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Unexpected alliance challenges Sri Lankan President January 7, 2010

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

Jehan Perera

The forthcoming election has generated a coalition of political forces that few would have believed possible even a few weeks ago.  Today an increasingly beleaguered President Rajapaksa gives the impression of being a man who knows he has the fight of his life on his hands.  The change is astonishing as the New Year dawns that the government that so recently seemed invulnerable should now be doing its utmost to win what had seemed a cake-walk election.

President Rajapaksa’s strategy of ruling by division has compelled other political forces, ranging from the UNP on the right, the JVP on the left and the ethnic minority parties, to unite to save themselves from the juggernaut of government that sought to inflict similar defeats on them.  The unexpected alliance between the UNP and JVP is a result.  An alliance between these two parties had seemed an utter impossibility until it actually happened. The UNP has traditionally been the party of the better-off, more cosmopolitan and pro-business sections of the country’s multi-ethnic population. By contrast the JVP has been the party espousing the interests of the poorer sections of the population, and draws its support almost totally from the Sinhalese ethnic majority.  The disagreements between the two parties have gone much beyond the ideological and ethnic divides.  During the late 1980s a UNP government faced down a JVP insurrection in which between 30 to 60 thousand persons are believed to have perished.  There has since been a deep and terrible mistrust between the UNP and JVP.

Prior to the latest developments, it seemed that Sri Lanka was destined to have a fractured polity in which old hatreds and mistrust would not go away.  This would have been to the detriment of the entire country and its future.  No country can develop and prosper if it is internally divided and its leaders are not prepared to work together.  This not only applies to the ethnic divide, which the entire world knows about, but also to the political divide, which Sri Lankans know about and tried without success to heal.

During his four year tenure in office, President Rajapaksa succeeded in dividing and weakening both the UNP and JVP.  Both these parties realized that if they fought the presidential elections separately with their own candidates, they would stand no chance of defeating the incumbent.  What brought them together was their common interest in preventing President Rajapaksa from winning another term of office.

Sometimes it is the case that those who have ideological differences cannot agree at the intellectual level.  But at the level of engaging in a common project they find that they can work together and in doing so get to see their common humanity.  The realm of ideas, concepts and ideologies is one level of human exchange and agreement.  But a deeper level is that of trust and that each side can be trusted to keep their word.  It may be the case that what has brought the UNP, JVP and their common presidential candidate together is the shared belief that they will each keep their word.

The most important quality in human relationships is that of trust.  Whether in business, family or politics what matters most is trust.  Even hard-headed businessmen operate at the level of trust.  Of course, they seek to protect themselves by means of legal contracts.  But if one side does not trust the other, the deal will not go through.  A key element of trust is to keep one’s word and deliver on promises made however great the cost.  Unfortunately, despite his great and important achievements, and his reputation for being a pragmatic politician, President Rajapaksa has failed to excel in the area of trust building with other political leaders within the country.

The President has developed an unfortunate reputation for making promises that he does not keep. The promise that President Rajapaksa gave to the JVP during his presidential election campaign of late 2005 is an example.  On the basis of that promise he obtained the services of the excellent grassroots party machinery of the JVP, but once he won that immensely powerful office, he showed no interest in delivering on his promise. When the JVP’s demands became troublesome he divided them and brought their defectors over to his side with ministerial offices.

Similarly, in early 2006 when he found that he needed a more stable and larger parliamentary majority with which to govern the country, President Rajapaksa also induced the UNP leadership to sign a bipartisan agreement with him on political cooperation, but simultaneously induced a large number of its senior leaders to break away from the party.   Perhaps because of an intuition that what one does to others will happen to oneself, the President has shown himself to have a sceptical nature where it concerns others.

The President’s present predicament has come about because of his growing suspicion that former Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka harboured ambitions beyond that acceptable from a professional soldier.  When they worked together, the President and General Fonseka made a formidable team that combined political and military leadership, with one reinforcing the other.

Ironically, the President’s apprehension regarding General Fonseka’s political ambitions and his precipitate removal from the position of Army Commander appears to have created the very challenge that he had feared.  But instead of this threat emerging from within the military structure it has materialised from within the democratic political system itself.  The opposition which had been in need of a personality who could match President Rajapaksa’s patriotic and nationalist credentials has found it in General Fonseka.

It is in the area of trust building with other political leaders that UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has done better than the President.  He is widely seen as a politician who does not make false promises.   This may be the reason why the JVP has decided to put their trust in a partnership that includes the UNP to work together to defeat a powerful President who has failed to keep promises to other political leaders on too many occasions.  Now both the UNP and JVP will be placing their trust in their common presidential candidate General Sarath Fonseka to keep his word if he is elected President.  There are many voters who will trust and hope for the best in those who have not yet broken their promises.

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