In the tropical heat, a long queue curls around the imposing red gate of the most famous address in Tangalle, a beach town 200km from Colombo, and snakes through a metal detector. For a man who has just lost an election, Mahinda Rajapaksa sure gets a lot of visitors. Once inside the main entrance of Carlton, as his family home is called, the queue is steered by joyless security men toward a study. It’s not as hot as outside, but there’s plenty of warmth in that tiny room, and the dethroned Sri Lankan president is soaking up every moment of it. He holds court while seated behind a table, smiling benignly and listening attentively to what people have to say. He exchanges pleasantries and presses the flesh. He may be out of office, but he is hard at work. “This is my life now,” Rajapaksa explains. “From morning till night, they don’t stop coming. They want me to come back. They say they are sorry they voted against me. They want to make amends. “I tell them I’m tired. I want to rest, please let me rest.” Theatre comes naturally to most politicians. To Rajapaksa, who dabbled in bit-part roles in Sinhala movies in his youth, it comes even more easily. Rest is the last thing on the mind of this wily 69-year-old politician, who, as leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), had ruled the country with an iron fist until his unexpected January 8 election defeat to a broad coalition, led by former party colleague Maithripala Sirisena. Popular discontent over corruption, cronyism and subversion of democratic institutions unseated him. In the wake of his defeat, China is seen to have lost one of its closest allies, a leader who came to depend on Beijing both for financial assistance and to ward off international pressure over alleged human rights violations. Many of the projects China had backed in Sri Lanka under Rajapaksa are now likely to come under government scrutiny. But contrary to the general perception outside Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa might well live to fight another day. That’s because a parliamentary election is on the horizon and the unusual composition of the current government could create an opportunity for his comeback – if he is not brought down by corruption charges by then. The current dispensation in Colombo is an uneasy alliance of two of the country’s main parties: the SLFP and the United National Front (UNP), led by current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. “I have never seen this anywhere,” says Rajapaksa. “There is no opposition. Not in parliament, not outside parliament. Where do people go if they have grievances? That’s why they come to me.” Sirisena ran on a platform of a 100-day project of reforming a complicated electoral system and curbing the powers of the presidency to make the parliament stronger. According to that timetable, an election should be due around June. And this is where it gets tricky. In Sri Lanka, presidential elections are technically fought between individuals, so Sirisena and Rajapaksa faced off in January, even though they still belong to the same party. Parliamentary contests, though, are fought along party lines. In the 225-seat parliament, the SLFP has 126 seats and the UNP has 41. It means the two main parties, currently partners in a coalition, may be on a collision course come the elections. The faction loyal to Rajapaksa is poised to force a split in the SLFP. If they want to keep the coalition intact, Rajapaksa calculates, the SLFP leadership will have to make a deal with him. His loyalists have organised two hugely successful rallies, demanding his return as prime minister. The rising pitch in his support and the steady stream of followers at Carlton are his way of telling the SLFP leadership that they need that deal. His detractors are confident it won’t come to that as they have enough dirt on the man to bury him forever. Corruption, the excesses in the war on Tamil militancy, allegations of an attempted coup – the list goes on. Charges will be filed, they say, and that will be the end of China’s man in the region. In an alternative scenario, Rajapaksa, who won 47.58 per cent of the vote to Sirisena’s 51.28 in the last election, consolidates his Sinhala nationalist vote base, takes advantage of the empty opposition space and either splits the SLFP or stays with the party in return for a prime ministerial nomination. And, in this scenario, he returns to power stronger than the man who ousted him as president because that was Sirisena’s promise: weaker president, stronger prime minister. Rajapaksa is playing his hand close to his chest. He has stayed away from the rallies in his support and hasn’t said a word about his next move. When asked about his prime ministerial ambitions, he refuses to bite. “Let’s see what the people say,” he demurs. If he returned to power, would he do anything differently? He seems momentarily lost for words but then bursts out laughing. “But I haven’t decided if I want to come back to power,” he insists. If he can hold that smile for another six months, Beijing could yet have the last laugh.