Thursday, February 18, 2010

Sri Lanka After the Presidential Election

Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda - Sri Lanka’s sixth presidential election was held on 26 January 2010. Although this election was constitutionally due at the end of 2011, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the incumbent president, advanced the election by two years. Rajapaksa obviously wanted to capitalise his huge popularity gained by crushing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militarily in May 2009. His main rival at the presidential election was his own former army commander, Sarath Fonseka, who strategised and executed a pretty ruthless and therefore successful war against the LTTE.

The dispute between Rajapaksa and Fonseka erupted ostensibly on the question of sharing the credit for the military victory. A deeper issue was also involved in this dispute. Rajapaksa and his brothers, who are very influential civilian officials of the administration, may have tried to curtail the influence of the military on the post-war policy process. Civilian politicians perhaps became aware of the need to restore the pre-war balance of power between them and the army. Obviously, this angered General Fonseka. The opposition which has been searching for a viable presidential candidate to pit against the popular President Rajapaksa wasted no time to entice General Fonseka to be its candidate.

Fonseka was also the centre of gravity of a new coalition which brought together the right wing United National Party (UNP), the left-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), and a significant section of Tamil and Muslim political
parties. Notable among the latter was the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main parliamentary coalition of mainstream Tamil parties which had maintained political sympathies with the LTTE. Some influential dissident sections of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) of the Plantation Tamils also backed the opposition candidate.

At one level, the Rajapaksa Fonseka dispute showed that the war coalition which President Rajapaksa put together had cracked up from within. General Fonseka’s challenge to the incumbent president focused primarily on the issue of corruption and nepotism. These are, of course, governance issues. However, the debate during the election campaign was centred less on democratic reforms than on regime change. Broad policy issues were not in the campaign agenda of either of the two main candidates.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has now been re-elected with a comfortable majority of 58% of total votes cast. Amidst allegations of misuse of state resources and manipulation of results by the Rajapaksa camp, Sarath Fonseka has refused to concede defeat. He might challenge the election results before the Supreme Court, although it is surely a long-drawn out process with no immediate impact on the outcome of the election. Three key trends in the outcome of the election stand prominent. First, the electoral districts with concentration of ethnic minorities have overwhelmingly voted for the opposition candidate. Second, President Rajapaksa has got only very little support in the urban electorates, where ethnic minorities as well as the social elites represent a sizeable share of the voters. Third, and emanating from the first and the second, is the fact that President Rajapaksa’s main and strongest support base is in the rural districts and among the voters of the majority Sinhalese community.

These three factors might weigh heavily on the policy agenda of the Rajapaksa regime in its second term. One way to interpret these trends is to say that the minorities are clearly estranged from the Rajapaksa regime. In this post-election context, reaching out to ethnic minorities, particularly the Tamils, will be essential to address this deep sense of minority alienation and for Sri Lanka’s political stability. In a press interview to the NDTV Television Channel of India soon after the election result was announced, President Rajapaksa asserted that he had a “plan” to address minority grievances. No one in Sri Lanka seems to know the details of this plan. Even if he had a plan as such, President Rajapaksa will have to wait until after the parliamentary election which is due before April this year to disclose its contents. Even then, regional autonomy may not re-figure in any of these unilateral solutions from above.

The presidential election campaign as well as the post-election developments indicate quite clearly that Sri Lanka’s dominant political class is deeply and antagonistically divided. Reconciliation among them does not seem to be possible at present. The forthcoming parliamentary election will further sharpen these divisions and antagonisms. The tragedy of electoral democracy in Sri Lanka is that elections do not seem to help the political class to negotiate and settle their contradictions and resolve problems in the polity. Rather, elections compel the factions of the political class to resort to false agendas and, in turn, to invent and pursue enmities. Nevertheless, parliamentary elections will be crucial for Sri Lanka to allow a new political balance of forces to emerge in the country. Parliamentary elections as well as the post-election regime formation will show how political power will be reconfigured through coalitions.

Political Disequilibrium

The end of the violent civil war and the dramatic demise of the LTTE have created a significant political disequilibrium in Sri Lanka. Crucially, the LTTE was not there in January 2010 to shape the outcome of the presidential election, as was the case in 1994, 1999 and 2005. Meanwhile, although the war-coalition has disintegrated from within, a new post-civil war political equilibrium is yet to take shape. The parliamentary election will provide opportunities for the political actors to forge new alliances and redefine the constitution of the dominant power bloc in order to manage the post-civil war Sri Lankan state. Thus, although the civil war is over, the trajectory of the island’s post-civil war politics is still in the process of being formed. One has to suspend one’s assessment of the possible paths of Sri Lanka’s future politics until the shape of the new configuration of political forces becomes clearer during the first half of the year 2010.

Meanwhile, the agenda of democratic reforms and political rights of the minorities may not be at the centre of the political agenda of either the ruling party or the opposition. In the post-LTTE politics of Sri Lanka, the minority parties too may not pursue the state reform agenda with the same degree of ardour and commitment as in the past. They have become sensitive to the fact that the military victory over the LTTE has reaffirmed the hegemonic hold of majoritarianism over the Sri Lankan state. They also know that at present, unlike in the past, minority rights struggles have no dependable friends, globally or regionally. Entering into pragmatic coalitions with Sinhalese political parties and regimes for political survival is likely to occupy their attention in the near future.

Jayadeva Uyangoda ( teaches political science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

© Economic and Political Weekly

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