Wanted: Sri Lankan Leader for Capitalists, Kim Jong-Il Fans

To oust Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, opposition parties are working to pick a candidate who can please free-market capitalists, Tamil separatists and admirers of the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il.

Rajapaksa’s opponents may agree on a common challenger as soon as today, according to Arjuna Ranatunga, a lawmaker with the Democratic National Alliance, one of three major opposition groups. Rajapaksa, in power since 2005, yesterday called an early election with two years left on his presidential term after his party struggled to win recent by-elections.

“We are stronger than ever,” said Ranatunga, a former Sri Lanka cricket captain. “Earlier the common opposition ideology was mooted by parties, but now the people want one person to challenge the president.”

The president’s opponents are seeking to convince voters that his moves to promote family members and shift closer to China pose a threat to Sri Lanka’s democracy and security. Rajapaksa, 69, who presided over the end of a civil war that killed as many as 40,000 people, is betting that a surge in economic growth since then will propel him to an unprecedented third term.

“It is not entirely impossible for the opposition parties to field a common candidate against the president, but at the moment they remain divided by differences in economic ideology, religious beliefs, racial and even regional considerations,” said Romita Das, an analyst at Control Risks in Singapore. “It would take time before they are able to iron out differences and put forward a compromise candidate.”

Early Election

Rajapaksa signed a proclamation declaring his intention to hold a presidential election, according to a post on his official Twitter account yesterday. His ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party picked him as its presidential candidate late on Nov. 19, after he completed four years of his second six-year term, a statement on the president’s website said. No date has been set.

The government forecasts a budget deficit of 4.6 percent of gross domestic product next year, a 40-year low, and economic growth of about 8 percent. The island’s main stock market index, which surged more than 200 percent in the two years following peace, fell 1.6 percent today, the biggest drop in over a month.

“A short-term correction was expected, which has been triggered by the uncertainty of various names being speculated as to who will be the joint opposition candidate,” Tushan Wickramasinghe, managing director of Capital Trust Holdings Ltd. in Colombo, said by phone.

Rajapaksa’s party fared poorly in three by-elections this year even after the $67 billion economy has grown an average 7 percent each year since the civil war ended and inflation last month was the slowest since 2009. To boost his popularity, Rajapaksa has cut fuel and electricity prices while raising pensions and lifting guaranteed crop prices for farmers.

Internal Differences

The three main opposition groups must overcome internal differences if they are to have any chance of defeating him. They currently hold a combined 81 of 225 seats in parliament, and managed 40 percent of all votes in losing the 2010 election, which came shortly after the end of a civil war that saw ethnic minority Tamil separatists defeated.

“It is very difficult to see how the opposition parties will join up,” Jayadeva Uyangoda, professor of political science at the University of Colombo, said by e-mail. “What divides the opposition is individual ambitions of political leaders.”

The United National Party, the biggest among the opposition bloc, is led by two-time prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. During his time in power, he encouraged privatizations, trimmed state enterprises and boosted foreign investment and tourism. He improved relations with western nations including the U.S. and Norway, which helped broker a cease-fire agreement with the Tamil Tiger rebels.

‘Family Rule’

“The UNP and the opposition forces are getting together to end this authoritative family rule and re-establish rule of law,” Eran Wickramaratne, the party’s treasurer, said in a phone interview yesterday. “We are determined and confident that we can win. Everyone is sick of this authoritative family regime, and wants to end this.”

The second-biggest opposition party is Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi, also known as the Tamil National Alliance. It was considered the proxy for the separatist rebels during the civil war. Party spokesman Suresh Premachandran didn’t answer calls to his mobile phone yesterday.

And then there is the Democratic National Alliance, led by former army chief Sarath Fonseka, who lost to Rajapaksa in the 2010 election. His alliance includes members of the People’s Liberation Front, a party that holds three seats in parliament.

Kim Jong-Il

The party, known by the acronym JVP, saluted North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il after his death in 2011. It lauded his “unwavering belief in socialism,” “promising modernization program” and “invincible military strength,” according to its website.

Vijitha Herath, a party official, said the JVP would decide in a few days whether to back a common candidate or put up its own against Rajapaksa.

Wasantha Senanayake, a member of parliament from the ruling coalition, said he’ll back the common candidate “to uphold freedoms and rule of law” and warned of more defections. The alliance has ignored attempts toward constitutional reform and reduction of the president’s powers, Senanayake told reporters in Colombo late yesterday.

The president’s opponents have accused him of nepotism and pressuring the judiciary, saying the impeachment of former chief justice Shirani Bandaranayake in 2013 was politically motivated. The U.S. State Department said in a 2013 report that Sri Lankan polls have been “fraught with election law violations by all major parties, especially the governing coalition’s use of state resources for its own advantage.”

Family Dominance

Rajapaksa holds Sri Lanka’s defense and finance portfolios as well as ports, highways and aviation. His brother Basil Rajapaksa is minister of economic development. Another sibling, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is the defense secretary, and the president’s son Namal is a member of parliament.

Rajapaksa denies charges of wrongdoing, spokesman Mohan Samaranayake said by phone on Nov. 18. His actions have been designed to “prevent the division of the country, usher in peace, stability and reconciliation and ensure rapid development,” he said.

The candidate the opposition picks will be key to whether they can win, according to N. Sathiyamoorthy, a political analyst with the Observer Research Foundation in Chennai, India.

“Definitely there is an element of anti-incumbency,” he said. “Now whether it will be enough to overthrow him from power is going to depend on how well the opposition can rally and unite as a single force.”

— With assistance by Anusha Ondaatjie

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