Mahinda Rajapaksa, hero of the military victory over the LTTE that earned him a second term without fuss in 2010, is now locked in a grim battle for survival in this week’s presidential election, facing strong internal revolt.
Capping the revolt is a series of defections including the desertion by his health minister and General Secretary of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Maithripala Sirisena, who is now his challenger in the January 8 polls.
69-year-old Rajapaksa, who amended constitution soon after his victory in 2010 to give himself a third term, for once looks vulnerable and less assured of victory after the defections to the fragmented opposition ranks.
A confident Rajapaksa had called the election two years ahead of schedule, hoping to win a record third six-year term before the defeat of Tigers fades in the memory of the people of the island which saw a three decades war over the demand of a separate Tamil Eelam.
The next day, though, Sirisena – who had publicly called for Rajapaksa to run again – made his own surprise announcement of walking out on him and to challenge him.
That set off a wave of political turmoil and energised a long-dispirited opposition that had not been looking forward to the election.
Achala Jagoda became the 26th legislator to join the opposition unity candidate 63-year-old Sirisena in the endless stream of defections.
Both the president and his challenger belong to the majority Sinhala Buddhist community and much depends on how the minorities Tamils and Muslims vote in the elections.
Muslim parties and groups had major grievances over the handling of the anti-Muslim violence last year.
“One family has captured the country’s economy, wealth, administration and the management of the political party,” says Sirisena as he campaigns for an end to the vice-like grip the president and his family members have over the system.
Rajapaksa’s brothers – Gotabhaya and Basil – are defence and economic ministers respectively besides a number of his family members who are holding key posts and positions.