Sri Lanka goes to the polls today to elect its new parliament. The election is considered extremely significant, as it may decide the course of the January 8 revolution that led to the overthrow of the authoritarian president, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Sri Lanka has a history of electoral violence, dating back to its 26 years of civil war. True to tradition, 77 violent incidents had already been reported by the watchdog Paffrel till August 3. Besides, there are 600-plus cases of electoral law violations, of which, significantly, over 100 relate to the abuse of state power and resources, including the misuse of public-sector employees.
During the 10 years of Rajapaksa’s presidency, the Tamil insurgency was crushed. The final stages were brutal, in which thousands died, which was neither acknowledged nor investigated. This made Rajapaksa increasingly authoritarian, with no concern for reconciling with the Tamil minority. The treatment of Muslims and Christians was no different.
A group of rehabilitated former LTTE cadres has decided to contest independently, after the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) denied them nominations. The TNA spokesman explained to the media that the reason was their suspected links with intelligence agencies, which they feel would hinder a political solution. The cadres claimed they will not campaign against the TNA but contest under their independent party, Crusaders for Democracy.
President Maithripala Sirisena, who had sprung the biggest surprise by revolting against Rajapaksa, seems to excel in surprises. Everyone was taken aback when he ordered parliamentary elections eight months before schedule — “imposing it”, as the Sri Lanka Guardian commented, “on the people of Sri Lanka who do not want it”. Then he sprang a bigger surprise by allowing his bête noir Rajapaksa to run for parliament. Nominating Rajapaksa as the candidate of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition has angered millions of voters and activists who had supported Sirisena in January. Although he has declined to name Rajapaksa as the prime ministerial hopeful, Rajapaksa loyalists are optimistic since he is still popular among the majority Sinhalese. If he becomes PM, it will be, as the BBC described, an “uneasy cohabitation with the man who unseated him”.
There are various theories on Sirisena’s flip-flops. The most charitable is that he has been a true soldier of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) throughout his career. He didn’t want the SLFP to split under his watch. After his shock defeat, Rajapaksa had, in a surprise move, decided to support Sirisena to avoid splitting the SLFP. His farsightedness seems to have been rewarded. A large faction has continued to be loyal to him. Also, the SLFP cannot bear the prospect of being defeated by the United National Party (UNP). Sirisena was desperate to prevent a UNP landslide. Sirisena’s own explanation is that he had no control over the UPFA nomination. Many consider this explanation wishy-washy.
Spiritual leader Sobitha Thero, the architect of the project to bring opposition forces under a common umbrella, was the most vocal critic. “You are fighting to try and protect your party, but the rest of us will have to battle to save our lives,” he said to Sirisena. Political analyst Sarath Wijesooriya asked, “Has Maithripala paved the path to put 6.2 million people six feet under?”
There may be more to the early election than meets the eye. Sirisena needs parliamentary support to push through promised reforms, including limits on the powers of the executive presidency. The timing is also important. The UN Human Rights Council is expected to release a report in September on human rights abuses during the final phase of the war in 2009. The report could affect Rajapaksa’s attempt to whip up nationalist sentiment to stage a comeback. A survey showed 27.5 per cent support for him, against 40 per cent for PM Ranil Wickremesinghe. This does not seem an impossible margin, considering that the ruling coalition is divided. Some feel Sri Lanka’s six-month honeymoon with democracy may be over. For them, the counter-revolution has begun. Others feel the prophesy of doom may not actually come true.
But why is the outcome important for the region and the world? According to US Admiral Dennis C. Blair, former director of National Intelligence, Sri Lanka is becoming the key transportation hub for South and Southeast Asia. Rajapaksa had taken the country into the arms of China, which raised serious geopolitical concerns not only for the US but also — in fact, more so — for India. Both countries will be watching the course of events with bated breath.
The writer is a former chief election commissioner of India and author of ‘An Undocumented Wonder: the Making of the Great Indian Election’
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