Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa faces poll battle as war effect wanes

Updated 06 January 2015
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Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa faces poll battle as war effect wanes

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa will face an unprecedented challenge from a newly galvanised opposition when he seeks re-election this week, five years after his crushing military victory over Tamil guerrillas.
South Asia's longest-serving leader had appeared politically invincible after his forces crushed the Tamil Tigers in 2009, ending a decades-long conflict and ushering in a new era of prosperity for the island nation.
Rajapaksa won a landslide election victory in 2010, but critics say the 69-year-old has failed to bring about reconciliation with Sri Lanka's Tamil minority in the years that followed.
His second term has been dogged by accusations of corruption, including undermining the independence of the judiciary and lining the pockets of political cronies through lucrative contracts.
The surprise decision of his health minister Maithripala Sirisena to defect from the ruling party and stand as the main opposition candidate has turned what might have been a walk-over into a real contest.
Political commentator Victor Ivan said the low-profile Sirisena had become a symbol of simmering discontent over corruption.
"He (Rajapaksa) failed to ensure reconciliation," Ivan said.
"His focus was in mega-highways and ports. That was good for GDP growth, but not enough to heal a society wounded by decades of conflict."
Sri Lanka's economy has grown by an annual average of over seven percent since the war ended, partly thanks to hefty investment from close Rajapakse ally China.
But the opposition says Chinese contractors have employed few local people, and household incomes have not kept pace with national growth rates.
Opposition parties including the main Tamil party have rallied behind Sirisena, a 63-year-old farmer-turned-politician who is from the majority Sinhalese community.
While he still has support among Sinhalese voters, Rajapakse is widely detested by members of the country's biggest minority, who account for 13 percent of its 15 million people and usually vote as a bloc.
The president has taken drastic measures to shore up support, slashing fuel prices, cutting water and electricity tariffs and giving subsidised motorcycles and hefty pay increases to 1.6 million public servants.
Rajapakse has also promised a judicial inquiry into allegations that his troops killed 40,000 Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war, although he still refuses to cooperate with a UN-mandated investigation.
Last week he told voters in the Tamil-dominated northern peninsula of Jaffna that he was committed to improving their livelihoods, listing a series of infrastructure projects in the war-ravaged region.
Describing himself as the "known devil", the president urged people not to vote for the "unknown" Sirisena. "I am the known devil, so please vote for me," he said through a translator.
The Tamils could be king-makers if the majority Sinhalese constituency is split down the middle between Rajapakse and Sirisena.
"We will vote for Sirisena not because we like him, but because we don't like the president," said Colombo-based Tamil company executive Ratnavale Chandrasekaran.
Rajapakse called snap elections two years ahead of schedule in the hope of preempting an opposition fight-back.
Close associates say the timing was decided partly on advice given by his personal astrologer.
The 69-year-old, who has been accused of growing authoritarianism, had removed the two-term limit on the presidency and given himself more powers soon after winning a second term in 2010.
Sirisena's defection was carefully choreographed by Rajapakse's bete noire, former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, who returned to politics after a nine-year retirement, and has split the ruling party.
A hardline party of Sinhalese Buddhist monks that had cheered Rajapakse's refusal to bow to an international probe defected to the opposition in November, accusing him of unprecedented corruption and nepotism.
The president's eldest brother Chamal is speaker of parliament, another brother Basil is economic development minister while a third, Gotabhaya, serves as the defence secretary.
Other family members dominate state institutions and government-owned companies, with the Rajapakse tentacles extending even to sporting bodies.
Rajapakse himself holds a host of ministerial portfolios including finance, ports and highways.
The pro-government media are predicting a close fight, while diplomats in Colombo say they sense a shift in favour of the opposition.
Last week one of Sirisena's top supporters accused the government of deploying thousands of troops to Tamil-majority areas as part of a strategy to intimidate voters against backing Rajapakse's main challenger.
The military has denied accusations of campaigning for Rajapakse.
As signs of opposition strength grew, the privately-run Sunday Times newspaper questioned the wisdom of Rajapakse's decision to call a snap election.
"It was his own calling," the paper said. "President Mahinda Rajapakse for once goes as the underdog."


Nigeria’s candidates blame each other in surprise vote delay

Nigeria's main opposition party presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar speaks to reporters, after the postponement of the presidential election in Yola, in Adamawa State, Nigeria February 16, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 19 min ago
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Nigeria’s candidates blame each other in surprise vote delay

  • The party backing top opposition challenger Atiku Abubakar accused President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration of “instigating this postponement” with the aim of ensuring a low turnout

KANO, Nigeria: Nigeria’s top candidates on Saturday condemned the surprise last-minute decision to delay the presidential election for a week until Feb. 23, blaming each other but appealing to Africa’s largest democracy for calm.
The decision, announced five hours before polls were to open, is a costly one, with analysts at SBM Intelligence estimating an economic hit of $2 billion, plus a blow to the country’s reputation. Authorities now must decide what to do with already delivered voting materials in a tense atmosphere where some electoral facilities in recent days have been torched.
Electoral commission chairman Mahmood Yakubu told observers, diplomats and others that the delay had nothing to do with insecurity or political influence. He blamed “very trying circumstances” including bad weather affecting flights and the fires at three commission offices in an apparent “attempt to sabotage our preparations.”
If the vote had continued as planned, polling units could not have opened at the same time nationwide. “This is very important to public perceptions of elections as free, fair and credible,” Yakubu said, adding that as late as 2 a.m. they were still confident the election could go ahead.
The new Feb. 23 election date is “without equivocation” final, he said.
Bitter voters in the capital, Abuja, and elsewhere who traveled home to cast their ballots, including from Nigeria’s vast diaspora, said they could not afford to wait another seven days, and warned that election apathy could follow. Some anguished over rescheduling weddings, exams and other milestones.
If the electoral commission knew about complications, why wait until the final moment to announce a delay, asked Godspower Egbenekama, spokesman for the Gbaramatu kingdom in Delta state in the restive south. “This shows that someone is pulling the strings from somewhere.”
The party backing top opposition challenger Atiku Abubakar accused President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration of “instigating this postponement” with the aim of ensuring a low turnout. It urged Nigerians to turn out in greater numbers a week from now.
“You can postpone an election, but you cannot postpone destiny,” Abubakar tweeted.
Buhari said he was “deeply disappointed” after the electoral commission had “given assurances, day after day and almost hour after hour that they are in complete readiness for the elections.” His statement appealed for calm and asserted that his administration does not interfere in the commission’s work.
A spokesman for the president’s campaign committee, Festus Keyamo, accused Abubakar’s party of causing the delay to try to slow Buhari’s momentum.
But a ruling party campaign director in Delta state, Goodnews Agbi, said it was better to give the commission time to conduct a credible vote instead of rushing into a sham one “that the whole world will criticize later.”
A civic group monitoring the election, the Situation Room, blasted the “needless tension and confusion” and called on political parties to avoid incitement and misinformation.
Nigeria’s more than 190 million people anticipate a close race between Buhari and Abubakar, a billionaire former vice president. Both have pledged to work for a peaceful election even as supporters, including high-level officials, have caused alarm with warnings against foreign interference and allegations of rigging.
When Buhari came to power in 2015 — after a six-week election delay blamed on extremist insecurity — he made Nigerian history with the first defeat of an incumbent president. The vote was hailed as one of the most transparent and untroubled ever in Africa’s most populous country, which has seen deadly post-election violence in the past.
Now Buhari could become the second incumbent to be unseated. This election is a referendum on his record on insecurity, the economy and corruption, all of which he has been criticized by some Nigerians for doing too little too slowly.