It is a do or die battle for former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa who is fighting for political  survival  in Sri Lanka's high stakes parliamentary elections on Monday.  Just over six months after losing power in the presidential election to the relatively unknown Maithripala Sirisena, a minister in his government who later became the common opposition candidate, Rajapaksa is back in the limelight and aiming to be the next prime minister of Sri Lanka.

If the presidential polls were about ousting Rajapaksa, the parliamentary elections are about his come-back effort. The presidential and parliamentary elections are not generally held at the same time there. After taking over as President, Maithripala Sirisena had promised to dissolve Parliament and hold elections by April. The last parliamentary elections, held in 2010, after elimination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, was dominated by Rajapaksa supporters. His party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, of  which Sirisena also is a member, in alliance with others under the banner of the United  People’s Freedom Alliance,  won 144 of the 225 seats in Parliament.

Last ditch battle

The focus of the August 17 polls is certainly the former strong man. It is a last ditch battle for Rajapaksa and his family facing not just corruption allegations, but also potential murder charges.  Ironically, the United Nations report on war crimes committed by the Sinhala army as well as the LTTE towards the end of the military campaign in 2009, will also be presented before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in September. The powerful Tamil diaspora is baying for his blood and is committed to take him before the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

When Sirisena became president in January, he made United National Party leader Ranil Wickremasinghe his prime minister. This was according to the deal worked out with the opposition to get Rajapaksa out. Though Sirisena won the January polls, his margin of victory was not huge. He got 51.28 percent of the votes, while Rajapaksa retained 47.58   percent of vote share.  Sirisena was able to get the votes of both the Tamil and Muslim minorities.

Rajapaksa’s popularity was at its height after the elimination of the LTTE in 2008. A grateful nation made him a hero. But though he was a  popular war time president, he quickly lost much of his sheen. He was unable to act like a statesman. Not only did he not reach out to the long suffering Tamil minority, but went after anyone who opposed him.

The Bodu Bala Sena, a  Buddhist nationalist group, was given a long rope and Muslims of the island also became the target of a triumphalist Sinhala-Buddhist movement.  Civil society and non-government organisations were attacked whenever they pointed out flaws in government policy. The corruption as well as the crude bullying tactics of the Rajapaksa presidency united the Tamils, Muslims, civil society  as well as the United National Party and smaller parties to join together for a one point agenda to get Rajapaksa out in January.  Even ministers from his party, who were sidelined by the President in favour of family members, were as disillusioned and, like Sirisena, worked against Rajapaksa.

But having won the elections, neither President Sirisena nor Prime Minister Wickremasinghe were able to provide an efficient and clean  government. To top it all, the  Sirisena- Wickremasinghe government was faced with the central bank scandal, where the governor of the country’s Central Bank was charged with favouring his son-in-law in a $76 million bond auction. Though the governor was not found guilty, the scandal left a deadly stink with ordinary citizens questioning what difference had the new government made.  Rajapaksa and his brothers had been accused of corruption and crony capitalism and no one expected this scandal so soon after Sirisena took over and indirectly it did hit the image of the new government.

Topsy-turvy politics

Ever since the opposition and Sirisena joined hands to defeat Rajapaksa, the island's politics had turned on its head. It’s almost a Alice in Wonderland situation, where nothing seems what it is.

Strange as it is, though Sirisena was the joint opposition candidate for president, he was never thrown out of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. In fact after his win, he took charge of the party and when parliamentary elections were announced, gave Rajapaksa – the man he had defeated in the presidential election – a ticket.

The ticket may have been necessitated because there are many in the party who supported the ex president, but while forced to concede, Sirisena  quickly announced that he would not allow Rajapaksa to take over as Prime Minister as the final authority of doing so rests with the President.

Sri Lanka has an executive president. This was done by the United National Party  during the tenure of JR Jaywardene. The  Sri Lanka Freedom Party had always opposed it and, ironically, one of the promises made by Sirisena was to curb the extensive powers of the president and go back to the Westminister model.

But few have paid credence to what Sirisena says, knowing that if Rajapaksa loyalists win enough seats, he would take over as prime minister and the President would be unable to stop him. There is no doubt Rajapakse will win a seat in parliament, but the question is if his party can win the election. Nobody is sure that his loyalists can win their seats.

On the other hand, the United National Front for Good Governance under the leadership of the United National Party is fighting the elections to preserve the gains of the January elections and on the promise of building a humane and moral political culture. The party will strive for unity among ethnic communities, promoting reconciliation and devolution of power.

The main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance, has already announced that it will not support either of the Tamil parties and concentrate instead on development of the north and east.

The United National Party, the party responsible for opening up the Sri Lankan economy in 1977 is now promising a second round of economic reforms.  Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, while not in active politics herself, is now backing Ranil Wickremasinghe, accusing Rajapaksa of spreading racism and using religion for politics.

Her Sri Lanka Freedom Party and Wickremasinghe's United National Party have long been political opponents, but these once bitter rivals have come together to save the country from Rajapaksa. The voter is keeping his cards close to his chest and the elections can swing either way. Many, however, believe that Ranil Wickremasinghe might have a slight edge.