Monday, May 03, 2010

Sri Lanka: A record victory, poorly attended

By Tisaranee Gunasekara - Two portentous results emerged from the parliamentary election in Sri Lanka, results of which were announced on 21 April. First, the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), led by President Mahinda Rajapakse, won a resounding victory, just six seats short of the two-thirds majority needed for a constitutional change. And second, almost 40 percent of the electorate did not vote. The UPFA victory is unprecedented, and it took place despite a precipitous decline in the regime’s vote base between January and April 2010. (The UPFA’s total vote in the parliamentary election was nearly 1.2 million less than Rajapakse’s total vote in the presidential election, three months earlier.) In some districts, such as the Rajapakse bastion of Hambantota, the UPFA polled fewer votes in April than it did in the presidential election of 2005, and even the parliamentary election of 2004.

The proportional-representation system was introduced by President J R Jayewardene in 1989, partly to prevent any party from obtaining more than a simple majority. In a robust multiparty democracy, this system does indeed prevent victors from gaining huge majorities, as evidenced by the results of all Lankan elections from 1989. But huge majorities can happen when a multiparty democracy is eroded from within, when the main opposition party is debilitated by repeated defeats and is incapable of mounting an effective politico-electoral challenge to the government. Under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe, the opposition United National Party (UNP) has suffered serial defeats; and with each, its politico-electoral strength has haemorrhaged. It was the UNP’s debilitated state that enabled the UPFA to score a record victory in the recent polls, despite a sharp decline in its own support base.

With the latest debacle, Wickremesinghe has demonstrated, yet again, his inability to lead his party to electoral victory. The time is thus ripe for the UNP to try a new experiment: a leadership change. A few days after the election, Wickremesinghe announced that he would remain as the leader of the UNP. Though some attempts are being made to remove him from the leadership, their success is far from certain. In the past, all such attempts failed because Wickremesinghe’s determination to remain at the helm of the party was far stronger than his detractors’ determination to remove him. Whether the current efforts will end differently remains to be seen – though their progress will be closely watched by the Rajapakse regime, which has benefited immensely from Wickremesinghe’s lackadaisical leadership of the main opposition party.

In a significant development, the UNP’s manifesto for the parliamentary election made no mention of either the ethnic problem or the need for a political solution. This concession to Sinhalese supremacism notwithstanding, the UNP performed abysmally in Sinhalese-majority areas, indicating that, on the nationalist-patriotic axis, it cannot overtake the UPFA; instead, it should focus on areas where the regime is weak, such as the growing economic pains of the middle and lower classes. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which contested in alliance with the former head of the Sri Lanka Army and presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka, also suffered a disastrous defeat. The JVP, with just seven seats (the winners include Fonseka), is back to what it was during the period of 2000 and 2001. It too needs to shift its focus from the non-issue of its stance against devolution (the UPFA is strongly disinclined to devolve power away from the Centre) to other areas, and to work in conjunction with the UNP to impede the regime’s triumphant march towards a new constitution.

Resounding silence

A voter turnout exceeding 70 percent is the norm in Lankan national elections. Consequently, the very low voter rate is one of the most remarkable (and threatening) features of this parliamentary election. After all, none of the parties advocated a boycott. What transpired was a wholly spontaneous collective action of electoral non-corporation by the people, a massive vote of no-confidence in all parties, from the north to the south. Another related development is the high level of rejected votes island-wide, indicating a tendency to spoil the ballot papers as a mark of protest. Taken together, these figures indicate a degree of voter alienation and disassociation that bodes ill for Lankan democracy. Without interested and engaged voters, a democracy can be especially vulnerable to rulers who seek to weaken it from within, in order to enhance and perpetuate their power.

The polling percentage was particularly low in the north, indicating a lack of faith and interest in a Sri Lankan future, as well as a sense of disillusionment with existing Tamil parties. If left unattended, this mood of acute discontent could strengthen extremist elements in the north. Democratic Tamil parties need to develop a better understanding of the concerns and needs of their electorate in a post-war context, instead of acting as appendages of the Rajapakse regime or of the Tamil diaspora. The regime denies the existence of any specific Tamil problem (the term ‘ethnic problem’ has almost disappeared from the Lankan political lexicon), apart from such practical issues as reconstruction and resettlement. The diaspora, meanwhile, is totally out of touch with the grim reality of the north and east, and is still chasing the Eelam mirage. Democratic Tamil parties need to avoid both of these counter-factual extremes, and focus on the practical problems (ie, day-to-day survival) of the Tamils, without losing sight of the need for a political settlement within a united Sri Lanka.

The regime needs to take urgent measures to alleviate the sense of alienation felt by Tamils, a task that requires political action rather than infrastructure development. The current Rajapakse policy of treating the north as occupied enemy territory should end. There should be a significant reduction in army camps and army presence, as well as an end to what many Tamils seem to regard as a state-sponsored religio-cultural invasion of the north by Sinhalese Buddhists. (The erection of Buddha statues in areas devoid of Buddhist inhabitants clearly symbolises this process; if these statues come to represent Sinhalese domination in Tamil eyes, they could become targets, if apathetic inaction is someday replaced by angry action.) The abysmally low voter turnout in the north presages the possible danger of renewed separatism in some form.

Constitutional supremacism

President Rajapakse has claimed his party’s victory as a vote of confidence in himself and his policies. The new parliament will contain several of his close family members – a son, two brothers (one of whom is the new speaker) and a couple of cousins. Candidates identified as Rajapakse loyalists did outstandingly well in the election; many of them are also Sinhalese supremacists. Conversely, moderate candidates who are neither Rajapakse defenders nor Sinhalese supremacists lagged behind. This particular composition of the new parliament will have an impact on the future trajectory of Sri Lanka, since the results can be interpreted as a mandate for Sinhalese supremacism and familial rule.

Rajapakse has a reputation for striking while the iron is hot. According to state media, the new constitution might be presented to the country by the end of the year. The new document would prevent the compulsory retirement of President Rajapakse at the end of his second term, via the removal of presidential term limits or the institution of a powerful executive premiership without term limits. It is also likely to exclude some of the more democratic features of the old constitution, such as the 17th Amendment, mandating the setting-up of independent commissions and replacing province-level devolution with administrative decentralisation to smaller units. A new constitution aimed at perpetuating familial rule will also have to make significant concessions to Sinhalese supremacists, however, as they form the main power base of the Rajapakse project.

A recent interview given by the president’s brother, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, provides some pointers to the future trajectory of the regime. Gotabhaya Rajapakse is arguably the second most powerful man in Sri Lanka, and consequently attention must be paid when he stated, in a 17 April interview with The Island, that the main challenge before the new regime is to “thwart a fresh attempt by separatists operating abroad to throw a lifeline to the LTTE [backed by] a section of the international community … bent on reviving the LTTE and giving it recognition.” He further argued for a veritable political war: “The new government should go all out against any local element promoting separatist sentiments regardless of political consequences.”

The slogan of a political war against separatism can used to justify the retention of the state of emergency and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, as well as the promulgation of “new laws to meet security requirements”, as Gotabhaya Rajapakse stated. Such a slogan can also be used to compel the Lankan state to conform to the political agenda of the Rajapakses, by equating any manifestation of bureaucratic or judicial independence with treason. In his interview, the defence secretary expressed “concern that a section of officialdom could help the separatist cause by trying to appease foreign governments and some funding agencies,” and highlighted the “pivotal importance of the judiciary, particularly the Attorney-General’s Department, in supporting the government’s efforts to suppress terrorism.” He also sounded a word of warning to the polity: “Opposition political parties or constituent partners of the ruling coalition should not be allowed to engage in divisive politics.” If his pronouncements are any indication, post-war Sri Lanka is set to become a national-security state, instead of moving towards re-democratisation of the polity and devolution of power, as optimists had hoped.

The Rajapakse brothers are genuinely popular in the Sinhalese south. Many Sinhalese are grateful to them for restoring ‘national’ (read: racial) pride by defeating the Tamil Tigers and reclaiming the north and the east. The Rajapakse project of familial rule has become hegemonic by rejuvenating the Sinhalese ego, badly bruised by past Indian intervention and Tiger victories. Only a stagnant economy resulting in a drastic deterioration of southern living standards could now erode the Rajapakse hegemony. Repressive laws and a tame state, including a partisan judiciary, are needed partly as an insurance against such an eventuality.

As the trend of the recent election results became obvious, state television stations began airing songs hailing President Rajapakse as king and saviour. With the ideological state apparatuses turning unquestioning obedience to Rajapakse into a patriotic virtue, dissent will become tantamount to anti-patriotism. The UPFA’s massive recent win could thus mark the definitive beginning of a new journey for Sri Lanka – away from pluralist democracy, towards an authoritarian state that functions as a protective father to its supporters and a bitter enemy to its opponents.

Tisaranee Gunasekara is a writer based in Colombo.

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