Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa Seeks a Comeback
Colombo under storm clouds
Complications for Colombo’s ties to Beijing
After an unexpected defeat in January’s presidential elections, ex-President Mahinda Rakapaksa, who ruled Sri Lanka for over nine years, is seeking a comeback.
Often criticized in the West for alleged human rights abuses during Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war against the Tamil Tigers, which came to a close in May 2009 after more than 25 years, Rajapaksa has been formally accepted to stand as a candidate in upcoming parliamentary elections in August.
Since replacing Rajapaksa, current incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena has taken Sri Lanka on an about-turn in policymaking, and has been highly critical of the former strongman. Yet Rajapaksa will be representing Sirisena’s own United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) party in August’s elections, which will seek contestants to compete for 225 seats in the parliament.
Blaming pressure from members within his party for allowing Rajapaksa to run, Sirisena recently warned that UPFA is now “at risk” of losing the elections.
Nonetheless, a victory by Rajapaksa could have implications for the country’s broader policymaking and foreign policy pendulum. Many outsiders see the elections as a crucial litmus test for Sri Lanka’s broader reengagement with the rest of the world.
Under Sirisena, Sri Lankan relations with China, the country’s largest inbound investor, have cooled dramatically this year. Almost immediately after assuming office, Sirisena’s government effectively halted several major planned and ongoing infrastructure projects that are funded by Chinese government lending, over claims of corruption and high interest rates that have saddled the government with a public debt-to-GDP ratio of 85 percent.
The biggest of these is the Colombo Port City project, a planned US$1.5bn port and real estate project to be built on 450ha reclaimed land off the sea in downtown Colombo, directly adjacent to the iconic Galle Face Green.
With construction planned by China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) and China Harbor Engineering, Colombo Port City’s size and scope has encountered local resistance, in somewhat similar fashion to the Chinese real estate projects on reclaimed land in Malaysia’s Iskandar.
Also “subject to review” is the “Lotus Tower,” a 350-meter tower in central Colombo, set to be South Asia’s tallest building, funded by a US$104 million China Exim Bank loan and built by China National Electronics Import & Export Corp (CEIEC) and China Aerospace Long-March International Trade Co Ltd.
The tower became a subject of controversy after Indian media published opinion pieces that labelled the project as a front for Chinese electronic surveillance in the Indian Ocean.
Indeed, as part efforts to “rebalance” Sri Lanka’s relationship away from China towards India and other regional powers, Sirisena recently met with leaders including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US secretary of state John Kerry.