Until a few of months ago, it seemed like Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa wouldn’t even have to wait until counting day to be confirmed for a third term at the helm after elections on January 8. Rajapaksa, still heralded as the president who ended the civil war and defeated the Tamil Tigers, was so confident that he would be re-elected that he called elections two years ahead of schedule.

But he’s now looking a lot more jittery. For years, the Sri Lankan opposition had been in complete shambles, unable to unite around one common approach to take-on the war-winning president who had begun to be hailed as the island nation’s king.

In a carefully plotted move in November, however, the national secretary of Rajapaksa’s own party announced that he would be contesting elections against the president. Soon after, the opposition rallied around the new candidate, former health minister Maithripala Sirisena. Reversing a decade of trends, other parties began leaving the ruling alliance and joining the opposition.

The dinner betrayal

Suddenly Rajapaksa's re-election wasn’t so certain anymore. Nothing drives this home better than signs of the president’s own insecurities: constant complaining about the opposition and Sirisena, as well as the announcement of last-minute sops.

Rajapaksa doesn’t tire of mentioning that Sirisena had dinner with him, hoppers (appams), only two days before he was betrayed and state media has called the opposition candidate “Judas”. Meanwhile, the president has felt the need to make late concessions, going so far as to reform the constitution and even conduct a domestic inquiry into war crime allegations matching Sirisena’s own promises.

“When he said that nobody was going to challenge him, I was next to him and felt sorry for him," Sirisena has said at rallies. “I came out because I could not stay anymore with a leader who had plundered the country, government and national wealth.”

Modi and Viber

The same feeling apparently inspired up to 25 Rajapaksa loyalists in the 225-seat Parliament as well as two key Muslim parties, which have all rallied around Sirisena. The Tamil National Alliance, which rules the war-torn northern province, has also declared its support for the former Rajapaksa aide. Even a conservative Buddhist party, assiduously nurtured by Rajapaksa over the last decade, has decided to split with him.

Opposition leaders speak about having carefully planned their Sirisena push, even while he continued as the No 2 in Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party, until barely two months before the election date itself. At rallies, they reportedly boast about having used Viber, a smartphone app, to carry out all their plotting, in a country where the ruling party became famous for monitoring the activities of politicians and journalist and frequently using innocuous white vans to cause disappearances.

Former fisheries minister Rajitha Senaratne, another defector from Rajapaksa’s party, pointed to another source of inspiration for the opposition’s approach. “Mr. Senaratne said the opposition drew its inspiration from Narendra Modi’s campaign for prime minister in India, which tapped into a reservoir of frustration with the ruling Nehru-Gandhi family,” the New York Times reported. “He said opposition campaigners had received advice from firms that worked on Mr. Modi’s campaign, although they had not received any funds from foreign governments.”

Family matters

Indeed, while Modi and Rajapaksa have occasionally been compared because of their approaches towards minorities, the parallels between the Sri Lankan president and India’s first family are also apparent.

Charges of corruption have always dogged Rajapaksa and the presence of nepotism is not hard to observe: the president’s brothers, Gotabaya and Basil, run the all-powerful Defence and Economic ministries respectively. A third brother, Chamal is Parliamentary speaker, and son Namal, a Member of Parliament, is believed to be in grooming to take over.

One of the many stories that has dominated the country over the election season was the alleged purchase of a phenomenally expensive horse from England as a gift for Namal’s girlfriend. Although the president’s son has denied buying horses, Lamborghinis or helicopters, the rumours are a convenient example of the Rajapaksa’s alleged corruption and so have been liberally referred to by opposition leaders.

From a bigger picture view, the presidential election itself is unprecedented because of the president’s ambition. Rajapaksa had the constitution of the country amended last year to remove a two-term limit on presidents, allowing him to run for a third time. The amendment that made this change, in 2010, also replaced a number of independent approaches to appointments in the judiciary as well as human rights and election commissions.

Sirisena has promised to return the country to a more independent system of governance, with even a vow to scrap the presidential system that allowed Rajapaksa to abrogate so much power to himself.

Cautionary tale

But this isn’t the first time someone closely associated with Rajapaksa has taken him on. In the last election, General Sarath Fonseka, who oversaw the defeat of the Tamil Tigers as well as the alleged war crimes perpetrated in the final years, decided to take the president on. With almost the same credentials as the president, at least in the post-war years, Fonseka seemed like the ideal candidate, even managing to get the support of the Tamil parties despite the allegations against him. Yet, with careful manipulation of the state machinery and media, Rajapaksa not only won the election but also had Fonseka arrested and jailed.

This time Sirisena appears to have a better chance of splitting the Sinhalese vote, Rajapaksa’s main base, while also pulling in support from the minorities. Yet the state media is even more carefully controlled by the ruling party and the presence of the opposition outside urban centers seems minimal. With the election up on January 8, it remains to be seen whether the advance of Sri Lanka’s king will finally be halted.