestimated.
This author does not believe that Rajapaksa wanted to continue in active politics in the immediate aftermath of the presidential election. Rajapaksa wanted to retire like the presidents before him. That was exactly why he left his office even before the final results were announced officially. However, during his semi-retirement he was made to believe that he has the capacity to win the parliamentary election. Two major factors played a role in this belief.
One, the meetings, like the one held in Nugegoda were pulling massive crowds. The huge turn-outs thrilled Rajapaksa and his surpporters.They started to call him the Nugegoda man; suggesting that he will rise again. Rajapaksa failed to recognize that these crowds did not represent the demography of the country and the political sentiments that prevailed. The crowds were really misleading.
In an article entitled Nugegoda: Rajapaksa Exploited?, this author pointed out that “the real implication of the Nugegoda rally, perhaps, is the slowing down of the reform agenda, not the rise (or re-rise) of Rajapaksa.” Rajapaksa and his advisors were looking at these meetings in isolation.
Two, Rajapaksa believed that the 58 lakhs votes he received in the presidential election were solid and they will not disintegrate. The Rajapaksa faction also believed that the votes Maithripala Sirisena gained against Rajapaksa would scatter among the United National Party (UNP), the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The “58 lakhs votes” slogan was in a way a lie because all of them were not genuine votes. A portion of them included votes gained through coercion and inducements. The unlimited resources Rajapaksa had in his disposal as the president allowed him to gain these votes. It is possible that some of these votes were obtained illegally. These votes could not be regained in the general election without the assistance of state power. In the parliamentary election the UPFA gained only about 47 lakhs votes, 10 lakhs less than what Rajapaksa polled in the presidential election.
Convinced that he could easily win the parliamentary election, Rajapaksa eventually contested as the de facto prime ministerial candidate. Obviously, Rajapaksa’s reentry did not help the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) to win the election. His party managed to secure only 95 parliamentary seats in the 225 seat national legislature. The question is did he help the party to gain more votes than it could have done without Rajapaksa. This author believes that Rajapaksa in fact dented UPFA’s chances of winning the election.
Cause of the Defeat?
When Rajapaksa was contemplating the idea of contesting the general election, Ranil Wickremesinghe challenged him to do so, if he had the courage. This was not mere rhetoric, but strategic. The UNP wanted Rajapaksa to contest the election because his candidacy would provide a concrete slogan against the UPFA. Without Rajapaksa the allegations of authoritarianism and abuse of power would look feeble because conventional wisdom was that it was Rajapaksa, his family and close allies who abused power and others in his government were helpless.
During the election campaign, the United National Front (UNF) targeted Rajapaksa’s personality, his style of governance and the abuses that took place under his administration. The UNF also effectively used the fear of the possibility of returning to the era of darkness to its advantage. The campaign advertisements that reminded the voter of the culture of “white vans,” for example, worked well for the UNF. By supporting and promoting Rajapaksa, the UPFA owned the abuses of the Rajapaksa era providing the UNF an added advantage.
It is also safe to assume that Rajapaksa’s candidacy also mobilized the minority communities against the UPFA. The Tamils voted for the TNA while the Muslims favored Muslim parties that aligned with the UNF. Without Rajapaksa, at least a small segment of the minority votes could have been salvaged by the UPFA.
A movement for good governance came into force during the presidential election which eventually brought Rajapaksa down. The movement dissipated with the defeat of Rajapaksa in the presidential election. Rajapaksa’s involvement in the general election on the other hand reenergized the movement as there was a strong desire to preserve the victory achieved in January 2015.
Rajapaksa’s candidacy in fact threatened the continuation of the gains made in January. For example, Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera’s National Movement for a Just Society and about hundred civil society organizations officially renewed their understanding with the UNF a few weeks before the election. This coalition and the understanding reached certainly, helped the UNF to win more votes.
President Maithripala Sirisena despite being the president of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the predominant entity of the UPFA, refused to be part of the campaign because of Rajapaksa’s involvement. This announcement would have also removed a segment of the SLFP votes from the UPFA. Without Rajapaksa, the responsibility of leading the UPFA campaign would have rested with President Sirisena. Sirisena’s leadership had the potential to facilitate more votes to the UPFA. For example, some of the minority groups, independent advocates of good governance and Sirisena supporters themselves would have voted for the UPFA. These factors indicate that Rajapaksa indeed damaged the possibility of a UPFA victory in the just concluded parliamentary election.