By Ajit Kumar Singh for SATP
The opportunities of the nascent peace in Sri Lanka have never been as great as they now are, since the emergence of the now-defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1976, nor have the mandarins in Colombo ever been as empowered to realize these.
President Mahinda Rajapakse, after engineering the military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, secured landslide victory in the January 2010 Presidential Elections. He has now led the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) to a sweeping victory in the Parliamentary Elections held of April 8, 2010. Rajapakse is now clearly in a position where he can implement his ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ (‘Mahinda thought’) in toto to secure the ‘lasting solution’ that he has long promised, to bring the ‘ethnic problem’ that corroded the Sri Lankan spirit for almost 34 years to an end.
The UPFA has won 144 seats in the 225-member Parliament, obtaining 4,846,388 (60.33 per cent) of the total of 8,630,689 votes polled. The UPFA won 127 ‘District-basis’ seats along with 17 ‘National-basis’ seats, while the main Opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), secured 60 seats, including 51 ‘District-basis’ and nine ‘National-basis’ seats. The UNP obtained 2,357,057 (29.34 per cent) of the votes polled. The Democratic National Alliance (DNA), a coalition of which the main Marxist party Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) is the major constituent, and which backed the candidacy of former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, polled 441,251 votes (5.49 per cent), winning seven seats – five District-basis seats and two National-basis seats. Fonseka, who contested while in military custody and facing charges of corruption and politicising the military, won from the Colombo District. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main political party representing the minority Tamil community, won 14 seats – 13 District-basis seats and one National-basis seat – securing 233,190 (2.90 per cent) of votes polled.
[The 15th Amendment to the Constitution introduced Article 99A, which provides for 29 members to be declared elected on the basis of the total number of votes polled by the respective political parties or independent groups at the national level (the National List).]
Earlier, President Rajapakse, using an alleged “coup attempt” as a pretext, dissolved Parliament with effect from midnight of February 9, 2010, by virtue of the powers vested in him by Article 70 of the Constitution. The General Elections were then called two months ahead of schedule.
The new Parliament met on April 22, 2010. On April 23, President Rajapakse appointed D.M. Jayaratne as the new Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. The former Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wicremanayake, has been inducted into the 76 member Ministry with the portfolio of State Management and Reforms.
The elections saw a relatively low voter turnout. Of over 14 million eligible voters, only 61.26 per cent exercised their franchise, a huge drop from more than the 74 per cent who voted during the last General Elections in 2004. The Presidential election held on January 26, 2010, had also recorded a 74.49 per cent vote. Keerthi Thenakoon, the head of the Centre for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE), observed, “The Presidential Election was much more intense. There was more interest on the part of the voters as well. Maybe the people had lost interest.” Several commentators have interpreted declining turnouts as an index of ‘weakening democracy’. Notably, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who led the UNP soon after the elections, argued that the decision of nearly 45 per cent of the electorate not to vote was a clear reflection of the people’s disillusionment with the electoral system. UPFA member Dullas Alahapperuma, however, argued, “There was peace in the country and the winner was very clear. That may be the reason why we did not see many voting.”
Another possible reason for voter apathy was election fatigue. Since May 2008, when the first election was held to the Eastern Provincial Council, the country has witnessed elections in every nook and corner. Notably, since the 2008 Eastern Provincial Council election, there have been Local Authorities Elections in Batticaloa District (except for the Kaththankudi Urban Council where elections were held in 2006) and Provincial Council Elections in North Central Province and Sabaragamuwa Province. In 2009 local authorities elections were held for the Jaffna Municipal Council and Vavuniya Urban Council, while Provincial Council Elections were conducted in Southern Province, Uva Province, Western Province and Central & North Western Province. All these were capped by the Presidential Election, billed as the mother of all elections.
The ‘weakening democracy’ argument, consequently, has limited relevance, and is more a reflection of frustration at the Opposition’s rout, rather than an objective index of the ground situation. Election observers, moreover, 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,” People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) noted. The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) added, further, “We conclude that despite this (random incidents of intimidation and rigging), the overall result does reflect the will of the electorate.” Both groups did note incidents of vote-rigging and intimidation, and CMEV stated, “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.” The Elections Commissioner had delayed issuing the results of the vote in 45 seats, where the worst incidents were reported.
This is in significant contrast to the Presidential Elections held in January 2010. PAFFREL, one of the two accredited election monitoring groups, had then received reports of 224 violent incidents. Between December 17, 2009, and January 11, 2010, the group received reports of 50 assaults, 8 shootings and 11 incidents of threat and intimidation. CAFFE reported 259 election violations between August 15, 2009 and January 11, 2010, including 49 cases of assault and 74 incidents of election law violation. The number of poll-related deaths during the Presidential elections was reported to be four.
But there is little sign of political reconciliation in the country and, worryingly, the Government itself is more or less to blame for this. Significantly, political violence continued for long after the Presidential Election, mostly directed against Opposition parties as part of a broader Government crackdown against supporters of the defeated opposition candidate, General Sarath Fonseka. On January 31, the CMEV reported that it had recorded 85 complaints of post-election violence, of which a clear majority (50) were made against the ruling UPFA, confirming a resort to a pattern of unwarranted vendetta politics by the victors in the electoral contest.
The electoral outcome also suggests that any solution to the ethnic divide in the country will become more elusive. The TNA secured the support of the majority in the Tamil-dominated East and North Provinces, and now claims to be the ‘true representative’ of the Tamils in these regions. The TNA manifesto had prominently included the following demands:
* There must be meaningful de-militarization resulting in the return to the pre-war situation as it existed in 1983 by the removal of armed forces, military apparatuses and High Security Zones from the Northern and Eastern Provinces
* Tamil People who have been displaced in the North and East due to the conflict must be speedily resettled in their original places; housing provided, their livelihoods restored and their dignity respected
* Persons who are detained without charges must be released promptly and a general amnesty should be granted to the others, as an initial step towards national reconciliation
* Tamils who fled the country over the last 30 years also must be permitted to return to their homes and a conducive atmosphere for same created for their return.
On power sharing, the TNA manifesto stated:
* The Tamil People are entitled to the right of self determination
* Power sharing arrangements must be established in a unit of merged Northern and Eastern Provinces based on a Federal structure, in a manner also acceptable to the Tamil Speaking Muslim people.
* Devolution of powers should be over land, law and order, socioeconomic development including health and education, resources and fiscal powers
Most of this is irreconcilable with President Rajapakse’s party manifesto, which reiterated a commitment to a unitary State and included the declaration:
As in the Eastern Province, Provincial Council Elections will be held in the Northern Province within a short period of time to establish democracy. Thereby new representatives will be included in the All Party Conference and I believe that this would be a forum to arrive at a true national concurrence…. After several decades, we are new able to function as one country under one law. At this Presidential Election Campaign, I have decided to place my views frankly before the country so that we can engage in an open and intellectual discourse regarding a new Constitution… We now have experience regarding the Provincial Council system… However, it is an intrinsic part of the Constitution through the 13th Amendment and is a functional system. I am in favour of an open discussion on the Amendment to the Provincial Council System…. What we need is not a divided system but a system that will establish the unitary state….
Rajapakse clearly concedes the possibilities of a constitutional change to secure an enduring solution, but within clearly defined limits. The UPFA is a mere six short of a 2/3rd majority required for passing Amendments to the Constitution. The TNA has already hinted that it is more than willing to cooperate with the Government, if the latter shows the necessary political will and understanding to reach out to the Tamil people. The TNA has promised to cooperate with the President to find an ‘equitable solution’ for the minority question within the framework of a united Sri Lanka, and is in a position to provide the numbers the ruling combine needs for necessary constitutional changes. Nevertheless, the contours of such a solution do contain polarizing elements and may obstruct a workable relation between the UPFA and TNA, though the potential obstacles are not insurmountable. The TNA’s insistence on a re-merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces is, for instance, an obvious glitch; but there is no reason to presume that the TNA will remain adamant on this if a wider political package contains other provisions that are sufficiently attractive enough. If both the UPFA and the TNA approach the issue of resolving ethnic strife with a measure of sincerity, the outcome of the General Elections gives them ample opportunities to cooperate.
Crucially, the defeat of the ultra-nationalist Sinhala majoritarian Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and the JVP-led DNF coalition signals that the majority of the southern population has come to reject Sinhala extremism, removing some of the most obstinate barriers to a lasting solution.
There is also some awareness within the ruling coalition that the LTTE’s defeat and the UPFA’s electoral victories are not a sufficient grounds to believe that the country’s trouble’s are over. Defence Secretary Gothabhya Rajapakse noted during the election campaigns that, although terrorism had been eradicated, some terrorism-related elements, including several non-governmental organisations (NGOs) remained committed to creating a separate Tamil State. He warned that the hard won peace should not be taken for granted, and that it would be necessary to reach out to every section of the nation in general, and the Tamils in particular, to search for the most viable solution.
The President’s immediate response to the outcome of the Parliamentary elections has been encouraging. Soon after the triumph he declared,
The assured majority in Parliament given by the voters encourages the Government to proceed with its policies for the strengthening of peace and reconciliation, reconstruction, greater infrastructure development, increased investment in identified areas of growth, and the overall development of the country to make it the centre of economic and social progress in South Asia.
The role of the international community will be crucial in the months to come. UPFA senior leader Dullas Alahapperuma argues, “There has never been such a large victory, the people have spoken. The international community should respect the verdict and support government policies.”
Sri Lanka’s fractious past, however, continues to cast menacing shadows across the country, and the conduct of the political leadership of all hues has given at least some cause for apprehension. Crucially, any failure or loss of faith at this juncture will prove disastrous. Both Colombo and the international communities must be conscious of the promises of the present moment and the unacceptable costs of undermining the opportunity to resolve, fully and finally, one of South Asia;s longest and fiercest conflicts.
Ajit Kumar Singh is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Conflict Management, which publishes the “South Asia Intelligence Review” of the South Asia Terrorism Portal. This article is reprinted with permission.
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