Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • January 2010
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Ranil’s formula for the General’s Success

Posted by harimpeiris on January 12, 2010

UNP and Opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe has long believed that winning a plurality of the Sinhala vote and a vast majority of the Tamil and Muslim vote will guarantee a presidential candidate victory at an election. He assiduously followed this strategy though out the early part of this decade and tested out his thesis at the presidential election of 2005. It almost worked but not quite. The fatal flaw in the theory, applicable at that time, was that the real arbiter of the Tamil vote was neither the TNA nor any other political party but the LTTE. Hence the Tamil vote in Jaffna and Colombo stayed away and Ranil narrowly lost to then Prime Minister Rajapakse, by a mere eighty odd thousand votes nationally. He barely crossed the fifty percent mark needed for an outright win, by about twenty five thousand votes or on average a thousand votes per district. Interestingly the Batticalao Tamils in 2005 defied both the LTTE’s boycott and the TMVP’s call to support Mahinda Rajapakse and voted overwhelmingly for Ranil Wickremesinghe.

However all that is water under the bridge, we in Sri Lanka had a Mahinda Rajapakse presidency and its most notable feature was the total military defeat of the LTTE in May last year. Following which President Rajapakse, has come before the people once again to seek a renewed mandate for a further term of office. The election which government supporters had hoped would be a referendum on President Rajapakse’s military success has instead turned on a referendum on his governance. More importantly President Rajapakse is learning what one time British Prime Minister Margret Thatcher famously noted, even as her own political party dumped her as leader after winning the Falklands war and three consecutive general elections, that political friends come and go, but political enemies only come, they never go away. They instead stick around and in most instances gang up together to take you down. It should be a cause for some reflection in the President’s inner circles why the disparate opposition parties that dislike each other quite passionately have been able to sink their differences in the attempt to sink the Rajapakse presidency.

The formula adopted has been an attempted rerun of the 2005 election, to fight yesterday’s battle all over again, in the hope that different circumstances would produce a different outcome, a not implausible proposition, that was envisioned, actively promoted and made largely possible due to the ingenuity of my erstwhile friend Mangala Samaraweera. The objective was to find a candidate that can wrest a significant proportion of President Rajapakse’s Sinhala nationalist base but yet pull together the minority vote, through the support of the minority political parties. In General Fonseka, the opposition certainly found a candidate with appeal to the Sinhala nationalist base but the big question was could he muster the support of the ethnic minorities. Until last week, this seemed quite questionable, especially with the dominant role played by the JVP in his election campaign. But the past week has in the cross over and endorsement drama certainly seen a significant minority swing towards General Fonseka. The TNA was the biggest catch of them all, but almost equally so was Batticaloa Mayor Sivageetha Prabakaran and CWC stalwarts M. Sellasamy and R.Yogarajan. Additionally as a bonus General Fonseka picked up the public endorsement and active support of high profile former Chief Justice Sarath Nanda Silva as well. As one astute political analyst observed, if the national electorate votes, approximately  along the lines it did in 2005 along with the newly enfranchised Vanni voter and the non boycotting Jaffna voter being guided by the TNA, casting their votes for General Fonseka, it would be very difficult for President Rajapakse to counter this with solely an increase in the Sinhala vote. Moreover General Fonseka in 2010 is likely to be much more attractive to Sinhala voters than the never say die Ranil Wickremesinghe was to that same constituency in 2005.

Equally crucial then is the Muslim vote and here the antics of the JHU especially in the East but also elsewhere and in national politics in Colombo has not really helped the President’s cause. The Muslim Community generally supported Sinhala nationalism when the LTTE existed since the LTTE’s anti Muslim terror from Mosque attacks to ethnic cleansing and land grabs was barbaric. However with the end of the war, reports from the East indicate that the Muslim community’s displeasure has turned towards the government largely due to the perceived anti Muslim stance of the JHU. Accordingly there has been a political convergence of all the Tamil speaking communities in the Country with the Muslim SLMC, the Sri Lankan Tamil TNA and now a significant breakaway of the Upcountry Tamil CWC coming together to support General Fonseka in his attempt to unseat President Rajapakse. What even the unlamented late Prabhakaran’s LTTE could not do with the barrel of a gun, I.e. unite the Tamil speaking vote under one umbrella, the JHU antics of the past four years have made possible and is costing the Rajapakse administration dearly.

General Fonseka with gay abandon promises to be all things to all people, so that in some way he may win their votes. Surprisingly perhaps, he may actually succeed. However, the Fonseka candidacy and the minority parties unifying around  it, has irrespective of the outcome of the election led to a greater opening up  of political space and redress of ethnic minority grievances. Last week General Fonseka went to Jaffna and promised to eliminate Jaffna’s High Security Zones, a colossal amount of extremely fertile as well as hereditary private lands to which the owners were denied access for close upon two decades due to the security needs of the military. The General achieved this feat without a ripple in the Sinhala south, demonstrating that having fought the war successfully he does have the trust of the Sinhala voter to be generous to the Tamil and Muslim communities.  Unsurprisingly the Government in an attempt to take the wind out of the General’s sails has proposed the immediate withdrawal of the Jaffna HSZs and plans proceed apace to resettle the Jaffna IDP’s in their lands of original habitation.

Two weeks left to go for the election are a lifetime in politics and President Mahinda Rajapakse can still prevail. He will have to direct his appeal towards the ethnic and religious minority communities with whom the General’s campaign is gaining traction. Either way this election promises to usher in a new era in Sri Lanka’s modern history. Our nation certainly deserves better than the thirty years of conflict, we bequeathed ourselves. Having won the war, we must secure the peace and ensure the prosperity of our peoples.

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