Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The dangers of triumphalism

Irfan Husain - Sri Lanka had barely recovered from the bruising presidential election that saw the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa win with a landslide that it finds itself preparing for the general elections on April 8. Thus far, though, the campaign is desultory, with the opposition in disarray.

After joining hands under retired General Fonseka in a mighty effort to oust Rajapaksa in the January election, the opposition is reassessing its options.

The major opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), has decided to retain its own identity, and go into battle under its traditional ‘elephant’ symbol, foregoing the ‘swan’ that was the symbol of Sanath Fonseka last month.

While the other components of the United National Front have darkly muttered ‘betrayal’, there is a certain logic to Ranil Wickramsinghe’s decision to ditch Fonseka.

While the general was widely assumed to take a sizeable chunk of the majority Sinhala vote from Rajapkasa, in the event, he won only in minority districts. Additionally, there was the real possibility of alienating traditional UNP supporters by fighting on the same platform as the JVP, its erstwhile foes.

While the two parties had forged an alliance to unseat Rajapaksa, this marriage of convenience was bound to fail, given the polar opposites of the political spectrum they occupy.

The JVP is a hard-line Marxist group with a chauvinistic pro-Sinhala position. Accused of committing some terrible massacres in the South in the early Eighties, it was a key member of the coalition that initially brought Rajapaksa to power.

Over the years, its popularity in its southern bastion has waned, and its representation in provincial and national assemblies has fallen sharply. The UNP has clearly calculated that handing over seats to the declining JVP made little political sense.

Another factor that prompted the UNP to part ways with Fonseka is the general’s overbearing ways, and his ignorance of Sri Lankan politics. During the presidential campaign, he seemed to favour his JVP allies, while often seen to be snubbing Ranil Wickramsinghe.

Fonseka’s utter lack of experience was embarrassingly exposed on election day when he went to his home town to vote. There, it transpired that he had not bothered to get himself registered as a voter. This was immediately splashed on the government controlled electronic media which questioned his right to run for the presidency.

Whether this resulted in fewer votes for him is hard to prove, but this incident did much to underline Fonseka’s novice status.

Another story in the local press that is bound to stain the general’s reputation is the discovery of over 70 million rupees in a relative’s bank lockers. This horde, supposedly a part of campaign funds, included over half a million dollars in cash in clear contravention of foreign currency laws.

Earlier, Fonseka’s son-in-law had been accused of running a firm that sold equipment to the army during his tenure. The presence of a large sum of dollars in this haul strengthens the government’s claim that funding for Fonseka’s campaign was coming from abroad.

As the general languishes in custody over an unspecified breach of military regulations while he was the army chief, he must be reflecting on the minefield that is Sri Lankan politics after the certainties of his long military career. After a few protests, his continued arrest has not really galvanized the opposition as it was expected to.

Indeed, there is a growing realisation that now, Fonseka is really irrelevant. While the JVP and a handful of minor politicians continue to support the general, it is more for their own survival than any belief that he can really lead them to victory.

The sober reality is that the opposition is aware that it does not stand a chance of winning the general elections. After the thumping victory Rajapaksa has scored last month, most people expect him to carry this momentum on to the April polls.

The best the opposition can hope for is to deny the government the two-thirds majority it is determined to get. This would set the stage for sweeping constitutional changes that would alter the course of Sri Lankan politics for years to come.

The so-called executive presidency created by President Jayawardine in 1978 has long been criticised for giving the president too much power. While campaigning politicians have sworn to do away with it, they shelve the proposal once they are elected.

If the government secures a two-thirds majority, it might well re-write the constitution on the American model, creating a presidential system. Another provision that would probably be changed is the two-term limit on the president. The degree of provincial autonomy might also be reviewed.

What Rajapaksa has still not addressed are the Tamil grievances that led to the civil war in the first place. While they are demoralised and sullen in the aftermath of the bloody military defeat the LTTE suffered last May, they are waiting for the government to announce the major concessions that have been discussed over the years.

It remains to be seen whether Rajapaksa will be magnanimous in victory. If his treatment of Fonseka is anything to go by, the future of Tamil-Sinhala harmony does not look too bright.

Nevertheless, Jaffna in the north is bustling after decades of war and neglect. The few hotels and guest-houses there are packed, and investors are exploring deals in large numbers. If and when the government can sooth local concerns, many in the million-strong Tamil diaspora would return.

A talented and hard-working people, they could transform their war-torn homeland. But this government must first provide them with the political space to do so.

Major political and military victories have given President Rajapaksa an enormous opportunity. With peace finally achieved (though at a very high cost), foreign investment is poised to pour into the country.

Already, its GDP per capita is nearly twice that of India and Pakistan. Enjoying a strategic location, and blessed with ample water and fertile soil, the country has a very high literacy rate, making it the ideal destination for tourists and investors.

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has also witnessed a slide towards authoritarian rule in recent years. This bodes ill unless it is checked.

Alas, the unconcealed triumphalism evident in the ruling party makes it unlikely that it will make the concessions to the opposition and to the minorities that are so desperately needed.

© The Dawn

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