A President for War, and A President for Peace?

by N Sathiya Moorthy

(September 01, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Whatever the physical and psychological damage on the ground, the LTTE air-strike on Trincomallee may have rubbed on and spoilt the party for the ruling combine, at the height of the twin Provincial Council poll victories in North-Central and Sabaragamuva. This is the second time in the past months - earlier one being the attack on navy ship 'Invincible' - that the LTTE has taken the battle to the East where one was told it had ended.

Obviously, the LTTE is hoping to open a new front in the East when the military pressure on the outfit is now in the North. However, as with the Anuradhapura air force attack last year, the LTTE hit this time does not seem to have the potential to change the course of war, as the Kattanayake Attack I had done in 2001. The ground situation has changed, and the LTTE needs to acknowledge this.

The guerrilla attacks and suicide-strikes too having had limited impact in recent months, the LTTE may have to move away from the tactics for war to strategy for peace. The former can re-energise sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, but it is the latter that would bring in peace for the Tamils nearer home.

It is not just the LTTE but President Mahinda Rajapaksa too needs to accept that the 'war for peace' approach of his predecessor Chandrika Kumaratunga did not pay off after a point. That the armed forces are better equipped and that the political leadership is unwavering does not automatically mean that all is well that would end well.

It is in this context, President Rajapaksa's description of the twin-Province electoral victory of his ruling UPFA needs to be reviewed. As was to be expected, he has said that the election results were a "victory for all our people who love our motherland". Yet, a day later, the President was quick to quell all talk of snap elections to Parliament, despite his party spokesman offering one to the Opposition United National Party (UNP) if the latter so desired.

It is true that the UPFA has bagged the two Provincial Councils. It is also true that the ruling combine has come on top in all 27 parliamentary electorates comprising the two Provinces of two administrative districts each. But there is no denying the substantial increase in the vote-share of the UNP when compared to the demoralising results of the local government polls of 2006. It is the ruling UPFA that has stagnated in terms of vote-share in the two Provinces (See: Table).

The Left-leaning Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) that had contested the local government elections of 2006 on its own after partnering the UPFA in the presidential polls only months earlier has clearly lost out this time too. The Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC), representing the Malayaha Tamils, contested the PC polls on its own despite being a partner in the UPFA, but has lost miserably.

Whether or not it is true of the rest of the country, the accompanying Table indicates two phases/trends from the past - with district and Province-level figures of 2006 worked out from the percentages in individual municipal council and pradeshiya sabha polls. In the first phase, JVP did help consolidate the UPFA vote-share but could not take it back when it went its way in the local government polls of 2006.

(Click to enlarge) In the second phase (2006-08), the JVP seems to be giving away vote-share to the UNP, too. Whether the weakening JVP voter-base had anything to do with the recent party-split would remain to be seen. Whether this is a 'trend' and whether it could be reversed -- and if so, how -- are points that the JVP needs to ponder about.

The message from the voter is clear. That despite war victory, the ruling UPFA cannot shrug off anti-incumbency attaching to other issues and concerns -- and that the UNP is the best alternative available to the voter. It is the inherent weakness of the UNP that may have helped the UPFA to retain what has become its bench-mark vote-share in all four districts comprising the two Provinces. Yet, this figure is only around five percentage points more than the halfway mark in terms of voter-acceptance even though the UNP is way away from catching up with the UPFA.

If the 'love for the motherland' could not divert the migration of the 'JVP votes' towards the traditional UNP rival of the UPFA this time round, the ruling combine needs to think what could do it in a future election. It may be easy to dub one segment as 'nationalist voters' but it does not automatically flow that the rest are any less nationalist or patriotic as the imputation and implication otherwise go.

Put differently, the so-called 'less nationalist' voters have other concerns too than war and war victory. Those concerns could relate to price rise, inflation and other issues of governance. They are yet Sri Lankan citizens and voters, and cannot be wished away, can they be? What they want is a 'President for Peace' just as the UPFA has projected Rajapaksa as 'President for War'.

Given his vast experience as a political administrator with his ear to the ground, President Rajapaksa could play the peace role as perfectly as he has done with the war role. The voter has made his choice now, and today war still edges over peace in his scheme too. He will again make his choice when he feels the need and prioritises issues for him to vote upon.

Otherwise, yes, the polling itself went off peacefully despite predictions to the contrary. Such predictions did go wrong in the Eastern Province earlier in the year. True, the UPFA has to pull its socks on governance issues, and the UNP in organisational matters. But there are others in the present-day Sri Lanka who too have to look into the mirror, now or later.

The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), the Indian policy think-tank headquartered in New Delhi. The views expressed are those of the writer. email: sathiyam54@hotmail.com
- Sri Lanka Guardian