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President Rajapaksa’s victory and the "power problem"

By Col. R. Hariharan

(April 10, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa has scored a double whammy with his thumping success in the parliamentary elections April 2010 after his triumph in the presidential poll in January 2010. With this Rajapaksa has emerged as the most powerful man in Sri Lanka. Already he enjoys wide powers of executive presidency.This is further boosted now by the majority his ten-party United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) enjoys in the new parliament.

Nine months after the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, President Rajapaksa has emerged as unchallenged national leader with the massive public support demonstrated in the two elections. The opposition is now more muted than ever before although United National Party (UNP) despite its internal wrangling has not performed as badly as the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in the parliamentary poll. The JVP rout has shown the limited political appeal of General Sarath Fonseka, projected by the JVP alliance’s Prime Ministerial candidate.

His strength is further increased as he has at his disposal an oversized armed force that could help his power projection in the region. Considering this, the successive electoral victories have also created a first rate ‘power problem’ for the President – how to wield the enormous power?

President Rajapaksa’s journey to the top had been mired in controversies on many counts. Although this is not uncommon in politics, a few ‘unhealthy’ trends have been seen in his style of wielding power. These could set a dangerous precedence.

Systematic image building

There had been a systematic effort to build Rajapaksa as the SOLE national leader responsible for the victorious war against the Tami Tiger insurgents. Well planned national campaign to build up his image as a modern day Dutugemunu came to fruition with the deaths of Prabhakaran and the LTTE leadership. There is nothing wrong in projecting a national leader in the image of such historical heroes. But such projection, in an ethnically split and sensitive society, can provoke divisive tendencies.

The nearest modern day contender for this haloed status was General Sarath Fonseka, who led the army to victory. As army commander he successfully overcame the problems that had been dogging the army all these years and systematically planned and executed the military operations. His public image as a national hero had been growing ever since the war. However, his military success would not have been possible without President Rajapaksa’s total support of the government to the military effort.

After the war, President Rajapaksa saw the enormous popularity of Fonseka as an inconvenient obstacle to his own elevation as the sole national leader. So the process of dethroning of the General from the pedestal of a national hero started taking a firm shape with the non extension of his term as the Chief of Defence Staff .The President’s fear was strengthened when Fonseka rallied the support of the UNP and the JVP to emerge as the common opposition candidate against Rajapaksa in the January 2010 presidential poll. After winning the election, Rajapaksa continued with the process of cutting Fonseka to size with arrest and prosecution. As many as 37 associates of Fonseka including retired army officers have been rounded up. Serving officers considered close to the retired General have come under scrutiny.

In the bargain, Rajapaksa has courted a lot of criticism from not only civil society organisations, but also from international community for practising vindictive politics. And these accusations have been piled up on the President’s long list of aberrations of governance that include human rights violations, lack of humanitarian policies, war crimes etc. It has also led to avoidable embarrassment for the country in some of the UN forums. And these are likely to increase.

Flawed policy prescriptions

The President has fulfilled his electoral promises, made in 2005, as far as ending the peace process and the ceasefire, and elimination of the LTTE are concerned. However, he has chosen to ignore his own promises in acting upon some others like enforcing some of the amendments to the Constitution. For instance, he has not fulfilled his repeated promises to implement the13th Amendment (devolving powers to provincial councils) and the 17th Amendment (for providing the Constitutional Council and Independent Commissions). Similarly he had put into cold storage the recommendations of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) he had formed with a lot of fanfare to work out a frame work for devolution of powers to minorities.

As a result of such acts of political expediency, the President’s credibility has suffered. His policy prescriptions on a number of contentious issues including rule of law, freedom of the press, violation of human rights and acts of political violence have become skewed suspect. Without bothering about the niceties of credibility, the President appears to have adopted political opportunism as the only criterion to achieve his ends.

Downsizing international opinion

President Rajapaksa had been consistently ignoring international opinion on many key issues of governance and public conduct of his government discussed earlier. This started with the dismantling of the peace process which was enjoyed the support of 48 nations and international bodies. Such issues of international sensitivity include alleged war crimes, human rights violations, threat and intimidation of free media, short circuiting rule of law, and lack of transparency in commissions of inquiry. As a result, Sri Lanka which had once enjoyed a fairly high international reputation has repeatedly come under criticism in international bodies like the UN High Commission for Human Rights and even the UN Security Council.

In spite of this, Sri Lanka’s attitude had been aggressive rather than conciliatory towards international community. On more than one occasion diplomats, foreign dignitaries and have been brusquely handled by bureaucrats without even conventional diplomatic norms.

The developments leading to the European Union’s non renewal of the GSP+ tariff conditions extended to Sri Lanka in the wake of the 2005 tsunami strike is a case in point. The European Union did not take kindly to Sri Lanka continuously ignoring its pleas for greater sensitivity and accountability in handling human rights issues. Although the withdrawal of the GSP+ concessions had struck at Sri Lanka’s exports to the European Union, the President had been defiant on this issue. He had said the Government would never bow down to conditions detrimental to the wishes of people in order to get financial or other support from outside.

Even after the turbulence of war, Sri Lanka has continued to orchestrate a strong propaganda campaign seeing an international conspiracy to downgrade its achievement in the ‘war against terror.’ Evidently these are targeted against some of the Western nations which demanded greater Sri Lankan accountability to international concerns on war crimes and human rights issues. Repeatedly Sri Lanka ministers have spoken on this. In particular the U.S. and Norway have been singled out for such criticism.

There had been other irritants as well. During the course of war, President Rajapaksa took initiative in meeting countries known for their strong anti -American stance like Iran, Myanmar and Venezuela. This was probably his way of sending a "hands off Sri Lanka" message to the U.S. which he perceived as meddling in the war to bale out the LTTE leaders. While this might have helped projecting the President as a leader of international status at home, the move was ill timed. The only fall out was negative: it probably soured the first contacts with the President Barak Obama and his U.S. administration that had just taken over.

Even after the war, Sri Lanka has continued to be vocally belligerent towards the U.S. The latest in the series is the comment of the Sri Lanka Defence Spokesman made on Aril 6, 2010 following a U.S. air force video splashed in international media showing the U.S. planes strafing a group of persons alleged to be innocent civilians, including Reuter’s photo journalists. While diplomacy had never been Sri Lanka’s strong suite, such a provocative comment from a government official to an embarrassing news story about another nation was neither warranted nor helps international relations.

President Rajapaksa, riding the crest of popularity with success after success, does not appear to be fully conscious of the importance in maintaining a cordial, rather than confrontational, relationship with the U.S. In the emerging strategic setting in this region, U.S. and India are the two important players, with China breathing down their necks to get into this league. Big power play is likely to increase in the Indian Ocean region after the U.S. lessens its commitments in Afghanistan. Once the U.S. sheds the shackles of its skewed Af-Pak policy as unworkable, there could be increased strategic security convergence between the U.S. and India increasing further. If Rajapaksa does not give a course correction to his foreign policy prejudices, it could affect Sri Lanka’s strategic security.

Uncertain future

President wields enormous powers under Sri Lanka’s executive presidency system. With his re-election for a second term (to commence in November 2010), Rajapaksa will rule the country for a total duration of 11 years. Added to this the UPFA coalition led by the President has a majority in parliament now. On the positive side this provides him an unprecedented opportunity to take positive action including constitutional amendments, if necessary, to resolve the vexing issue of devolution of powers to Tamils. Thus he is at the helm at an important stage in Sri Lanka’s political with the muscle to extinguish the simmering ethnic confrontation and unite the nation as a whole.

The future of Sri Lanka now depends upon how President Rajapaksa exercises power authority during these years. The armed forces give him added muscle. The problem in wielding this kind of enormous power is the tendency to ride rough shod over contrarian opinions from the conscience keepers of nation. As a result the temptation to misuse armed forces to further political power increases. However, the President has become so powerful that he has no need to do so. But as the cliché says ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

Rajapaksa thrives on divisive politics that has created a lot of distrust both at home and abroad about his intentions. So there is a feeling of uncertainty about how he is going to perform in his second term particularly when he has no military agenda to pursue. The leadership style and highly personalised politics he had been practising does not encourage positive expectations for the future. His first tenure as president has been marked by gross violations of norms of governance and human rights and lack of accountability. As U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and former Ambassador to Sri Lanka Robert Blake puts it, "it is important for the administration of President Rajapaksa to reach out to the Tamils… It is important that they feel that they are going to be able to live a future of hope and of opportunity." But will he do it, amidst other pressing political priorities?

Unless he builds bridges with all sections of people and take deliberate action improve his governance, economic recovery is going to be difficult as assistance from the West could dry up. If that happens Sri Lanka is likely to face a difficult passage. This could make him move closer to the Chinese. Though India is an equally important and economically powerful entity for Sri Lanka and has excellent relations with the country increased Chinese role in Sri Lanka could change all that. And such a development coupled with the unfulfilled promises in resolving the ethnic issue has the potential of affecting India-Sri Lanka relations during 2011, when Tamil Nadu goes to polls.

So we come back to the question how will the President handle his "power problem"? Only the President can answer this; but will he?

(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: colhari@yahoo.com Blog: www.colhariharan.org)

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