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Sri Lanka: towards a more inclusive political process? November 18, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Perera, Jehan, Sri Lanka , trackback

Jehan Perera

President Mahinda Rajapaksa was expected to utilise the ruling party’s special convention on November 15 to announce the dates of both the general elections and presidential elections.  The speculation centred on whether he would declare that the presidential election would be held prior to or after the general election, or that the two would be held be held concurrently.   It was widely held that, as the President is more popular than the rest of his government, he would confidently go in first and notch up a big victory.  He would then lead his team to another resounding victory at the general elections and possibly even obtain a two-thirds majority that would enable constitutional change to the government’s advantage.

At the convention the President made no categorical statement as to which election would take place first, but there was a hint that it would be the general election.  Taking a statesmanlike approach, he said that he would not alter the election schedule as other political leaders had tried to do.  Since Parliament ends its six-year term in April of 2010, and the next Presidential elections are not due until November 2011, it seems fairly certain that general elections are to come first.  On the other hand, there was always an element of doubt about the holding of Presidential elections in the immediate future.  This was due to the shortening of the President’s first term of office by two years.

However, the circumstances under which President Rajapaksa has put off announcing early Presidential elections creates an impression that it is not simply the loss of two years that deterred the President from calling early Presidential polls.

The decisive factor behind the change – which could not have been foreseen even a month ago when the President seemed to be riding the crest of a wave that could last for years – was the sudden emergence of former Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka as a potential challenger for the Presidency.  So long as General Fonseka was seen as being a part of the government team that won the war, it was reasonable for the government as a whole, and the President in particular, to claim the credit for the victory over the LTTE.  But with the breakdown in relations between the General and the government leadership, no longer does it seem reasonable that the credit for the military victory be taken exclusively by the President.

Once a negative cycle starts to operate it becomes difficult to stop it from gathering momentum.  Other vulnerabilities in the government’s position have suddenly begun to emerge.  One is the trade union action being taken by trade unions affiliated to the opposition.  During the years of war, the trade union movement was notably dormant.  People of all strata, including the working classes, understood the enormous economic and social costs associated with combating the LTTE, but decided to bear with those costs in the interests of finishing off the LTTE once and for all.  However, six months after the war’s end, people find their patience running low.  In addition there is resentment at the corruption and nepotism that is seen to be rife within the government.

Although General Fonseka has still not publicly declared his intention to enter into politics, the mere fact of this possibility appears to have rejuvenated the opposition and boosted the morale of opposition party workers.  A strong opposition is an essential ingredient of any functioning democracy.  It is a well known axiom in politics, and indeed in all aspects of life, that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  During the last three years of war, and even after the end of the war, it appeared that the powers of the government and the centralisation of such powers were growing without the necessary checks and balances to keep the political system healthy and vibrant.

Ironically, one of the major beneficiaries of General Fonseka’s entry into politics could be the ethnic minorities. With the General who led the army to victory over the LTTE on the side of the opposition, the government cannot any more rely on its own advocacy of Sinhalese nationalist positions to win the majority of the Sinhalese electorate.  At previous elections the government was able to win by simply appealing to the Sinhalese majority to the point of disregarding and alienating the ethnic minorities.  But now with General Fonseka being one of the leaders of the opposition, the Sinhalese nationalist vote is bound to be divided.  As a result the ethnic minority vote will become important for both the government and opposition to win over.

In recent days the government has been responding with more alacrity to the concerns of the Tamil people with regard to issues of resettlement and freedom of movement.  Quite suddenly after more than six months of insisting that the Tamil population displaced from formerly LTTE-held areas need to be kept in confinement in government welfare camps, the government has suddenly started to release tens of thousands of them. More than one half of the IDP population is now out of the welfare camps.  In addition the government has lifted many of the restrictions on the movement of traffic on the A9 highway that connects the northern capital of Jaffna to the south of the country and runs through the formerly LTTE-held areas.

Even General Fonseka, who during the war period spoke of Sri Lanka being a Sinhalese country, in which the minorities had to know their place and not make undue demands, appears to have moderated his position.  He has also been requested by the opposition alliance to reach an understanding with the major Tamil political party.  It appears that the clash of the Sinhalese titans can pave the way to the politics of moderation.  Prospective governments will have to seek the support of all ethnic communities, and be mindful of their grievances and aspirations, rather than relying solely on mobilising the nationalism of the ethnic majority.

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