When Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to return to the people for a fresh mandate on January 26,almost two years before the end of a six-year term,the result was expected to be a mere formality. Having ended the civil war after vanquishing the LTTE insurgency and bringing the entire country under Colombos direct rule,the making of his image as a war hero,and thereby sturdy nationalist,was seen to be complete. Subsequently,when Sarath Fonseka,the countrys army chief who saw out the final phase of the anti-LTTE operation,stepped down from his post and then announced his candidature for the presidential election,his presence was seen to be a curiosity that would add spice to an otherwise one-horse race. The voters will decide,but no matter how the result goes,the presidential campaign has certainly reconfigured Sri Lankas politics.
The presidential election comes at a time when Sri Lanka is still working out the paces of its rehabilitation and reconstruction after the wounding last days of the military effort. To secure the peace the island nation needs inclusive political and administrative mechanisms. Given that both Rajapaksa and Fonseka are seen to be fighting for the nationalist space at a time when nationalist sentiment is exceptionally high could have meant the sidelining of minority issues. But the coalition that has coalesced around Fonseka has,inadvertently,accommodated diverse views from hardline Sinhalese parties to the Tamil National Alliance,in the past perceived to be pro-LTTE. To this coalition,that includes the main opposition party (Ranil Wickremesinghes UNP) has come last-minute support from Chandrika Kumaratunga,indication of a whittling down of Rajapaksas influence in the ruling SLFP.
How long this coalition of the willing,as it were,lasts is anybodys guess,based as it is in part on Fonsekas promise to reduce presidential powers. But no matter who wins,Sri Lanka is headed for a crucial phase in its political remapping.