By Ajit Kumar Singh
A polarizing election, even as the wounds of the final ferocious battle to crush the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were fresh, has poisoned the tense peace in Sri Lanka. In the bitterly contested Presidential Election the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) candidate, incumbent President Mahinda Rajapakse was re-elected as the Sixth Executive President of Sri Lanka by a massive majority of over 1.8 million votes on January 26, 2010. He polled a total of 6,015,934 (57.88 per cent), as against the New Democratic Front (NDF) candidate, former Army Chief and ex-Chief of Defense Staff, General (Retired) Sarath Fonseka, who polled 4,173,185 (40.15) votes. President Rajapakse led in 16 out of 22 electoral Districts, while Fonseka led in six Districts. 10,495,451 (74.49 per cent) out of a total of 14,088,500 registered voters cast their ballot at 11,098 centers throughout the country. Notably, the NDF is a conglomeration including the main opposition United National Party, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front, the country’s major Marxist party), and several other political formations opposing the UPFA.
With his re-election, the pressure is now on President Rajapakse, who had promised a ‘political solution’ to the Tamil issue after he had renewed his mandate. He had, however, insisted that all parties, and especially the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) representatives, would have to participate in the discussions on the political solution. Before the elections, he had declared, “I know what to give and I know what not to give. The people have given me the mandate, so I’m going to use it. But I must get these people [the TNA representatives] to agree to this. They must also know that they can’t get what they want. No way for federalism in this country. For reconciliation to happen, there must be a mix [of ethnicities].”
The electoral process and outcome give little grounds for optimism about any easy reconciliation. The TNA, which had, after the defeat of the LTTE, started talking about political solutions within the framework of a united Sri Lanka, changed its tenor and reinforced its divisive agenda during the course of the electioneering. According to Media and Information Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa, the TNA did not withdraw its 2002 and 2004 Election Manifestos which included, inter alia, recognition of Tamils as a distinct nationality; establishing a Tamil homeland; and the rights to self-determination. On December 8, 2009, the TNA stressed that a political solution based on federalism was foremost among their conditions for supporting either of the two main candidates [Rajapakse or Fonseka] at the Presidential Election.
The TNA eventually supported Fonseka who, on January 4, 2010, submitted a proposal titled “Immediate Relief Measures for War Affected Persons”, to Member of Parliament (MP) R. Sampanthan, the leader of the TNA. The prominent commitments made in the document included: amnesty to all former LTTE militants who have no evidence against them “within one month”; dismantling the controversial High Security Zones (HSZs) “in keeping with the relocation of the Security Forces”; termination of the state of emergency; immediate dismantling of all paramilitary cadres and armed groups; termination of the practice of the Government seizing lands in the east, while at the same time cancelling allocations deemed “not transparent” or “corrupt”. There was, however, no mention of any political solution to address the grievances of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka.
Worse, there seems to be complete disagreement among political groupings on the essentials of the elusive political solution to the ethnic problem that could carry the gains of the military success against the LTTE to a logical conclusion. Where Rajapakse has rejected any de-merger of the North-East, for instance, Fonseka had promised the de-merger of the region.
More alarmingly, extreme animosities have tainted relations within the political class. The most dramatic manifestation of the acute antipathies that are wrecking the political processes in the country is the character of allegations and counter-allegations between the two presidential candidates – till so recently united in their war with the LTTE. During the election campaign, Fonseka had alleged that the Government had killed surrendering LTTE leaders in the last phase of the war (May 16-19, 2009), prompting the War Crimes Tribunal to call for investigations against Sri Lankan leaders. As acrimony on this issue mounted, Fonseka claimed that Rajapakse was trying to have him killed to suppress his disclosures. Post election developments underline how dangerous emerging trends in Sri Lankan politics are becoming. On January 29, 2010, General Lakshman Hulugalle, the Director of the Media Centre for National Security, ‘exposed’ an alleged plot by General Fonseka, to assassinate President Mahinda Rajapakse, his family members and the Government’s top officials. Giving details, he claimed, “They had hired 70 rooms in two prestigious hotels. They have hired retired Army officers and Army deserters to assassinate the President and his family members.” He added, further, that the conspiracy was to assassinate the President while he was passing the Lake House roundabout to go to Temple Trees, and to assassinate Defense Secretary Gothabhya Rajapakse when he was passing the Lake House roundabout to go to the Defense Ministry. “This is the first time in history that such a move has been made by a defeated candidate,” Hulugalle stressed. Meanwhile, the Government is reported to have withdrawn the security cover provided to the ex-Army Chief, provoking Fonseka’s assertion that “There are criminals who do politics who can and will also try to kill me.”
Election violence made matters worse. People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), one of the two accredited election monitoring groups, received reports of 224 violent incidents. The group reported that between December 17, 2009, and January 11, 2010, it received reports of 50 assaults, 8 shootings and 11 incidents of threat and intimidation. Meanwhile, another election monitoring group, Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) reported 259 election violations between August 15, 2009 and January 11, 2010, including 49 cases of assault and 74 incidents of election law violations. The number of poll-related deaths was reported to be four.
Crucially, despite Rajapakse’s pledge of ethnic reconciliation in the aftermath of the LTTE defeat, the electoral rebuff from the Tamil dominated Northern and Eastern Provinces may harden his stance, even as it makes his task tougher.
The distribution of votes is a clear index of the fact that Rajapakse had failed to reassure the Tamil people on the first occasion when they were voting freely, without fear of the LTTE. Though observers may argue that the voting percentage was very low in the Northern Province and not much can be read into the outcome. It is significant, however, that, despite high percentages of voting and a UPFA led Government in the Eastern Province the people discarded the President in that region as well.
Despite these reverses, however, there were some positive developments during the course of the elections. Although the radical Nediyavan faction of the remnants of the LTTE based in Norway, and the more moderate faction led by V. Rudrakumaran based in the United States, calling for a rejection of electoral politics in Sri Lanka and its substitution by a political and diplomatic offensive against the Island Government, both at home and abroad, the TNA participated in the elections. Putting things in perspective, TNA MP for Trincomalee, K. Thurairatnasingham, stated, on January 11, 2010: “Given the present position of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, it is futile to fight for independence. Likewise, forming a transnational government of Tamils overseas is not going to help the Tamils in the Island. We have to use the resources provided by the existing Sri Lankan political system to get our demands met.” Notably, the TNA was a divided house in its resolve to support Fonseka and, according to reports, at least two of its MPs even supported Rajapakse, while a third contested independently. The division within TNA provides ample opportunity to the President to reach out to certain sections of the TNA, which continues to exercise a clear control over the masses of the North and East.
Current pronouncements, unfortunately, indicate that the Rajapakse Government may adopt delaying tactics, and the argument has now been put forward that any ‘solution’ would require amendments to the Constitution, and such amendments are possible only with 2/3rd majority in Parliament. Though the General Elections are due by April 22, 2010, there can be no guarantee that Rajapakse’s coalition will secure 2/3rd seats in the 225-member Parliament.
In his 14-point programme titled, ‘A brighter future’, Rajapakse had promised to work towards a political solution to the ethnic problem. He had made commitments to establish a Northern Provincial Council under the 13th Amendment, and had said he was “thinking of setting up a senate, as a second chamber, that would give the provinces a greater say”. It remains to be seen whether the President, with his refreshed mandate, will display the sagacity to deliver on his pledge.