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Crisis 2010: The post-election scenario

By Dayan Jayatilleka

(December 21, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It is a fairly safe assumption that with the Southern province elections the Rajapakse administration hit its electoral ceiling and the UNP its floor. The ceiling is fairly high, around 65%, and the floor (almost a basement floor, courtesy Mr. Wickremesinghe) pretty low, 25%. It is a safe guess that President Rajapakse had his eyes on Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s “ground record”. However, he will have to contend with the fact that even without the Fonseka challenge the UPFA with its patriotic platform has peaked and is on a slow parabolic downswing, enabling him at best to beat or reach President Jayawardene’s winning 1982 figure, Premadasa’s 1988 score or CBK’s 1999 result, but not her higher, or one might say, substantially fuller, figure of 1994. That last figure was an anomaly in any case, not generated by her “charisma” or “peace program” as claimed by her ruinous “peace ideologues” and academics, but by default – the Tiger having serially assassinated every viable UNP presidential candidate, barring Ranil Wickremesinghe: Premadasa, Ranjan, Lalith, Gamini and even young Ossie. In 1994 Ranil had partly been edged out as a prospect by an inner party putsch, and partly sidestepped the contest.

On balance it is exceedingly doubtful that any personality around today can, even as “common candidate”, bridge and exceed the gap of around 30% between the Opposition and President Rajapakse. If the UNP had a viable candidate such as Karu Jayasuriya, then a Fonseka or Sarath Silva “spoiler” third candidacy might have made it a close fight, but even so, President Rajapakse would probably win, in a replay of JRJ’s 1982 or Premadasa’s 1988 victories.

The real problem starts after the elections. Presidents Jayewardene and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had dreadfully crisis-tossed second terms, which were terrible experiences for the country and its citizenry. If re-elected, President Rajapakse is likely to have a similar experience, though it may be lesser in intensity because he has, to his undying credit, removed the main motor of development of those earlier crises: Prabhakaran, the Tigers and the war. However, will he be able to overcome the abiding temptation of Sri Lankan presidents (what might be termed the CBK syndrome) to attempt escape from the confines of a rigid constitution?

The most prudent course of action for a President in his or her second term would be to take a leaf from the book of any US President, however popular or powerful, and understand that the corollary of occupying a seat of such great power and influence is that it is limited by two terms. No better recommendation could be given to a Sri Lankan president than to accept these limits of power and (a) to seek to ameliorate the North-South or Sinhala-Tamil question by simply implementing the 13th amendment to the existing Constitution while (b) unblocking the road to meritocracy which is a prerequisite for economic development by implementing the 17th amendment, rather than to risk a referendum on more venturesome architectural moves.

What is sad is that no Sri Lankan president will accept that Realist advice with equanimity: hence the fiasco of Chandrika’s abortive “Constitutional revolution”. Instead of implementing the 13th amendment, empowering her ally Cabinet Minister Devananda through an interim administration and leveraging the Karuna split, she tilted to the TNA and slid slowly into political decline. Though the argument for a total replacement of the Constitution rather than its full implementation or reform, is that the existing one is too authoritarian and/or unsuited to the resolution of the ethnic issue, the real reason-cum-target is the two term limit and the electoral system of proportional representation which act as checks and balances.

The incumbent will be forced to confront the unresolved ethnic issue (despite a reluctance to admit its existence) in the form of the TNA, which has not yet eschewed Tamil Eelam and the Vadukkodai Resolution let alone accepted the sole practicable formula of maximum devolution within a unitary state (the UK model). It may very well pick up Trincomalee at the parliamentary election, approximating the TULF’s sweep in 1977. Its “asking price” will therefore be high; far too high for any government to grant without fear of a Southern backlash.

The newly re-elected Government and President will then either backtrack and maintain the status quo, but with some political damage suffered and prestige lost, perhaps never to be retrieved, or press on and be exposed (though not as vulnerable) as SWRD Bandaranaike was in 1957-9, to a far right religious fundamentalist backlash, sponsored as it was then, and during Chandrika’s administration four decades later, by the defeated UNP, which is the party of the March to Kandy, Cyril Mathew, the burning of the Jaffna library and July ’83. The radical right and religious fundamentalist discourse we see today has its recent origins in the front organizations and proxies built up by the present UNP leadership from 1997 onward, through the private media it controlled. It is the private media that built up the Sinhala far Right in the battle against Chandrika’s August 2000 draft Constitution. This was Track 2 of the current UNP leadership’s policy of which Track 1 was Chamberlain like appeasement leading to Petain-esque collaboration during the CFA.

At no time will a Rajapakse administration, which defeated Prabhakaran, be quite as vulnerable to such a backlash as President CBK or Prime Minister Ranil were, but it also true that the TNA – unlike Douglas, Siddharthan and Sritharan (“Sugu”)-- will not leave the President much wiggle room. Things will be fine so long as the process of negotiation is on, but when it comes to achieving closure and a product, it will be crunch time.

The re-elected administration will need a Constitutional change (hopefully not a change of Constitution) sooner rather than later: CBK’s mistake was to pitch things too high and wait for too long to move. President Rajapakse would be well advised to move on Constitutional reforms if he wishes to do so, within the first hundred days of his re-election, while the opposition is still reeling and the only dangers are extra-Constitutional adventures which he can ward off, especially if the smaller radical right parties have been cut down to size during an election. As SWRD Bandaranaike discovered too late, one cannot make a necessary turn in the direction of ethnic enlightenment if one is trammeled by coalition partners and affiliates which are hawkish on such questions.

In the post election scenario of 2010, it is against a backdrop much like this, compounded by economic travails due to a Western squeeze, that there could be putschist adventures by the racist radical Right, xenophobic far Left and the religious fundamentalists, with the Conservative UNP behind it -- the fear of which could paralyze any reconciliatory ethnic reform, but in the absence of which Sri Lanka will never achieve take off.

Even if the UNP were to assume office, that Rightist government under its present leadership is bound to be vulnerable to a social discontent from below, and prone to deploy harsh militarist authoritarianism “to catch up for lost time and develop the country”. The crisis that almost overwhelmed the country in a tide of blood during the second JR Jayewardene term could well be our lot once again.

Twenty one years -- a lifetime-- ago, emerging from underground while the JVP’s second insurgency was raging, I wrote a series in the Lanka Guardian, the title of which formed the subtitle of my 1995 Vikas book: Unfinished war, protracted crisis. Twenty-one years later, that war is finished. We won. The worst guys lost. The protracted crisis however, continues, and spins out needlessly yet perhaps inevitably. It is Sri Lanka’s tragedy that even after a stunning military victory over a formidable, fascistic foe, there seems to be no exit from the crisis.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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