Colombo, Sri Lanka – As I look towards the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo, I see bright kites coasting through the air.
The crowd of people gathered along the sea face grows as dusk approaches and the ocean front Sri Lanka’s capital is famous for prepares for night.
Cargo vessels dot the horizon and to my extreme right, a major port is sprouting – signs of a nation quickly stepping out of the shadows of war and trying to find its place in the global economy.
But what life holds for Sri Lankans gathered on this ocean front and beyond, as well as the direction of major development projects, depends on the outcome of national parliamentary elections that are just days away.
Political party rallies seem well organised. Many are big, bright and loud, complete with late night appearances by key political figures, a number of whom look at least 10 years younger in their official campaign pictures than they do in the flesh.
From the rallies I have attended one thing seems clear: The message has been less about what candidates or parties can do for voters and more about why their respective political opposition is bad for Sri Lanka.
One political playoff has perhaps generated the most amount of attention since candidates announced their intentions to stand for election: the prime minister versus the former president.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, a man who stepped into the country’s number two position after presidential elections in January, is facing off against Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapsaksa, convincingly defeated by Wickremesinghe’s ally Maithripala Sirisena, is not only fighting for a seat in parliament but also his political career.
In many ways, this contest has pitted Sri Lanka’s past against its future.
This political battle of personalities, jingles and crowds has illuminated the very questions elections should answer. How happy are Sri Lankans with the leaders they voted for just seven months ago? Do they believe that the defeated and destroyed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are still a real and present danger? And how willing are they to untangle the island’s wartime past from its peacetime future?
According to Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka is finally free of the shackles of the Rajapaksa government and 10 years of restrictive and constrictive governance, propelled by Chinese investment and justified by the end of a 30-year civil war.
Rajapaksa’s view is the opposite. In his speeches to crowds of supporters who mostly see him not as a man fighting for political survival but as a strong leader who defeated the Tamil Tigers, Rajapaksa claims that in a matter of months, Sri Lanka’s new president and his inner circle have dragged the country backwards, stalled important development work, exposed it to security threats and provoked an exodus of foreign investment.
Most importantly, Rajapaksa has tried to impress voters with his wartime leadership report card and by trying to convince them that the Tamil Tigers are still out there. The memory of the fighters his army defeated and the long civil war they engaged in has been omnipresent in his bid to stay relevant in Sri Lankan politics.
So great is the fear of Rajapaksa’s messages littered with security red flags that just days out from voting, President Maithripala Sirisena wrote to the former president advising him that in the event his party failed to win an outright majority, political instruments were still at his disposal to block Rajapaksa’s bid for the prime minister’s job.
How voters perceive the strategies and arguments of candidates depends on a number of things, not least geographical location. The view of minority Tamil communities in the north is markedly different to that of voters belonging to majority Sinhalese Buddhist communities further south.
But the execution of plans and policies in the best interests of all Sri Lankans depends on which leaders garner the most support at the ballot box and that, in itself, is hard to gauge.
Observers credited an overwhelming and enthusiastic voter turnout for January’s surprise leadership change, which saw Rajapaksa dumped from the presidency.
Should people return to the ballot box with the same gusto, Rajapaksa’s political career may be all but over. However, should people show signs of electoral fatigue, and only loyal supporters vote, the longevity of the former president’s political career may be bolstered.
Sri Lanka’s future direction depends on these parliamentary elections.
As of now, it is too close to call and voting day promises to be anything but a relaxing walk along the beach with a pristine tropical sunset perched on the horizon.