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Sri Lanka: If It’s Not Decisive, It Can Be A Divisive Election – Analysis

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By N. Sathiya Moorthy*

For the first time in decades, it looks as if the Tamils cannot be blamed for divisiveness that has sneaked back into Sri Lanka’s body politic and larger society as a whole. The August 17 parliamentary polls has the potential to divide the Sinhala majority as only the two Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurgencies had done – thankfully without any ideological mooring or militant intent, at least just now.

By declaring that he would not let fellow Sri Lanka Freedom Party-United People’s Freedom Alliance (SLFP-UPFA) candidate and defeated predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa to become prime minister, if the combine got a parliamentary majority, President Maithripala Sirisena may have opened one more Pandora’s Box, where none seemingly existed.

President Sirisena has a commitment to protect his mandate, yes. He also has a point when he implies that the Rajapaksa mandate from two previous polls – the ‘Mahinda Chintanaya’ I & II? — had been exhausted. Yet, if in the parliamentary polls the people vote the SLFP-UPFA and the elected parliamentarians – including possible crossovers – were to name Rajapaksa their political choice, would it mean that the new mandate had superseded the old one?

President Sirisena seems to be careful not to mingle the powers of the nation’s executive president to invite or not invite an individual of choice to be sworn in prime minister. In January, soon after President Sirisena took over as the head of state and government, United National Party (UNP) rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as prime minister.

It was a part of the Sirisena poll promise – hence his electoral mandate too. It did not belong in the Constitution or parliamentary procedures. Hence for President Sirisena to tell the nation, through a telecast, that his decision to dissolve parliament flowed from a ‘conspiracy’ to make Rajapaksa the prime minister by entering him through the ‘National List’ defeats his own pre-poll commitment of ordering fresh polls at the end of 100 days in office.

If one mandate can be flouted, others too can be. The Rajapaksa faction in the SLFP-UPFA has argued that there was no way they could have brought in Rajapaksa to parliament through the National List. As pointed out, the latter is frozen at the time of nominations for the previous polls, held in March 2010.

If nothing else, given the constitutional complexities that could be anticipated after the parliamentary polls, President Sirisena should have a fresh look at his team of advisors. They are treading on unknown territory, constitutional territories unknown to the nation, and its polity too.

In declaring that he would not entertain Mahinda Rajapaksa for prime ministership, Sirisena has not come up with any constitutionally viable arguments. They are based on his poll promises – both in word and spirit. Yet, they are based on his role as SLFP and UPFA president, both by a default clause in the SLFP constitution that Rajapaksa had amended in his favour when in power and adapted by the UPFA without any second thought.

Ruing the day…

Rajapaksa should be ruing his day now, maybe. Yet, for President Sirisena to claim that Rajapaksa had not allowed the emergence of other senior leaders in the party, even while true, could fly on the face of the constitutional scheme. The right and responsibility to elect the prime minister rests with parliament, neither with the parent party nor even the president.

If the situation so arises that Rajapaksa and his followers were no more in the SLFP and/or UPFA, yet could muster a parliamentary majority, what could President Sirisena be expected to do? In critical situations as this one, he should refrain from making highly politicised statements of the kind.

If nothing else, the nation cannot afford another spell of political uncertainty, confusion and contradictions at the top, as had happened in the J.R. Jayewardene-Premadasa era or the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga-Ranil saga. The former was intra-party confrontation, the latter inter-party rivalry. Depending on what the voters have to say on August 17, this could turn out to be something like the latter, but could be worse.

It’s not unlikely that President Sirisena feels uncomfortable to work with Rajapaksa if the latter were to be elected prime minister. It’s commendable that he has said that he would not take sides in the elections, indicating that he might not even campaign for his SLFP-UPFA candidates.

Rajitha cross-over

For the Sirisena camp wanting the world to believe that he had all along been against a Rajapaksa return, it cannot be relied upon wholly. True, media reports had claimed that Sirisena as party chief had climbed down and accepted Rajapaksa for parliamentary polls, but not for the prime minister’s post.

If that were true, the likes of Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, the cabinet spokesman and possibly the closest Sirisena aide in the party and government, would not have crossed over to the UNP for contesting the parliamentary polls. It happened after news leaked out that Rajapaksa would lead the SLFP-UPFA list for Kurunagela district.

If the opposition of the likes of Rajitha Senaratne was to Rajapaksa’s prime ministerial elevation, and not to his being given party nomination for the parliamentary elections, there was another way. They too could have stayed back like a few others and found a place in the party/combine’s nomination list.

The list shows that it was a ‘compromise’ between the two factions in the party, almost from the beginning. Not only has some Sirisena loyalists, including those that had jumped the Rajapaksa camp after the presidential poll, found their names, some of Rajapaksa’s loyalists too had found their names missing.

Clearly, President Sirisena had stood his ground on dubious characters from the past, and the Rajpaaksa team had yielded. Yet, the list(s), including the National List, reflects the ground reality that the Rajapaksa has superior numbers inside the party and UPFA combine than that of President Sirisena’s.

Ethnic-Divide…

Sirisena came to power not just on the mandate of ‘good governance’ alone. Anyway, it applies to the whole nation, just not the Sinahala-Buddhist majority. On the more specific issue of ethnic divide, he had personified the moderate Tamils hopes and aspirations of the Tamils to a greater extent, and of the Muslims, as well.

It could still be argued that as candidate, Sirisena did not promise anything specific, either to the Tamils or Muslims, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), other than ousting president Rajapaksa through the democratic process. If he had committed anything in private to the political leaderships of these two communities that had backed him at the time, there did not seem to be any written agreement of the time, unlike possibly in the case of Sarrath Fonseka in 2010.

Yet, in addressing the nation on keeping Mahiinda Rajapaksa out of power, President Sirisena has talked still only about the Sinhala polity and society. Rather, he has reduced it all to the intra-SLFP politics, what with the rest of the UPFA having signed up with Rajapaksa even before it all had begun.

They were continuing with their commitment through the past decade. There has not been anything about the Tamils and Muslims in President Sirisena’s recent outburst against his predecessor. The UNP, though, has talked about power-devolution, now ahead of the parliamentary polls, but the personal views and the political compulsions of President Sirisena also needed to be known in advance for the comfort of these two communities.

Sociological construct

Having quoted his Mahinda Chintanaya(s) whenever it suited him while in office, Rajapaksa should acknowledge that President Sirisena has the right to cite and act on his 100-day programme. That the Sirisena camp did not expect a Rajapaksa bounce back of some kind either before or after the presidential polls until it hit them on their face is a truth that they may now be paying the price for.

The party is over, and the party has begun in true Sri Lankan form and spirit. The current predicament facing the majority Sinhala polity in general and the more hard-liner of the two, between the SLFP and the UNP in particular, has a demographic element, as a sociological construct has remained an accompanying factor in any political discourse of the nature, more so in Sri Lanka.

It’s all a part of the post-war transition, for which the nation had not prepared itself for. It’s inevitability of the kind that the monolith LTTE had faced when the cease-fire agreement (CFA) triggered a comfort zone, leading in turn to the ‘Karuna split’ in the East.

Independent of the credit going to the government of the day, the ‘Karuna split’ also was a reflection of the inherent demographic distinctions and dissensions in the larger Tamil community. It pushed those differences to the background, in the face of a ‘common enemy’. Yet, the sociological unity that the LTTE had hoped to achieve among the caste and status-conscious Tamil community stopped just there. It refused to penetrate into the East, where the Tamils had not found anything in common with the uppity Northern Tamils, until the late S.J.V. Chelvanayagam promised the moon through North, East unity and eastern Trincomalee as the capital of the unified Tamil province.

The SLFP internal feud just now is a struggle for the return of elitism in Sinhala polity. Separately but simultaneously, the JVP insurgencies and the LTTE alongside — and well into post-JVP militancy — had kept the stratified Sinhala-Buddhist society together and divided at the same time.

Demographically, the current struggle within the SLFP-UPFA could be seen as a struggle for and against Sinhala elitism at the same time. At one level, it’s against the Colombo Seven urban elitism of the Ranil, C.B. Kumaratunga kind. At another level, it’s against the Sinhala elitism of the Rajapaksa kind that the Sirisena leadership is seeking to oust and replace.

There may be other leaders and communities wanting to join the fray, and also claim their share in what promised to be ‘collective leadership’ at Independence. The first ‘Opposition alliance of Sinhala-majority and Sinhala majoritarian government’ of 1956, the emergence of the JVP’s motto and methods, replacing it in less than a decade later, all personified this inevitable trickledown effect that democracy promises but seldom delivers.

The August 17 parliamentary polls are thus also about the end – or, continuance – of the ‘ethnic war’ in the Sinhala public mood and mind, and fighting their forgotten internal squabbles from a comfort zone that they had kept in the back-burner for a time. It’s this that, President Sirisena, Rajapaksa and Ranil W., among others, have to keep in their mind much more than their personal egos and political opportunities – in the name of the LTTE, good governance, or Rajapaksa personified, either way.

*N. Sathiya Moorthy is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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