Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sri Lanka: New parliament, new hopes, new fears

By Amantha Perera - Voter turnout in the Apr. 8 election was one of the lowest in Sri Lanka's post- independence history. But the result was a landslide win that has strengthened the hand of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration like never before.

Of the 14 million eligible to vote, only 59 percent marked on the ballot card to select 225 members for the country’s Parliament.

The ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition was the clear winner. It already has 117 seats, a clean majority in the Parliament though 45 seats are still to be announced.

The main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), secured 46 seats, the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), a coalition that backed the candidacy of former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, five seats, and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main party representing the minority Tamil community, 12.

Fonseka, who contested while under military custody and facing charges of corruption and politicising the military, won from the Colombo district.

"We are humbled by the size of the repeated mandates given by the people and pledge to respond, in full measure, to the trust placed in us," Rajapaksa said in a message soon after it was clear that he had achieved an assailable majority.

Stalwarts from his coalition said that the executive presidency and parliament now had a chance to work together without one undermining the other.

"There has never been such a large victory, the people have spoken," said UPFA senior Dulles Alahaperuma at a press conference two days after the election. "The international community should respect the verdict and support government policies."

The Rajapaksa administration has thrived on standing firm against what it perceives as unwarranted international interference. It locked horns with the United Nations, United States, European Union and Britain when the armed forces’ conduct in the last phase of the civil war with the separatist Tamil Tigers came under scrutiny.

The most recent confrontation has been Rajapaksa’s opposition to moves by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to form an advisory committee on Sri Lanka.

The government said that the overwhelming victory was a sign of clear support for its policies and sought cooperation from opposition parties to press ahead with its development plans. Rajapaksa had made development a key campaign slogan.

"Campaigns have concluded and people have given their verdict and now it’s time to think clearly and plan a better future for people in the country," said Basil Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, who received over 425,000 preference votes.

The new government will have to deliver on the peace dividend and speed up reconstruction work in war-ravaged areas. Rajapaksa has hinted that he was willing to discuss with the Tamil minority ways to address its grievances.

Election observers concluded that polling was conducted in a free and fair manner. "Polling on Election Day took place in a generally uneventful manner, except for a few significant incidents," the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) said in its report at the conclusion of the polls.

"We conclude that despite this (incidents that undermined the election), the overall result does reflect the will of the electorate," the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) said.

But both groups noted incidents of vote-rigging and intimidation. "We wish to record our deep concern about incidents in which polling agents were evicted from polling stations, sometimes forcefully. Furthermore, there were cases of voter obstruction and alleged attempts to rig the results," CMEV said.

The Elections Commissioner has delayed issuing the results of the vote 45 seats where the worst incidents were reported.

Monitors have also raised concerns over the low voter turnout. The 59 percent turnout was a huge drop from the more than 70 percent recorded in January’s presidential polls. Over 74 percent voted during the last general election in 2004. PAFFREL calculated that the turnout in the April vote could drop to 54 percent after the final results.

Keerthi Thenakoon, the head of the Centre for Free and Fair Election (CAFFE), feels that the voters showed a distinct disinterest this time. "The presidential election was much more intense. There was more interest on the part of the voters as well."

The January presidential poll saw Rajapaksa face a challenge from Fonseka. The two were credited with leading the final battles against the Tigers, which had fought a bloody sectarian war for over two and half decades for a separate Tamil homeland.

Rajapaksa had gained widespread support for giving political leadership during the war and for refusing to bow to international pressure when the Tigers were down for the count. Fonseka was the man credited with leading the battle on the ground.

The war ended in May 2009. By December, the two had fallen out and Fonseka staked a claim for the presidency. In the end, Rajapaksa got 57 percent of the vote against Fonseka’s 40 percent. Subsequently, Fonseka was arrested by the military and is now facing a double court marshal.

"There was no such intensity with this election. Maybe the people had lost interest." CAFFE’s Thenakoon said.

UPFA member Allaheruma mused: "There was peace in the country and the winner was very clear. That may be the reason why we did not see many voting."

© Inter Press Service

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