“AN INVINCIBLE personality, a blessed man, he will win a big victory.” In the opinion of Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena, issued from his swish astrological headquarters in the southern port of Galle, the prospects for Sri Lanka’s president are unambiguously bright. Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa has called an election two years early, to seek an unprecedented third term. Why not? Polling will happen on January 8th, and eight is a lucky number. For Mr Rajapaksa, a Virgo, the stars are benign. Some see the president as the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy, the reincarnation of a great southern king (who also had combed-back hair and a lush moustache). He is destined to make Sri Lanka prosper, says the astrologer, and will be the best friend of Buddhism, its main religion: “There is no temple he has not visited.”
Adorned with gold rings and precious stones, Mr Abeygunawardena is in effect astrologer to the Rajapaksa court. “I very often see the president,” he says, taking a call from the office of the First Lady who wants an auspicious time for refitting a school. The Rajapaksas are superstitious. Like four brothers, and his son—important politicians all—the president, who has ruled for a decade, takes advice on such matters as when best to step outside, or on which gems or jewellery ward off bad luck. Mr Rajapaksa usually carries a cylindrical gold talisman, supposedly with powers to enchant. The astrologer scoffs at this. But he says another piece of bling—the golden amulet on a chain around the presidential neck—truly is effective.
The president has led a charmed political life and is easily the country’s most charismatic campaigner. Ordinary Sinhalese Buddhists (around 70% of the population) like his rural past and that he crushed Tamil separatists in 2009, ending nearly three decades of war. Suggestions that tens of thousands of Tamils were massacred in the process, and talk of war crimes, are dismissed as intended only to denigrate the country. Few outside the Tamil-dominated north and east hold the accusations against him. Drive along miles of new tarmac around Mr Rajapaksa’s southern home, where a big new airport and harbour have sprouted, and enthusiasm for him is obvious. Life-size placards of his grinning figure adorn highways. In Medamulana, his ancestral home, students tour a mausoleum to his family, with a waxworks and a hefty gold-plated sculpture of his father’s head. Across the country there are rebuilt railways, new houses and expanded cities.
The building splurge has piled up oodles of debt: opposition MPs say $6 billion-8 billion are owed to China alone, though details are murky. The government prefers perky economic statistics. Unemployment is low and GDP is rising fast enough for Sri Lanka next year to rank as a mid-range middle-income country with national income per person of around $4,000. Tourism blossoms and inflation has been in single digits for 52 months, exults Basil Rajapaksa, the presidential brother running the economy (doing himself down; it is actually 69 months and counting). He is “very confident” about the future. Parliament this week passed a budget crammed with goodies for voters. To the suggestion that this was brazen populism, he chortles that “all our budgets are pre-election ones”. The local World Bank office is perhaps even more gung-ho about Sri Lanka’s starry economic future.
Nor is Mr Rajapaksa shy of using the benefits of incumbency, deploying arms of government at will. A car-park in Hambantota, in the south, is crammed with hundreds of red motorbikes, pre-election gifts for local officials, a pattern repeated countrywide. In Tamil areas security men intimidate politicians and activists. Even in Colombo, the biggest city, opposition figures say they suspect spies jam their mobile phones. They are denied public spaces for rallies. Most of the press fawns on Mr Rajapaksa; television shows involving opposition figures go mysteriously off air. Both the courts and electoral commission are widely seen as partisan.
All that had pointed to an easy victory for Mr Rajapaksa. Yet those magic charms are suddenly malfunctioning. The various opposition parties have, surprisingly, come up with a credible joint candidate. Maithripala Sirisena, a minister until last week and leading light in the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), defected on November 21st with a few supporters. Ordinary Sinhalese like him, because he seems more one of them than does Mr Rajapaksa. His promise to abolish the over-strong presidency in 100 days appeals to those who fear decades of dynastic rule by the Rajapaksas. (Older SLFP leaders have long groused about misrule by “one family”.) Mr Sirisena can tap into public resentment of worsening corruption. Businesses often complain that only insiders win official contracts. Sri Lanka fell 14 places this year in the World Bank’s ranking of the ease of doing business.
Third time less lucky
Moreover, the economy is not inevitably a vote-winner. Every voter Banyan met in the south grumbled about living costs, notably about pricey rice and milk. A former two-term president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, back in Colombo to help Mr Sirisena, accuses Mr Rajapaksa of being a “racist” Tamil-hater, and adds that those official inflation figures are “trumped-up”. As for mid-income prosperity, an opposition MP says officials dare not publish a figure from a new survey of household spending showing real incomes, after inflation, up by only 3% since 2006.
Mr Rajapaksa’s popularity is slipping. The SLFP won provincial elections in the southern province of Uva in September less comfortably than expected. At the last presidential poll in 2010, soon after the war, Mr Rajapaksa took 57% of the votes (less if you accept claims of modest rigging), so not a landslide. Assume that Tamils, Muslims and Christians, who are 30% of the electorate, mostly prefer Mr Sirisena, then even a third of the Sinhalese vote could swing it in his favour. The stars still probably favour the president, but horoscopes often disappoint.