By Col. R. Hariharan*
With a week to go before Sri Lanka people elect a new parliament, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa predicted the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which had fielded him, to win “up to” 117 seats. However, a pre-election survey showed only 27.5 percent voters preferred him over his bête noir and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the rival United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG), who led the survey with a hefty near 40 percent preference.
The secret of Rajapaksa’s confidence may not be solely due to the good luck charm – an elephant hair bracelet – he is seen wearing these days. Nor it can be astrological prediction that let him down badly in the presidential poll.
The survey conducted by the Centre for Policy Analysis end July showed Tamil and Muslim minority voters who handed him a defeat in the presidential election continue to be firm supporters of Wickremesinghe. However, it must be consoling for the former president to know that he remained the favourite of Sinhala voters with 36 percent support, while Wickremesinghe trailed him with 31.9 percent support.
Probably it was the Sinhala voter-support and the impressive line-up of UPFA leaders including some of the senior stalwarts of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), who turned up in his support on the stage with him probably encouraged Rajapaksa’s optimism at the press conference. Their support for him, despite their leader President Maithripala Sirisena’s dénouement of Rajapaksa, was probably heartwarming for the former president. He was so sure of UPFA getting a majority that he dismissed the idea of forming a national government as suggested by the United National Party (UNP) leader Wickremesinghe. Rajapaksa said it only showed the lack of confidence of his opponent.
The election manifesto for a change seems to be more voter friendly than in the past with the coalition opening the social media network to welcome interactive feedback from the voters. It is a welcome change from the days when Rajapaksa remained the sole fountainhead of wisdom of the coalition (has it changed?).
Despite Rajapaksa’s confidence the odds do not seem to favour him. His problems are more serious than Wickremesinghe’s. Rajapaksa is contesting an election when he is out of office for the first time after he became president in 2005. Now he has neither favours to trade for political support nor powers to command the official machinery that aided his election campaigns in the past.
Government officials openly canvassed in support of Rajapaksa in his heydays. When he contested the presidential poll for the second time, the then army commander appeared on the TV in his support! But the electoral environment has changed now.
Police and election commission have remained neutral as far as possible. Army commander Lt Gen Crisanthe De Silva has issued a series of orders to prevent service personnel from engaging in political activities during the election lest they are lured by political parties canvassing for their support. The restrictions on service personnel include even to expressing views in the social media network or allowing the use army video footage for political propaganda. Army Headquarters has warned that punitive action would be taken against those acting in contravening the orders. These orders could hurt Rajapaksa more than his opponents, as his military victory against the Tamil Tigers in 2009 had earned him more admirers among armed forces and their families.
A second aspect is the continuing internal squabbles between Rajapaksa loyalists and anti-Rajapaksa factions that have paralysed the internal party apparatus. The convening of the SLFP central committee meeting has been suspended till after the election through a court order! This has produced an anachronistic situation with the two factions openly working against each other rather than focusing on winning the election! Former president Chandrika Kumaratunga as well as President Sirisena have continued to remain in SLFP despite their stout opposition to Rajapaksa’s candidature. And they seem to be doing their bit to undermine the party support to Rajapaksa.
Ms Kumaratunga had been more direct in her attack on Rajapaksa; she has accused him of spreading racism and using religion to achieve political ends. Though Sirisena has said he would remain neutral, he has repeatedly appealed to the people for carrying forward the changes ushered in January 8 with the defeat of Rajapaksa and vote for corruption free government.
In fact, at the farewell ministerial meeting of the cabinet, Sirisena told the outgoing cabinet that he was looking forward to work with them again to carry forward his January 8 agenda clearly hinting his support to the United National Party (UNP) led coalition.
President Sirisena has continued to be firmly opposed to appointing Rajapaksa as prime minister even if the UPFA wins a majority and chooses him as the prime ministerial candidate. So we can expect “UPFA and SLFP Logjam-II” to be enacted even if Rajapaksa turns defeat into victory.
But more damaging to Rajapaksa are the skeletons tumbling out of the cupboards locked up during his regime on the eve of polls. The latest allegation relates to the suspected murder of Sri Lanka’s rugby star Wasim Thajudeen whose body was found burnt inside his car in a Colombo suburb on May 17, 2012. Though at that time, the police closed the case as accidental death, Minister Dr Rajitha Senaratne had alleged that three Special Task Force (STF) attached to Presidential Security Division at that time were involved in the murder. So the charred body was exhumed after the CID obtained a court order for further investigations as they considered it a murder. Evidently, there were a number of lapses in the earlier police investigation as many pieces of evidence were not considered. The CID conducting the investigations for the second time said Thajudeen was attacked with a sharp object in the neck and beaten with a blunt object.
There were scenes of low comedy as bumbling politicians from both UPFA and UNF camps traded threats and insults freely.
When SLFP spokesman Dilan Perera took out four bottles of poison and invited the UNFGG members to drink them, UNP’s Harin Fernando retaliated by brandishing two cans of poison at a news conference and said Dilan Perera was welcome to drink them. Rival group of gangsters fired shots at an election meeting of the UNFGG in the early stages of the campaign. But overall probably there were less violent incidents this time perhaps due to greater vigilance and shorter gestation period for the election process.
Ranil Wickremesinghe heading the UNFGG has not started counting the seats he would win; but he must be beaming at the survey results. He has entered the election fray under a cloud of corruption surrounding the Central Bank bond issue. How much it would affect the chances of the UNFGG, particularly with his emphasis on clean governance, remains the big question. As the pre-poll survey was conducted end July, generally swing votes can be expected to make all the difference between defeat and victory. So it is to be seen whether he would continue to retain the support base that helped him to engineer the defeat of Rajapaksa in the presidential poll.
The UNFGG manifesto like all election manifestos in Sri Lanka is tall on talk and full of promises. Whether it can deliver them particularly when the economy is cash strapped is the moot point; this applies to all political parties. But the most disappointing manifesto was of the Tamil National Alliance(TNA) manifesto. It started with the traditional ‘manifesto focus’ on the history of Tamil struggle for equity that had been repeated many times, rather than bringing up front the burning issues of Tamils which have been tucked towards the end. How much it would impress the impatient younger generation of voters who are tired of pedantic style of politics and its ponderous ways remains to be seen. But the TNA’s advantage is it enjoys the support of Global Tamil Forum (GTF), perhaps the largest Tamil Diaspora body.
There are two other dark horses challenging the political free run TNA had been enjoying in the North and East. The ‘Crusaders for Democracy’ a new outfit formed of former cadres of the LTTE is contesting the election as an independent group focusing on the grievances of Tamils in the post war scene. It was cobbled by Vithyatharan, former editor of Uthayan, Jaffna Tamil daily, and political wheeler-dealer after the TNA refused to field any former LTTE cadres as its candidate. The entry of rehabilitated Tiger cadres in the political arena is a welcome sign that Tamils are at last coming to terms with the political reality of Sri Lanka after 2009. But TNA’s bigger challenge could be from veteran Tamil politician GajendraKumar Ponnambalam-led Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF).
The UPFA campaign, de facto led by Rajapaksa, seems to have learnt a few things from his defeat in the presidential election as acknowledged by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, the coalition’s foreign policy advisor, when he met the foreign correspondents at an interaction. He said “the foreign policy of the UPFA will be a series of concentric circles, the closest circle being the immediate neighbourhood. Specific mention has been made about India in the foreign policy segment of the UPFA manifesto. Good relations with India is axiomatic. Good relations with India will be a corner stone of the UPFA’s foreign policy.” On relations with other countries he said the first circle in the series of concentric circles will be South Asia; the second will be Asia; the third will be Euro-Asia, the fourth will be the Global South and finally the world.”
Dayan’s foreign policy construct is logical; he had always valued India’s special status in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy firmament. But in the past, Rajapaksa had shown neither the patience nor the interest in such a nuanced approach to policy making. Can he change his style of work? Let us wait for the election results for the question to become relevant.
*Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: [email protected] Blog: http://col.hariharan.info