Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • January 2010
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Sri Lanka Decides

Posted by harimpeiris on January 26, 2010

On 26th January 2010, Sri Lankans head to the polls to elect their head of state and government for a six year term and essentially entrust to the victor at the presidential election the enormous nation building challenge of the post war era. Seeking a renewed mandate for second term is President Mahinda Rajapakse and contesting him, his chief challenger former Army Commander, retired General Sarath Fonseka.

Irrespective of the outcome, some things are essential for all Sri Lanka. Firstly we need a free and fair poll. The campaign thus far has been quite violent and this is something to be deplored. At least on election day, polling should be peaceful with no attempts at ballot stuffing, intimidating voters or impersonations. Flawed elections seriously undermine the political legitimacy of the victor and no one can desire that a president commences a term of office, with his political legitimacy in doubt. The Commissioner of Elections and the police hierarchy have a special responsibility to ensure that the integrity of this crucial democratic exercise, being as it does at the very heart of the sovereignty of the people, is protected and safeguarded. We should not have a repeat of the farce that was the UNP’s infamous referendum of 1982 or indeed the JVP led violence of the presidential election of 1989.

A special mention must be made of the Tamil voter, especially in the North of Sri Lanka. Both the Vanni and Jaffna voters had been under the LTTE jackboot for too long. In 2005, the Jaffna voter was forced to boycott the presidential election, while the Vanni voters were obviously prevented from voting. The Commissioner of Elections and his staff must make every effort to ensure that the displaced voters of the Vanni and the voters of the Jaffna district are allowed every facility to vote, irrespective of their perceived electoral preference. President Rajapakse is on record, that one reason he called the presidential election early, in fact two years before the end of his term, was to enable the voters of the North, who had not been able to exercise their franchise and participate in the democratic process due to the LTTE, to be now given the chance to have a say in national politics. It is to the credit of the Tamil National Alliance, that it also eschewed ethnic and isolationist policies and decided on a robust involvement in national politics by backing one of the two main candidates at the election, rather than its own break away maverick MP Sivajalingam.  It is in the interest of national reconciliation that irrespective of the outcome of the election, that the TNA sits down with the winner of the election and seek to sort out the contours of a settlement process that will bridge the divide and heal the wounds of a fractured and polarized society.

That this election is as close as it is, when only a few months ago one might have anticipated a one horse race, reelection for the President, is testament to the robustness of Sri Lanka’s democratic traditions and the real option of changing governments and leaders through the ballot. It is a tradition and system that we must preserve at all cost. The challenges to the process must be explored and weaknesses rectified. Rather understandably, President Rajapakse was hoping to cash in on the public approval for the war victory to secure a second term, while the advent of retired General Fonseka as the main opposition candidate nullified the monopoly claim to the war victory in many people’s mind and turned the election on to other issues of governance, including the economy.

Since the candidacy of retired General Fonseka was the catalyst for energizing the opposition and providing them the much needed stamina and political will to fight the good fight, it is worth recalling here why the rift occurred in the first place between the president and his army commander. During the war, policy making authority and power or the balance of power between the civilian and military wings of the State had understandably tilted towards the military. Understandably after the victory, President Rajapakse assessed his own popularity to be sufficiently strong to clip the wings of his powerful military chief and kicked him upstairs as chief of defense staff. It is not unreasonable to doubt that General Fonseka who retired from his largely ceremonial post as CDS to contest the executive presidency would be doing so, to essentially work himself out of a job again or to become a ceremonial president.

As many political observers have pointed out, one lacuna in the campaign has been the absence of a serious examination of the political challenges of a reconciliation process and arriving at a political solution to the causes of the ethnic conflict. One of them being the alienation from the State of the minority communities of the North and East. Heated campaign rhetoric and nationalist fervor does not aid or assist in anyway the political challenge of winning the hearts and minds of the Tamil and Muslim communities of the North and East. The president seems to be the 13th amendment with some modification to police powers and also the introduction of a second chamber or senate as the power sharing mechanism at the Center for inclusivity and plurality. Retired General Fonseka has also been talking about the 13th amendment, thought this time with the 13th plus option, indicating that post election, irrespective of the outcome, the 13th amendment will form the basis for and the contours of the political solution. Such a process though needs to include the very real and humanitarian issues of resettlement, the rehabilitation of the war affected including widows, orphans, amputees, the war affected destitute and the reintegration of former combatants.

Finally, far reaching state makeovers are difficult for the ablest of political leaders with the best of intentions and stellar qualities. If in doubt, ask former President Kumaratunga, whose visionary August 2000 draft constitution was a case of so near but yet so far. The end of the war though does provide a historic opportunity for the Sri Lankan State to seek to become more reflective and inclusive of its multi ethnic, multi religious and multi lingual society. To the victor at this presidential election goes the responsibility of creating such an inclusive state. We should avoid post election violence and revenge taking at all costs and come together as a nation after the divisiveness of a bruising campaign and a bitterly fought election. On 27th January 2010; the real hard work for the next six years begins.

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