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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 36, August 29, 2015

Sri Lanka Stays on the Right Course

Monday 31 August 2015, by Apratim Mukarji

On August 17, Sri Lanka’s former dictatorial President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s gamble failed decisively and the country wisely stayed on its course to correct the misdeeds of the past by electing a government committed to democracy and the rule of law. The mood of the moment was memorably described by the outgoing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe (also tipped to be the new Prime Minister) in these words: “Let us build a decent society. Let us work with consensus.” Elaborating, he said on August 19: “Let’s work together. I don’t think anyone can opt out (of the task of working together) or go back to divisive politics. We will not allow that.” Indians in particular, considering the situation in their country, will surely watch developments in the neighbouring country with a good deal of interest.

In the August 17 parliamentary elections voters in Sri Lanka reposed their faith in the democratisation process initiated by the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe Government and once again defeated Rajapaksa’s bid to return to power. Their verdict was as positive as it could be. But it also served notice on the new government to expedite and complete the good work begun seven months ago. The voters have not faltered; it is now time for the new government to ensure that it also does not falter.

On the final count, the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG), led by the United National Party’s Ranil Wickremasinghe, secured 45.66 per cent of the valid votes polled and obtained 93 out of the 196 seats directly contested under the proportional representation system plus 13 seats from the National List (apportioned among the contesting parties according to the percentages of votes polled by them). The losing coalition, United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), led by Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, secured 42.38 per cent and obtained 95 seats including 12 from the National List.

Despite the win, however, the UNFGG needs seven more seats in order to obtain a majority in the 225-seat Parliament and will also be obliged to secure two-thirds majority for every constitu-tional amendment, several of which remain to be brought about in order to fulfil the expectations of the people and to honour its own promises made during the presidential and parliamentary elections. Securing a simple majority should be relatively easy with a section of the UPFA parliamentarians expected to cross over to the winning side.

Just as the verdict echoes that of the January 8 presidential election, the voting pattern also reflects what was seen earlier. While the ethnic minority communities have once more voted against the Rajapaksa-led UPFA and in favour of the policies being pursued by the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe Government, the Sinhala-speaking majority community have reaffirmed their preference for the UPFA. However, the UNFGG has not fared badly in the south and west either, where the majority community predominates, having bagged 63 seats against the UPFA’s 69.

The Colombo district has traditionally sided with the UNFGG or its mainstay UNP: in the August 17 elections it got 11 seats against the UPFA’s seven there, but, interestingly, it also scored more than the UPFA in the Kandy district, the centre of Buddhist religion and culture, with seven seats against five. The districts in the deep south have also sent mixed results indicating that the Sinhala vote has also been generous to the UNFGG, most dramatically in the Kurunegala district whence Rajapaksa contested and where his UPFA scored eight seats against the winning coalition’s seven.

Jehan Perera, a long-time peace activist who heads the National Peace Council, saw the election results as closely resembling those of the presidential election. “They reflected the anxieties of the ethnic and religious minorities about the conduct of the previous Rajapaksa Government. While his coalition won in the predominantly (Sinhala) rural and suburban areas, it lost heavily wherever there was an ethnically mixed population,” he said. He also pointed out that the results simply reflected the desire of a majority of Sri Lankans to be “in a country governed by the rule of law, and not ‘the rule of one man’, which it became under Rajapaksa”. (Sri Lanka BRIEFS, August 18, 2015)

Academic Jayadeva Uyangoda pointed out that the Rajpaksa campaign concentrated on the Sinhala-Buddhist voters ignoring the minority voters who had overwhelmingly jettisoned him in the presidential election and emphasised the imperative of bringing back the ‘strong and macho’ leader, Rajapaksa. (Ibid.) The Rajapaksa camp should have learnt one crucial lesson from the January defeat—the need to erase the trust-deficit between the former President and the ethnic and religious minorities. When Rajapaksa lost the presidential bid in January, he still polled the highest number of total votes from the Sinhala-majority districts, but he virtually received no support from the minority-dominant electorates. On the other hand, the victory of Sirisena, Rajapaksa’s challenger, was facilitated by the ethnic and religious minority voters throughout the cuntry and particularly from the Northern and Eastern provinces.

“Rajapaksa and his political managers,” said Uyangoda, “do not seem to have acknowledged the crucial need to address the minority alienation. Their parliamentary electoral strategy was primarily based on the nationalist appeal to Sinhala Buddhist voters, wrapped in the language of national security and patriotism. They also seem to have calculated that they could emerge as the party with the highest number of parliamentary seats on the strength of Sinhala votes alone and then poach UNP members to secure parliamentary majority as Rajapaksa had successfully done in the past. In fact, during the two final weeks of the election campaign, the Rajapaksa camp intensified its communal appeal to the Sinhala electoate in subtle and not so subtle ways.” (‘A Vote for continuing change’, The Hindu, August 19, 2015)

As the district-wise voting pattern shows, the UPFA has fared even worse in August than it did in January in the electorates with sizeable ethnic and religious minority presence. Thus, it has been reconfirmed in the aftermath of the January 8 election that Rajapaksa stands totally rejected by the Tamils and Muslims. Along with this, another factor soundly reconfirmed is the population’s rejection of his loud chauvinism and undemocratic and corrupt policies and practices. On the positive side, Sri Lanka seems to be well-settled now on the path to fully establish and practise democracy and rule of law.

However, the path before the new government is surely strewn with major challenges. The most important of these is the final settlement of the Tamil issue, a true devolution of power to the provincial councils in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Ever since the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe Government came to power, Tamils, led by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), have been waging a strident campaign to wrest as many concessions as possible from Colombo. Behind this stridency lies the abysmal record of the performance of the TNA-led Northern Provincial Council which was in all honesty never allowed by the Rajapaksa regime to act even with minimal autonomy. The provincial Governor was always a military officer and the province, along with the Eastern Province, was run like an army camp. The TNA had first expected a good deal of autonomy with Rajapaksa’s fall and the promises of the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe Government. While several major steps have since been taken to restore civilian rule, Tamils in the Northern Province in particular remain dissatisfied. They could draw no solace from the highly cautious UNFGG election campaign on the issue of devolution of power to the North and East, carefully avoiding any reference to the concept of federalism.

Despite widespread frustration, however, the election results show that Tamil voters have rejected the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), a party floated by Tamil “nationalists” living mainly abroad. According to one analysis, the Jaffna voters have proved to be sober and ensured that the TNPF did not win a single seat, managing a mere five per cent of the valid votes cast in the Jaffna district. Another group of Tamils, consisting of former LTTE members who had surrendered to the Army and also fought the elections, fared worse than the TNPF and got fewer votes. “The war-weary Tamil population in the North and East has given a clear message giving strength to TNA leader R. Sampanthan’s call for a negotiated political solution in the year ahead,” says political economist Ahilan Kadirgamar. (‘Defeat of divisive politics’, The Hindu, August 19, 2015) The TNA-led umbrella organisation, Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), has obtained 14 seats and another two from the National List, taking the total to a formidable 16. On August 19, the TNA declared its support for the UNP to form the new government, utilising the occasion to reiterate that “in the process, we also expect resolution to the national uestion in a manner acceptable to all people,” Sampanthan told The Hindu.

However, in September the new government will be obliged to tackle what is easily the trickiest and most evocative issue, responding to the international demand for a United Nations-sponsored probe into the alleged human rights violations by both the government forces and the LTTE during the last phase of the civil war, specifically during January-May 2009. The UN Human Rights Council, based in Geneva, allowed a grace period last March to the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe Government till September to come prepared to respond to the relevant resolution proposing the international probe. In contrast to the Rajapaksa regime’s outright rejection of the UN resolution, the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe Government has promised cooperation, while maintaining the need for instituting a “domestic mechanism” with inter-national cooperation. The finalisation of the issue can possibly not be deferred further and Colombo must come up with a way out which will have to prove to be acceptable to both the domestic and international audiences.

The sagging economy too needs immediate remedial action. The UNFGG has promised concrete and viable policies in this respect. Employment generation is clearly the need of the hour in all parts of the country.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.