In Sri Lanka, local elections have rattled the government

TO CRITICS of Mahinda Rajapaksa, local-council elections that were held in Sri Lanka on February 10th felt like a horror film, as the controversial ex-president rose from his silk-lined political coffin to declare victory. And what a victory it was for Mr Rajapaksa, a brash populist whose exit in 2015 after ten bloodstained and corruption-tainted years in power was widely heralded as a bright new dawn for the civil-war-battered island republic. His party won no fewer than 239 out of 340 contests. Some commentators have described it as the biggest electoral upset in Sri Lankan history. Mr Rajapaksa swiftly declared that the current national government had lost its legitimacy and should resign.

That is unlikely. The coalition headed by the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, may be ineffectual and unpopular, but it still holds a solid majority in parliament. Elections for the legislature are not due before 2020. Even if Mr Wickremesinghe’s conservative United National Party (UNP) gets jilted by its junior partner, the centrist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)—which happens once to have been Mr Rajapaksa’s own party—it could probably hang on as a minority government, reliant on smaller parties that loathe the former president even more than they dislike Mr Wickremesinghe.

Most likely the coalition government will continue to bumble along in clumsy cohabitation with President Maithripala Sirisena, a former minister under Mr Rajapaksa who in 2015 split the SLFP to challenge and narrowly defeat his boss. Fortunately for the prime minister, changes to the constitution that were designed to prevent a repeat of Mr Rajapaksa’s excesses have stripped Sri Lankan presidents of most powers. That means Mr Sirisena has only the wherewithal to obstruct, not to topple, Mr Wickremesinghe’s government.

Humiliating though its electoral drubbing appears, the coalition may take comfort from something else. The council polls were the first to be held under a new system that combines first-past-the-post with proportional representation. Under the old rules Mr Rajapaksa’s new party vehicle, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), could indeed claim to have won a crushing victory even though it got just 44.6% of votes. In practice, under the new rules it will have to find partners to run any council where it has less than 50% of seats. Government supporters are also keen to point out that both in percentage and in total numbers, Mr Rajapaksa got fewer votes to “win” this election than he did in the election in 2015 that he lost to Mr Sirisena.

But the ruling coalition cannot afford to be complacent. Its poor showing, particularly for Mr Sirisena’s SLFP, reflects more than a surprise groundswell of support for Mr Rajapaksa. Many of those who voted to oust the former president in 2015 have been so disappointed by his replacement that this time they did not bother to vote. Critics of the yahapalanaya or “good governance” coalition cite numerous weaknesses, from its failure to enact a promised new constitution and its lack of progress in punishing crimes dating from the civil war of 1983-2009, to its abstinence from economic reforms and its failure to investigate Mr Rajapaksa or his extended family despite widespread allegations of corruption and human-rights abuse.

Still, it may be that the next time Sri Lankans vote, fear of Mr Rajapaksa’s return could prompt even critics of the government to turn against him. “Those who chose not to cast their lot with imperfect beasts have now to contend with monsters,” commented a human-rights lawyer, Gehan Gunatilleke, in a local newspaper.

There are many Sri Lankans who do not regard Mr Rajapaksa as a monster but rather as a hero, particularly among the island’s Buddhist, ethnically Sinhala majority. He was the person who led them to victory in the long civil war with the Tamil minority. They want a strong man like him back at the helm. In fact, says Alan Keenan of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, the former president never really went away. His grassroots support remained, nurtured by the well-financed family political machine. “He has a strong core constituency, a clear narrative and a good set of issues,” says Mr Keenan, “whereas the government has to pull together a range of minority constituents—Tamils, Muslims, Sinhala liberals—and find something to deliver to each one.”

The prognosis: Sri Lanka is set on a bumpy course. With Mr Rajapaksa gleefully stoking Sinhala chauvinism, the country could slip backwards into the kind of polarisation that led to its long civil war.

Taken from The Economist