He may seem the most unlikely candidate of all, but former army chief General Sarath Fonseka has shaken off the Sri Lankan establishment and engaged in a fierce campaign to beat his former ally to the presidential throne.
General Fonseka, the very man who led the army to victory, and once part of current president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s inner circle, dramatically turned against the power in place and declared he would run against his old friend in the election.
President Rajapaksa had called for early elections, hoping to strengthen his rule thanks to the nationalist sentiments prevailing in Sri Lanka following his government’s victory over the Tamil Tigers rebels last spring, ending a 26-year civil war.
Rajapaksa was expected to win the January 26th election hands down - but he didn’t reckon on Fonseka entering the fray.
As a military man who took tough decisions in the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) guerilla movement, Fonseka was not exactly the designated candidate for the opposition, and certainly not for the Tamil minority.
Nevertheless, last Wednesday the Tamil National Alliance, a party representing the Tamil population, declared it would “request from all Sri Lankans … to vote for General Sarath Fonseka”.
The campaign revolves around ethnic issues, but little is being said by either candidate about actual policies or how they will realise their lofty promises of good governance and economical revival.
Fonseka has committed himself to abolishing the executive presidency – which currently gives the president over-arching power – as well as fighting corruption and making concessions to the Tamil minority.
He promises to grant an amnesty to former militants and says that government troops will return occupied private lands to their Tamils owners.
But Fonseka is also an ardent Sinhalese nationalist and has yet to declare he will make concrete political concessions to the Tamils and recognise their right to self-determination. Some think his courtship of the Tamil population is simply a calculated electoral move.
“Personally I don’t believe him because he made literal statements as the leader of the army, saying that the minorities don’t have a place here,” said Sheila Richards, the head of a Colombo-based peace and reconciliation NGO. “The military is also behind the violation of media rights and the lack of freedom of expression.”
Fonseka promised he would pass a freedom of information law, and recently claimed that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Minister of Defence and brother of Mahinda, should take responsibility for the killing of journalists in recent years.
At the heart of the feud between Fonseka and the Rajapaksa brothers lies a dispute over both who should take credit for the victory against the LTTE, and who is to blame for the high civilian death toll.
It was army chief General Fonseka who commanded the troops that finally defeated the LTTE after 26 years of bloody civil war, but President Rajapaksa credited the victory mainly to himself and his brother.
And when Fonseka was asked by US officials to testify in an investigation into possible war crimes in November, palpable tensions began to emerge within the power triumvirate.
Fonseka later declared that he would welcome such investigations once he was elected, and accused Gotabaya Rajapaksa of being responsible for the alleged crimes.
Since then, the election has been little more than a media circus, with each side hurling accusations at the other.
This blame game does not fool many Sri Lankans. To many, Fonseka is just the lesser of two evils, an anti-establishment candidate who will keep the establishment running.
“We are left with the choice of an extremely corrupt, centralised government which has disregarded the written constitution and runs the country like it’s a family business, or we've got an ex-General who was hired for the job purely due to his ruthless past and is just a mouthpiece for the opposing parties at the moment,” complains Sammath Gammampila, a 22-year-old Sinhalese student.
“What can you expect of someone like him, who led the war and denies his implication in the violation of human rights during the war? He was leading the army. But the presidency will be more ruthless if Rajapaksa is elected,” adds Sheila Richards.
Even if he is genuine about his fight against corruption, General Fonseka will be confronted by the realities of Sri Lanka’s establishment.
“The way things are now, it will be difficult to change it rapidly. Because Fonseka comes from a background that is close to this corrupted power, he was at the top of the army, it seems unlikely that those promises will be kept,” explains an opposition MP who wishes to remain anonymous.
On top of this, Sri Lankans wonder whether Fonseka will have what it takes to turn around the economy and bring them the comfort they are longing for.
“Full stomachs, a home and a job, that’s what most people want. They have forgotten long ago about their rights and about democracy. The war brainwashed them into thinking that this near state of dictatorship is normal,” adds the opposition MP.
But the rival candidates have barely touched on the economy during the campaign, and Fonseka’s manifesto does not make promises beyond easing the cost of living and providing employment for the country’s youth.
The reality is that economic issues may well be left in the hands of foreign powers, with India and China struggling to impose their respective spheres of influence over Sri Lanka.
New Delhi has a history of meddling in the island’s politics, and it was thanks to an Indian intelligence tip-off that Fonseka was ousted from his position in the army, according to Seema Sengupta, a freelance journalist based in Kolkata, India.
This is likely to push Fonseka closer to China, who largely funded last year’s decisive attack on the LTTE.
Whoever is elected will have to choose his allies carefully, but a stable Sri Lanka will also require foreign powers to act responsibly.
“India, as the largest South Asian neighbour, will be required to play a constructive role in ensuring that Sri Lanka can prosper”, says Sengupta. However, international pressure has had little effect in bending the will of the Sri Lankan elite either during or since the war last year.
Tamil voters, the “kingmakers” in the election according to observers, will have difficulty forgetting recent events and the ruthlessness with which they were repressed.
On the 26th, they will have to make a tough call on Fonseka – is the enemy of their enemy their friend?