Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has decided to advance the national elections yet again. In 2009, he had done the same to take advantage of the euphoria which was generated following the successful termination of the LTTE problem. The decision to prepone the election paid off and Rajapaksa won his second term decisively.
This time again, Rajapaksa decided the same and preponed the election (it will be held on January 8, 2015, while it was scheduled to happen in 2016) but the reason might not be the same this time. The popularity of the 69-year-old Rajapaksa is certainly not what it used to be in 2009.
Rajapaksa's vote-share fell alarmingly in by-polls
Rajapaksa's United People's Freedom Alliance saw its vote-share falling sharply in the recent parliamentary by-polls (Uva saw a 21 per cent decline) and serious charges of corruption, nepotism, economic slowdown and Chinese influence have begun to strengthen the anti-incumbency mood against the incumbent who is nearing a decade in the office.
Dipping popularity a reason to prepone poll this time?
Rajapaksa is wise enough to understand that the dipping popularity could lead to a more difficult situation at the scheduled time of the election and sought it early to try for an unprecedented third term in office with the approval of the judiciary. But will the strategic move help Rajapaksa's political fortunes?
Sirisena a serious challenger?
The January election has 19 candidates in the fray, including Rajapaksa. But the president will be particularly keeping an eye on his former Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) colleague Maithripala Sirisena, who decided to challenge Rajapaksa in the election as the common candidate of the opposition. Sirisena was in fact the health minister in the Rajapaksa government till November 21, 2014, and was sacked along with some other leaders from the party by the president for going against him.
The growing dissatisfaction with the Rajapaksa regime has suddenly widened the space for democracy in Sri Lanka and the defection of important leaders from the SLFP and the growing criticism of Rajapaksa among the beleaguered civil society of the island-nation have indicated that a political change is not entirely out of question there despite Rajapaksa being the frontrunner.
Sri Lanka could see violence if Sirisena wins
But democracy also has its price. The sudden rise of a united opposition against Rajapaksa is likely to lead to large-scale violence during and after the elections (should Sirisena wins) as Rajapaksa and his clan will unleash all resources available to the state to remain in power.
Will Bodu Bala Sena be employed?
Some observers feel the radical Buddhist outfit named Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) could also be used to fuel violence inciting Muslim backlashes and use the occasion to cement the Sinhala vote-bank. The security apparatus could also be used to restrict movement of the opposition campaigners and media and international observers to the northern and eastern provinces and intimidate Tamil and Muslim voters.
Like the suppressed soda in the bottle which forces itself out as soon as the cap is removed, Sri Lanka's politics will certainly undergo a jerking if Sirisena, the man who has promised democratic reforms if elected to power, eventually wins the January 8 election.
Rajapaksa preponed poll in 2010 as well and achieved a decisive victory
But if Sri Lanka can overcome that resolutely and embrace the change of guard and not allow the mandate to go waste, it will be gifted with a new opportunity to take on key issues like devolution of power and reconciliation among ethnic groups afresh. It will certainly be a welcome change for Sri Lanka.