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Challenge before Rajapaksa

Sri Lankan ethnic issue must be resolved

By S.D. Muni

(February 01, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s electoral gamble has paid off handsomely. By cutting short his first term by two years, he has ensured a six-year second term for himself, a victory with 57.8 per cent votes cast.

What basically carried him through this gamble were his determination to militarily eliminate the LTTE and his control over the State apparatus. The war on the LTTE was fought under his leadership against heavy odds and international pressures. His campaign effectively drove home the point that despite his opponent and erstwhile Army Chief Gen Sarath Fonseka’s claims for an equal share in crushing the LTTE, victory primarily belonged to him. In democracies, critical initiatives are the territory of the political leadership, not of the army generals or bureaucrats. The Tamil voters also seem to have endorsed this point, though negatively, by impressively voting against him in the LTTE-dominated North and East regions.

President Rajapaksa’s incumbency gave him the critical control over the official machinery. The State had numbed the critical media long back during the fight against the LTTE. Private websites monitoring the Sri Lanka elections were blocked hours before the vote counting started. The Election Commission publicly conceded that the State media and State officials were disobeying its directives. The independent election monitors illustrated several examples of the abuse of State authority in promoting Mr Rajapaksa’s candidacy.

An election held in the post-LTTE terrorism context was not completely free from violence. Most of the violence was blamed on the official side. The pre-dawn series of blasts in the Jaffna region on the polling day definitely scared the pro-Fonseka Tamil voters to come out in full strength. Many of the Tamil Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the war zone remained without their voting cards and transport arrangements to vote. The recorded voter turnout in the North was below 20 per cent and in the East below 50 per cent, much lower than the national average of more than 70 per cent polling. General Fonseka has rejected the poll outcome on the basis of these factors.

However, no large-scale irregularities were reported in the voting that was watched by nearly 10,000 observers, including international groups. Even without the misuse of the State machinery, President Rajapaksa would have perhaps carried the day. The challenge to him was inherently weak. He was opposed by a coalition of contradictions. Bereft of leadership confidence, this coalition had to seek a non-political army General who was an ally of Mr Rajapaksa in the in-humanitarian war against the LTTE.

The liberal United National Party (UNP) joined hands with the leftist and Sinhala extremist Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP). The known LTTE ally, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), joined them just to defeat the Rajapaksa regime. President Rajapaksa, through his crafty political moves, had already eroded the strength of the JVP and the UNP as evident during the Provincial Council elections of 2009. These elections had established Mr Rajapaksa’s mastery over the Sinhala political psyche and dynamics.

General Fonseka, the main opposition candidate, proved to be a political novice, moved essentially by his power ambitions and personal rivalry with his erstwhile bosses, the Rajapaksa brothers. The General could not present any credible socio-economic and political programme. His mindset towards the Tamil minority was also not much to speak of, having publicly caricatured them earlier as second class citizens. Accordingly, his promise of greater democracy by changing the presidential system and his assurances of giving justice to the Tamils sounded hollow.

The possibility of many North and East Tamils abstaining from voting due to their trust deficit with General Fonseka cannot be ruled out. His sole emphasis on otherwise valid issues of corruption, nepotism and family oligarchy of the Rajapaksa family did not cut much ice with the Sinhala voters for whom he had nothing much to offer. The support he eventually received came only from the committed but truncated constituencies of the three opposition parties supporting him.

Mr Rajapaksa also succeeded in conveying the message effectively that electing a Western supported candidate like General Fonseka would be an affront to Sri Lankan patriotism. On the polling day, everyone was surprised to know that General Fonseka had not even cared to get himself registered as a legitimate voter. His hometown constituency of Ambalangoda decisively voted against him.

President Rajapaksa fought against the opposition’s call for “change”. It would, therefore, be unfair to expect any major transformation in Sri Lanka’s Presidential system or its prevailing ethnic balance between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The President’s primary aim was to consolidate his regime and political grip over the island. This will be done ruthlessly and with considerable fanfare on the strength of secured popular endorsement.

The next move in the process of this consolidation is to control Parliament, and for this parliamentary elections are expected to be held soon before the opposition can get over its demoralisation. The Executive Presidency will be consolidated at the cost of freedom and prosperity of the common Sri Lankans. The way the defeated candidate, General Fonseka, and the dissenting national and international media is being hounded out, points in that direction. The economy will surely grow, taking the advantage of peace and political stability. In the name of post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation, international assistance will be mobilised but most of the benefits of the rejuvenated economy will flow to the entrenched interests.

The crying need for Sri Lanka is to resolve the ethnic issue politically and constitutionally. This is an opportunity as well as a challenge for the President in his second and last term. But the political imperatives of his victory and the consolidation of his regime do not suggest any sympathy for the Tamils, who were out to defeat him. It would be unrealistic to hope for anything more than cosmetic relief to the Tamil grievances.

Will this revive Tamil resistance in a different shape and size remains to be seen? It may also be prudent on the President’s part to mend his relations with the “international community”, but he cannot give in to their demands on trial for “humanitarian crimes” and a political package for the Tamils. Relations with China and India will dominate Sri Lanka’s foreign policy but mostly on the Rajapaksa regime’s priorities.

The writer is Visiting Research Professor, ISAS, Singapore

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