The plan seemed such a simple one. Mahinda Rajapaksa called an election in November expecting to breeze past a shambolic, divided opposition and take an unprecedented third term as Sri Lanka’s president. The poll, on January 8th, would be two years earlier than necessary. It would also be the first after a constitutional amendment in 2010 that abolished a two-term limit for presidents. Everything had appeared set for Mr Rajapaksa to remain in power. Now his prospects look far less certain. The campaign has been marked by a series of defections by former allies who call him authoritarian and nepotistic (among relatives in important political jobs are a brother, Basil, who is in charge of running the economy; another brother, Gotabaya, who is defence secretary and a third, Chamal, who is parliamentary Speaker). Most striking was the exit of Maithripala Sirisena. He was both health minister in Mr Rajapaksa’s cabinet and general secretary of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). On November 21st he became the main opposition candidate. The president complains bitterly that Mr Sirisena dined with him only the night before.
Mr Sirisena, at 63, is six years younger than the president and has spent four decades in politics. In a country where a spell in jail is often a badge of pride, he can also point to 18 months behind bars (beating Mr Rajapaksa’s stint of three months). He appeals especially to rural voters: he calls himself a farmer, speaks only Sinhala and has said he would govern from the agricultural heartland of Polonnaruwa.
He is thus popular within the Sinhala Buddhist majority that was once solidly behind Mr Rajapaksa. Mr Sirisena promises sweeping changes within 100 days, including constitutional amendments; the end of corruption; energy security; even a “moral society” without drugs, liquor or cigarettes. He can point to support from prominent political figures, including a general who was defeated by Mr Rajapaksa in the last election in 2010. Mr Sirisena is backed by nearly 40 political parties and groups, notably the main opposition United National Party and some from the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance, of which the SLFP is a member. Of the alliance’s 161 parliamentarians, 23 have defected to his side. If others are included who have switched allegiances at provincial and local levels, the defection rate in this campaign has been among the highest seen in any election in Sri Lanka.
Full Article: Elections in Sri Lanka: Down to the wire | The Economist.