Time for change in Sri Lanka?: Opposition candidate Sirisena holding edge in presidential poll race

Chennai/Colombo, Jan.5 (ANI): President Mahinda Rajapaksa is a nervous man. Barely a month ago, when he announced snap presidential polls in Sri Lanka, it seemed then that he was unconquerable. Within days however, that has changed. Common opposition candidate and Rajapaksa's former health minister Maithripala Sirisena has grown from strength to strength as Sri Lanka readies for a change.

Sirisena's biggest asset is the anti-incumbency factor being faced by two-term President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Allegations of corruption, family rule by the Rajapaksa clan, misgovernance, the muzzling of the judiciary, police and the media - these are the key issues on the minds of the people as they decide on who their next president will be.

"The opposition candidate will win very comfortably, it is not a tough fight," said noted political journalist Victor Ivan in Colombo. "From this election, you can see we are living in a changing society. This will not be a victory of Maithripala, but a victory of our society. The people have a deep understanding of what went wrong from 1948 to now. They want a lot of reforms and it is time for change," he said.

The deck is stacked against incumbent Rajapaksa. Public outcry followed the passing of the 18th Amendment which broke the independent judiciary, police commissions and human rights commissions.

The executive presidency style of functioning, experts say, has deteriorated into family rule with key posts in government being held by the Rajapaksas. The media has been muzzled and attacked when the odd note of dissent is struck. Accountability and transparency have become casualties in the Rajapaksas' ascent to power.

"Ethinicity and poverty are issues here. Amongst the urban people, the rule of law is a big problem - a judiciary which is not independent is a big problem. Young people know the size of corruption, the proliferation of family-ruled politics," said Ivan.

In the rural areas, election issues centre on price rise, dispossession of land and unemployment. Sri Lanka's huge garment industry has no takers, as wages are low and working conditions terrible.

"In the rural areas in the south, most of the young men have joined the army because they couldn't find another job," says prominent trade union leader Anton Marcus.

"That is why Rajapaksa is using racism to win their votes. Conditions of work in garment industries are so bad, that there are 30,000 vacancies in this industry. Rural young women are forced to go to the Middle East to work as house maids under terrible conditions. But, they prefer to go there because, there are no other alternatives in the country," he added.

Sri Lankan Tamils in the North have their own priorities, including regaining their dispossessed land and getting justice for war crimes inflicted upon their ilk.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which is in power in the Northern Province, has thrown its weight behind Sirisena. Muslim groups in the East have also decided to support him. But the vast majority of Buddhists in the country, constituting 70 per cent of the population, will be the deciding factor in the race.

"If more than 50 per cent of Sinhala Buddhist voters decide to go with Rajapaksa, then he has a fair chance of winning," said Sumanasiri Liyanage, an academic and expert on the political economy.

"If Sirisena gets 50 per cent of the Sinhala Buddhist votes, he will be the next president. The rural areas are likely to vote for Rajapaksa as they perceive he has done a lot for them," he said.

"Growth rate in Sri Lanka is 7.8 per cent, inflation is quite low and the economy is in quite a good shape, in fact the best situation in South Asia. But when you rule for a long time, people want change," he added.

The ballot race is expected to be very close and winning margins are likely to be narrow. As the candidates head into the last leg of the campaigning before polls on January 8, the desperation is showing.

Sirisena's rallies were attacked twice in the past week, with shots being fired at a rally in Aralaganvila. Several were injured in the confusion that resulted, although the candidate himself was whisked away to safety.

At a rally in Pelmadulla last week, stones were pelted at Sirisena as he began his speech. Power supply has been cut during Sirisena's speeches at various rallies as well.

Despite all this, political watchers say the time has come for change in Sri Lanka.

"It is very clear that Rajapaksa has to step down," said Marcus.

"He has proved that he will not be able to change the situation. After victory in the war, there was an opportunity for him to develop inter-racial harmony, but he did not do that. In fact, he completely depended on racism. People want change. We feel change is necessary, not just of persons, but of the whole process," he signed off.

The views expressed in the above article are that of Ms. Sandhya Ravishankar, a journalist. (ANI)