Sri Lanka’s former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who served two consecutive terms in office from 2005 to 2015, appears keen on a third, despite a legislation barring him from contesting.
“There is an opinion that I can contest again, we need to find out if I am eligible,” he told reporters, on the sidelines of an event at a Colombo suburb on Saturday.
Among other things, the 19th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution, passed three months after Mr. Rajapaksa was unseated in January 2015, revived a clause in the 1978 Constitution that said: “No person who has been twice elected to the office of President by the People, shall be qualified thereafter to be elected to such office by the People.”
In effect, the provision reversed a Rajapaksa-era legislation, the 18th Amendment, which removed a term limit to the office, giving him a chance for a long haul at the helm. Until recently, the Rajapaksa camp seemed reconciled to his inability to contest presidential polls. His supporters, part of an informal parliamentary coalition called the ‘Joint Opposition’, have for months been mulling different names, including that of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as their candidate for the presidential contest expected to be held end of 2019.
However, in an apparent shift in the last fortnight, Mr. Rajapaksa’s supporters — including former Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris, a professor of law — have decided to seek the Supreme Court’s opinion, arguing that the 2015 legislation is not retrospective.
Some legal experts have rejected the view, citing the “unambiguous” legislation, but the move is likely to raise the political game in the run up to next year’s polls. Mr. Rajapaksa’s former colleague and current political rival, President Maithripala Sirisena, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are other likely contestants.
Mr. Rajapaksa’s critics attribute his electoral defeat in 2015 to nepotism and authoritarianism, but the 72-year-old politician remains hugely popular in the island’s Sinhala-majority south. Though formally a member of the fractured Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that Mr. Sirisena leads, Mr. Rajapaksa backs the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), a new political outfit with his supporters, which made significant gains in the February local government polls.
Mr. Rajapaksa and some of his family members are currently under investigation for alleged murder and large-scale corruption. They have denied any wrongdoing. Last week, the CID questioned Mr. Rajapaksa in connection with the 2008 abduction of journalist Keith Noyahr. The former President denied involvement and accused the government of pursuing a political witch-hunt.