Power plays behind Sirisena's surprise victory in Sri Lanka

Analysis: Former Sri Lankan president played key role behind the scenes in challenger's defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa

In late 2014, the Sri Lanka station chief for India’s foreign intelligence service left the capital, Colombo. His departure surfaced in a short item on Dec. 28 in a local newspaper, the Sunday Times, which speculated that “links with the common opposition” — that is, getting too close to the broad coalition of parties opposing then-president Mahinda Rajapaksa — led to the spy chief’s exit.

The move drew little notice at the time — Sri Lanka was in the midst of intense campaigning in an unexpectedly close presidential race — but resurfaced over the weekend, when Reuters, quoting political and intelligence sources, reported that the Indian intelligence operative was expelled by Rajapaksa’s administration for helping the opposition candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, who won the election on Jan. 8. “There are certain things you don't talk about,” a close associate of the Rajapaksa family told Reuters, adding that “there were clear signs of a deep campaign by foreign elements.”

Both Sri Lanka’s foreign minister and a spokesman for India’s foreign ministry denied the report, which played to Rajapaksa’s longtime strategy of portraying himself as under constant threat by foreign agents, from human rights groups to the United Nations to western governments.

India has long had a role in Sri Lankan politics. But if there was a power behind the scenes of Rajapaksa’s stunning electoral defeat, it was one much closer to home: former president Chandrika Kumaratunga. Daughter of the founder of Rajapaksa’s political party, Kumaratunga led the country from 1994 to 2005. In 2010, she backed an earlier opposition candidate. In 2013, after years of living abroad, she returned to Sri Lanka and, while unable to run for office again, gradually took a more visible role in politics and publicly voiced her displeasure with Rajapaksa’s authoritarian style. Last March, she complained in a letter to Rajapaksa of “constant surveillance” of her home, phone calls and emails.

Kumaratunga’s involvement in this year’s election was no secret. She was an active part of the search for a candidate that a broad coalition of parties could support. And when that common candidate, Sirisena, announced his bid on Nov. 21, Kumaratunga was at his side. She also met with India’s national security advisor on Dec. 2 to discuss the opposition campaign’s strategy. On Tuesday, she assumed a more public role, as a member of Sri Lanka’s National Executive Council, representing the largest members of Sirisena’s coalition.

The allegations of interference in the election are the latest round of accusations traded between Rajapaksa and those who unseated him. Last week, Sirisena’s new government made an official complaint to Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department alleging that during the night of the election, Rajapaksa conspired with his brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was then the defense secretary, his foreign minister G. L. Peiris and the Chief Justice Mohan Peiris to use emergency powers and the military to prevent election results from being released. Rajapaksa denied that he tried to hang on to power, noting that he conceded well before official results were announced.

His quick concession drew praise from the U.S., a vocal critic of the Rajapaksa administration’s record on human rights. "I commend President Rajapaksa for accepting the results of the election in the proud tradition of peaceful and orderly transfers of power in Sri Lanka,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. But with growing calls to investigate not only his human rights record but also his conduct during the election and allegations of corruption, Rajapaksa is not going quietly.

Amantha Perera contributed reporting from Colombo.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter