On Feb.10, Sri Lankans will go to the polls to vote for their local representatives. But the outcome of these village elections will have much wider repercussions as they will ultimately determine if China will play a bigger role in Sri Lanka’s development. The battle for Sri Lanka’s heartlands is being fought out by the country’s twice defeated pro-China former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and the incumbent pro-India coalition government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The local council election is the coalition government’s first test since it came to power in January 2015, and will also determine Rajapaksa’s political future. Rajapaksa is looking at making a comeback with his new party, Sri Lanka People’s Front. More commonly known in Sinhala as the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the party is attempting to take control of local authorities including municipal councils.
Sri Lanka’s relationship with China had deteriorated after Rajapaksa lost to the coalition, which had focused on strengthening ties with the West and mending links with India that had soured as Rajapaksa cozied up to Beijing.
In the event Rajapaksa’s SLPP wins the majority of local authorities, it will mean that his party will have control of finances for those councils. This in turn means that he may once again beckon his favorite lender and builder, China, to kickstart the development of infrastructure, waste facilities and even housing in these villages.