Updated: January 7, 2015 12:00:54 am
The Sri Lankan presidential election, scheduled for January 8, will be the first to see an incumbent president seek a third term since the executive presidency was installed in 1978. In all earlier presidential elections where the incumbent contested for the second term, none had lost. This election is said to be different, for many reasons. One, incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa is challenged by a cabinet minister from his own party, who surprised all by crossing over to the opposition just five days before nominations were declared. Two, this election promises change in the executive presidency that, over the past two decades, has been accepted as dictatorial. At each previous presidential election, candidates have vowed that the executive preisdency would be wholly abolished. But it was not. Three, this election has forged an unusual collage of political ideologies and contradictory ethno-religious perspectives into a joint platform against Rajapaksa. Thus , there is a growing feeling, especially in urban society, that Rajapaksa will be defeated, becoming the first incumbent to be voted out.
This Lankan presidential election, for other reasons, runs close to the Indian polls held in April and May 2014 that brought Narendra Modi to prime ministership with a huge majority. The Common Opposition Candidate (COC), Maithripala Sirisena, may not have the luxury of such a big victory. Nevertheless, he is also a “commoner” from the rural North Central Province, like Modi is from rural Gujarat. His political mentoring was in Sirimavo Bandaranayake’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) , which caters exclusively to the Sinhala constituency, like the BJP does to Hindutva. The political and ethno-religious parties and groups that comprise the common opposition include the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the Sri Lankan parallel to the RSS. The JHU not only leads the campaign, but has also left its Sinhala Buddhist footprints all over Sirisena’s election manifesto. And, as in the Indian elections, the central theme in the last few months and through the campaign was the hyped cry against family rule and mega-corruption.
Despite this large Sinhala Buddhist stamp on a would-be new government after January 8, the Muslim community en bloc and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have decided in favour of the COC. For the Muslim community, it is certainly about revenge against the Rajapaksa regime. The dominant southern Muslim community (among the two million-strong Muslim constituency) had always voted substantially with the SLFP under Bandaranayake. They have always preferred to compromise within mainstream politics than assert their political will. It is this “loyalty” that they feel was taken for granted by the Rajapaksa regime, when it openly patronised violent anti-Muslim campaigns that desecrated mosques and insulted their faith in the last year and a half. The turning point was the brutal attack on Muslims in Aluthgama-Beruwala, south of Colombo. That was what prompted all Muslim ministers and MPs to cross over to the opposition. They feared their own people would not vote for them at the next parliamentary elections if they stayed with the Rajapaksa campaign.
It was different with the TNA leadership, which was caught in a Catch-22 situation. It has grown strong as the main voice of the Sri Lankan Tamil polity, and that saddles it with the responsibility to pursue solutions within national politics. The TNA thus stands apart from the Tamil diaspora that still cries for separatism. That would have isolated the TNA from northeastern Tamils, who are no longer in the mood for separatist politics. The Tamil mood, especially in the north and Vanni, is very strong against Rajapaksa, whose Sinhala politics has left Tamils living under a disturbing and depressing military rule. All his infrastructure development, with roads and buildings, and the Indian-funded railway to the Jaffna peninsula, has not made much of an impact on Tamil society. Their priorities are different. They want the military removed and a civil administration established before anything else.
Despite the strong anti-Rajapaksa call, the TNA had big reservations about backing Sirisena, who does not pay any attention to even the basic demands of the northeastern Tamil people. Sirisena’s clear and loud pledge to the Sinhala south that his government would not remove the military from the North Eastern Province, his refusal to accept the UN resolution, his sticking to the position that any investigation would infringe on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and that he would not allow international interference, as well as his ally, the JHU, reiterating its stand on the further reduction of powers to the provincial councils, left the TNA in a political quagmire.
Thus it took the TNA a long time to compromise and support Sirisena — on the single argument that Rajapaksa’s defeat this time would allow for a new political space to bargain anew on the immediate issues that Tamils eagerly seek answers to. The TNA probably also feels that, with the promise of Ranil Wickramasinghe being made prime minister and head of government, it should not make the fatal mistake the LTTE leadership did.
The whole argument rests on how much the TNA can deliver. So far, there has been no serious campaigning for Sirisena in the seven lakh-strong Tamil vote base in Vanni and Jaffna. Even at the first Northern Provincial Council elections — assumed to be the most vital election for the future of the northern Tamil people that also saw a lot of campaigning — only 67 per cent of votes were polled. In this presidential election, which has no attraction for Tamils and offers the TNA no reason to go beyond its political statement, polling could be drastically low.
It seems the Rajapaksa campaign had assessed that feeling in the north and east when the TNA was hesitant in deciding its stand. This is a situation Rajapaksa may exploit, with the military presence wholly controlled by his brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who is secretary, ministry of defence. The Rajapaksa campaign, therefore, amplified its claims to victory in the war, called Sirisena a stooge of the Tamil diaspora and Western interests, pushing him to deny all such claims with more Sinhala Buddhist rhetoric. Unfortunately for Sirisena, this not only makes him suspect in the mind of the Tamil voter, but also drags him in behind Rajapaksa in impressing the Sinhala constituency.
With such Sinhala racism, the trendsetting Uva Provincial Council elections held in September, which proved that over 22 per cent of the rural Sinhala people had decamped from the Rajapaksa vote base, went unnoticed, with no candidate addressing the issues of those rural people. They had their own socio-economic issues, distinct from those of the urban Sinhala middle class, which they wanted to be addressed. The two main campaigns took over the old Sinhala Buddhist slogans to compete against each other. That would leave the minority Tamils and Muslims out of mainstream politics, even if Sirisena is sworn in as president on January 10.
Within a week of Sirisena’s advent as the COC, the much-touted demand for the abolition of the executive presidency became a deformed promise. It will now make the presidency a restricted executive, holding on to defence, provincial council powers and overall supervision of governance. Whatever the final outcome, the space created may not be for the Tamils and the TNA but for the Sinhala south, which will not be interested in the north. It is a crazier drive on a circular path, to the same exit point.
The writer is a journalist based in Colombo
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