A new day, and the sun rises over Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport. A tourist might be greeted by any number of sounds; the dawn chorus of tropical birds, palm leaves rustled by the breeze, or the gentle spray of a fountain. One thing is for sure: there won’t be any planes. The commercially disastrous airport lies in the middle of the Sri Lankan jungle, for no other reason than the ambitious personal project of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to develop his home town into the economic centre of the Indian Ocean. Here, the shadow of the Rajapaksa regime, an administration that ended the country’s bitter civil war, quite literally hangs over the region. The man himself was ousted in 2015 after a surprise election defeat, but the Rajapaksa dynasty still dominates Sri Lanka today, and despite the government’s best efforts, will not be fading into the background anytime soon.
In order to understand the current situation, however, it is useful to look back at Rajapaksa’s time in office. He rose to power with the centre-left Sri Lanka Freedom Party on a pledge to defeat the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), and thereby end the drawn-out civil war mainly taking place in the north of the country. This he did, but has since been dogged by war crime allegations and gained the enmity of many of the ethnically Tamil regions. Other priorities during his tenure were mainly infrastructure projects such as Mattala Rajapaksa Airport and its US$1.5bn partner, Mahinda Rajapaksa Port. The port is famously devoid of shipping to the extent that the current government has been forced to lease the entire facility to the Chinese. Having brought to a close the civil war that defined the country since the 1980s, Rajapaksa comfortably won the 2010 presidential elections, embarking on a second term. Aiming to repeat this success in 2014 following a constitutional amendment relaxing the rules on re-election, Rajapaksa found himself challenged unexpectedly by Maithripala Sirisena, his own former health minister. Pledging to curb presidential powers and investigate misconduct in the civil war, Sirisena achieved a shock victory with the support of Tamil regions. Far from consolidating his presidency, Rajapaksa’s gamble backfired and he now found himself out in the political wilderness.
Yet two years later, Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family still matter in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a country made up of ethnic divisions, deepened by the civil war. Just as the Tamils flocked to vote for Sirisena, the majority Sinhalese south are largely through-and-through Rajapaksa loyalists. To them the end, victory over the LTTE, was worth the disputed means. And the seeds of a Rajapaksa comeback have already been sown. Unlike any previous president, he won election to the Sri Lankan parliament after his defeat. It is a clear indication that his ambitions have not yet been satisfied, or perhaps that he intends to throw a spanner in the works of Sirisena’s regime, who are attempting to fulfil their pledge on war crimes.
But why worry? The continued political involvement of a former president would hardly be a concern. To see what is at stake, it is once again necessary to look back at his tenure. Rajapaksa himself held four separate ministerial positions whilst president. Two relatives held deputy and non-cabinet positions from 2005, the administration’s inception. But later on, in 2007 and 2010 respectively, two more members of the Rajapaksa clan were introduced and given full ministerial briefs, leaving the family in charge of ministries such as Economic Development, Finance and Planning and Highways, Ports and Shipping. Projects like the MRIA therefore acquire a new significance, not just a symbol of Rajapaksa’s struggling economic initiatives but a concrete and steel sign of the power his family wielded over the small, strategically important island.
Power that has undeniably abated, but shows definite signs of returning. Rajapaksa is aware that he retains a large following. Moreover, cracks are beginning to appear in the Sirisena government. The president appears to be undecided regarding war crimes allegations, declaring in 2016 that he would not allow a single soldier to be brought to trial, but hinting on November 12th that some prosecutions could indeed be made. Sirisena’s professed anti-corruption drive seems to be almost devoid of media attention, making his government increasingly easy game for a resurgent Rajapaksa.
And the former president appears to be well aware of this. Rajapaksa, for all his faults, understand the political process like few of his rivals. He practices the art of charisma to near perfection, and his public profile remains high. It is considered that he still commands the loyalty of 55 MPs in the SLFP, more than the president can muster. It seems the man himself is perfectly positioned to wait out Sirisena’s government, pledged to solve the transparency problem of a country that, a year into his ‘regime of good governance’, still occupied 95th place on the Corruption Perceptions Index. Sirisena’s targets are, in a country still recovering from civil war, nigh-on unattainable, and it is only a matter of time before one of two situations arises. The first is that Sirisena will find himself in another presidential runoff against Rajapaksa, only this time with a difficult record to defend and lacking the element of surprise that allowed him to carry the election in 2015. The other scenario is that a weakened Sirisena, remaining president into the next term, may be forced to appoint Rajapaksa prime minister to stabilise his own government. The prime ministerial role was even strengthened by Sirisena as part of his curb on presidential powers. Either situation, with or without Sirisena, looks positive for his rival.
The final question to ask is what could be expected of a Rajapaksa return. Domestically it would almost certainly mean heavy investment in his Sinhala heartland, and an end to the war crimes probe that has dogged members of his own administration. Corruption investigations would likely also be ended, especially since Rajapaksa’s own brother Gotabaya is one of the most recent victims. The most important consequence would be further political instability as Rajapaksa attempts to entrench his dynasty, in a region in which China has shown steadily increasing interest over the past few years. The Chinese invested heavily in the Rajapaksa regime, and its return would be a geopolitical coup for them. Companies owned by the Chinese government already hold a commanding stake in Mahinda Rajapaksa Port, and a pro-Chinese Rajapaksa would be keen to further work on the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ of which Sri Lanka is a central component. The implications of a Rajapaksa return would therefore reach far beyond Colombo, eroding Indian influence in south Asia and bolstering the economic and political hand of the Chinese. In a region that is already the centre of a strategic game of chess between China, India and the West, it is high time the global media recognised its significance.