Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • January 2010
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From landslide to a close call

Posted by harimpeiris on January 19, 2010

Government insiders and definitely SLFP old timers and well wishers would well be ruing the chain of events that has transformed this presidential election from one which was destined to be a no contest landslide for the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapakse, into a very real and close contest between him and the president’s one time chief military officer General (retd) Sarath Fonseka.

Supporting the President in his reelection bid, is the ruling SLFP and its allies, the JHU, JNP, CP, LSSP, EPDP, TMVP, ENDLF, UPF, ACMC, Ashroff Congress, NUA, the UNP breakaways  and the CWC. In the opposition corner and backing the independent candidature of General (Retd) Sarath Fonseka, is the main opposition UNP, the JVP, SLMC, TNA, SLFP (M Faction), the WPF, SLFP breakaways Arjuna Ranatunga as well as Batticaloa Mayor S.Prabhakaran, CWC breakaways M. Sellasamay and R.Yogarajan  as well as former Chief Justice Sarath N Silva.

In terms of the balance of social and political forces, President Rajapakse would be counting on receiving the bulk of the Sinhala vote and some significant ethnic minority backing as his reelection victory formula. In contrast General (Retd) Fonseka is seeking to wrest a part of the Sinhala vote away from President Rajapakse and secure almost en bloc the minority vote, as his winning formula. The UNP’s thinking has been to essentially turn this election contest into a rerun of the 2005 presidential election. The two essential and crucial differences of course being the non existence of the LTTE and also that the CWC which backed the UNP in 2005, is now backing President Rajapakse. More importantly perhaps Mahinda Rajapakse was only a promise in 2005, he can now justifiably claim a promise delivered in terms of eliminating the LTTE.

The issue on which General Fonseke’s camp seeks to capture a portion of the Sinhala vote has been corruption and poor governance. Whether this resonates with the electorate and will succeed remains to be seen. SLFP stalwarts and grass roots activists campaigning in the Sinhala rural areas, believe strongly that the SLFP’s rural base is holding and that the opposition’s campaign has merely brought back into the opposition’s fold the  traditional UNP urban middle class voters that deserted them in droves in the 2003 general and 2005 presidential elections.

President Rajapakse’s camp and the SLFP are confident of success. Sympathetic to the cause of my former colleagues and old friends, it is perhaps worth dwelling on some options for the morning(s) after. A general election mandatorily follows and the responsibilities of governance and nation building over a fresh six year term lies ahead.

Whichever candidate wins the election; neither can claim nor believe to have done so, solely with the Sinhala vote, since this would have been divided between the two main camps, though obviously not evenly. But especially for President Rajapakse, a reelection victory will also owe quite a bit to the strong support and vote getting ability of the CWC’s upcountry bloc, Rishard Bathurdeen Northern Muslim vote, Athahulla and Ferial’s Eastern vote and the combined Tamil vote of the EPDP, TMVP, Karuna and Siddharthan. For the SLFP led UPFA, the results of January 26th will provide the peak electoral support that Sinhala nationalism would bring them. The election results will indicate that despite there being no respite in nationalist rhetoric and even minor concessions to the Tamil polity, a significant proportion of the Sinhala polity has voted on non nationalist grounds, on economic and other issues and moved away from the ruling combine. A further ratcheting up of Sinhala nationalism would not provide any fresh public support to the administration, it could instead seek to reach across the ethnic divide to partner the minority communities of the North and East in a reconciliation and nation building process that seeks to secure politically and make permanent, the end of conflict achieved at such great price, combatant and civilian, on the battle field.

The Tamil Diaspora domiciled in the West are angry, well resourced and quite capable and most likely willing to fund and encourage fresh violence in Sri Lanka. While we must take all security precautions against such an eventuality, there is little alternative to a hearts and minds campaign that seeks to win over the minority communities that are seemingly alienated from the Sri Lankan State.

The war victory has opened up and provided unprecedented space and political opportunity for the government to seek to provide a political solution from a position of political strength and moral high ground. The contours of the solution as envisaged for the post election period by the Rajapakse Administration is the provincial council system already a part of the Constitution under the 13th Amendment.  President Rajapakse early on in his first term laid out his thinking on devolution and power sharing when he addressed the APRC in mid 2006 and stated as follows. “people in their own localities must take charge of their destiny and control their               politico-economic environment. Central decision making that allocates disproportionate resources has been an issue for a considerable time. In addition it is axiomatic that devolution also needs to address issues relating to identity as well as security and socio – economic advancement, without over reliance on the Centre. In this regard it is also important to address the question of regional minorities. In sum, any solution needs to as a matter of urgency, devolve power for people to take charge of their own destiny. This has been tried out successfully in many parts of the world. There are many examples from around the world that we may study as we evolve a truly Sri Lankan constitutional framework including our neighbor India”. (Daily News 12th July 2006).

As the election heats up and heads to a finish the rival camps and especially that of the incumbent should well ponder the challenges of the morning(s) after. The electorate’s selection battle may be over, but the real match, which is what the selection was all about, would only just have begun.

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