Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • March 2010
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The UPFA and UNF messages to the electorate

Posted by harimpeiris on March 2, 2010

Nominations for the general elections to parliament closed last Friday and now the six week long campaign is upon us, which will culminate on election day, April 8th 2010. The walls of not just Colombo but of every city and town in the country are adorned or more accurately its aesthetics quite spoilt by the smiling faces of the record seven thousand five hundred plus candidates in the fray for the two hundred and twenty five seats in the supreme legislature of the land.

The personal stories of some of the candidates are a testament to the enduring qualities of politics in Sri Lanka. Defeated presidential candidate retired General Sarath Fonseka enters the fray from military custody, presidential offspring Namal Rajapakse follows the family tradition of electoral politics from the Hambanthota district, while first sibling Basil leads the UPFA effort in its traditional stronghold of Gampaha. Mangala Samaraweera finds himself leading the UNP effort in Matara, while his close associate Tiran Alles parts company and / or hedges their bets to follow Anura Kumara Dissanayake on the NDA national list. Milinda Moragoda resurrects the defunct National Congress to bring back old style values while Rajiva Wijesinghe the erstwhile leader of the Liberal Party and more recently the Secretary of the Human Rights Ministry finds himself a slot on the UPFA national list, in the traditions of Ambassador Asitha Perera in a previous PA dispensation. The TNA national list leads with young emerging constitutional lawyer and reconciliation advocate MA Sumanthiran.

The real issue though is what is the message of the respective parties to the electorate. The UPFA’s intent seems clear enough; it desires to follow up its presidential election victory with a parliamentary win which would give it a two third majority in parliament. Now under our current system of proportional representation to get two thirds of the seats, close to sixty two to sixty three percent of the popular vote at least would be required and that too spread out evenly in the country. The UPFA’s support is clustered in those swathes of the country where the majority community predominate, but it demonstrates its significant weakness amongst ethnic and religious minorities. Now for the UPFA as a party to significantly better the fifty eight percent of the vote polled by President Rajapakse in January is a tough and highly unlikely ask. The real attempt at getting a two third majority starts with the horse trading that follows the election, as every opposition MP is a potential candidate to join the coalition of the willing, the wooed, the bought over, the cajoled and the occasionally threatened to bring the magical number to one fifty honorable members under the government whip in the House.

The real message of the UNF is for the electorate to do everything possible to prevent this. Actually opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe will strengthen his own position from this election.  All his detractors within the UNP have actually concluded their defections to the government, so the newly elected lot of UNP MP’s will be a much more committed bunch, at greater peace with themselves and with him, a lot like the SLFP parliamentary group elected in 1989 right after the defeat of Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike to President Premadasa. Five years later the SLFP, revitalized and rejuvenated under the leadership of her daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga roared and rode back into power after seventeen long years in the political wilderness. Buddhism teaches us that nothing is permanent in life, this is never more true than in politics.

The Democratic National Alliance or DNA, contesting under the Trophy symbol, is nothing other than the JVP in new clothes with some political heavyweights thrown in for good measure including retired General Fonseka and former national cricket captain Arjuna Ranatunga. They will appeal to the same Sinhala vote base that the UPFA appeals to and seek to convince them, at least this time around that the UPFA is not a good repository for their votes. Even a cursory look at the presidential election results of January would indicate that it was the Sinhala electorate that responded the least to General Fonseka and the Swan campaign. The minorities that voted for the Swan last time around now have their own parties in the fray, the TNA and the SLMC.  Third party politics in Sri Lanka, whether the DUNF of Lalith and Gamini or indeed even the JVP have not lasted long as an independent political force and have only prospered as part of a bigger alliance. The JVP’s Democratic National Alliance is likely to find that out  at its own cost. General Fonseka misdirected himself or was ill advised by his inner circle to opt for the DNA as opposed to the UNP. Should he have accepted the UNP offer for nomination and rejected the national list and instead insisted on leading the UNP effort in the Galle District, which includes his home town of Ambalangoda, he would have easily won and as an elected opposition MP with war hero credentials been the shadow defense minister and spokesman of the main opposition party. Even should he get into parliament from Colombo district on the DNA ticket and whether the JVP commands at least the minimum thirty or so thousand votes in the district required for a seat, depending of course on voter turnout, is quite uncertain and he will find himself a member of a very small parliamentary group.

The real third force in politics in Sri Lanka is of course the minority political parties and especially the combination of the Tamil and Muslim political parties, mainly the TNA and the SLMC. These two parties will increasingly converge together as they view their respective interests at least in relation to the Sri Lankan State to be much more complimentary than competitive and also begin to understand that a national reconciliation process in Sri Lanka has to include reconciliation between the Muslim and Tamil communities in the North and East, to recover from the ethnic cleansing of Muslim from Jaffna to the exacerbation of various tensions between the communities in the East by the LTTE in the past.

The post LTTE general election also gives the Tamil people their first democratic choice in decades to choose between three options. Firstly the working with the national parties’ option presented by the EPDP of Minster Douglas Devananda and including the TMVP and the Karuna led Tamil wing of the SLFP. At the opposite  end of the spectrum will be the ACTC led by Gajan Ponnambalam and including hard line former MP Gajendran, which will essentially seek to promote the LTTE political views without the LTTE’s armed clout. At the center of these two positions will be the TNA, contesting under the Federal Party banner, seeking a robust engagement with the national parties but not proposing being a part of them. Punters are well advised to place their money on the TNA. Just check where the editor and managing director of the Sudar Oli and Uthayan newspapers is contesting from and also note that the TNA is the only political party equally credible in the North and in the East. All other Tamil parties essentially are from either the North (EPDP, ACTC) or the East (TMVP, Karuna). Only the TNA can lay claims to being equally viable in both provinces. By April 9th we shall know.

Some political analysts point to the presidential election as a model of a kind of mono ethno religious national constituency the UPFA can nurture, where President Rajapakse lost every minority dominated electorate in the country, including in the hill country and even in the Catholic majority electorate of Negombo in the UPFA bastion of the Gampaha District but emerged winner with a fifty eight percent of the popular vote.  Their argument is to essentially ignore the minorities or at least their interests and grievances  as being politically irrelevant to the government.

However the counter arguments are that this is a historic opportunity to ensure a durable and lasting political solution to the alienation of minority communities from the Sri Lankan State. That post war national reconciliation is a must. That as much as Sri Lanka is an example of a military destruction of a ruthless terrorist outfit that we must equally be exemplary in post war rehabilitation, reconstruction and reconciliation. That we will not have to maintain troop levels in minority districts like Jaffna at the ratio of one Sinhala soldier to every twelve Tamil civilians and expropriate one fifth of private agricultural lands as high security zones to maintain state security and enforce government writ.  To ensure that Sri Lanka restores its relations with the Western world, as necessary friends and trading partners and consequently improve our image amongst the international community of nations. Those are the real challenges that will face the parliamentarians elected in April and especially the new government constituted thereafter.

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