Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse has called a snap presidential election for January 2010. And General Sarath Fonseka,the commander-in-chief of the Sri Lankan armed forces responsible for delivering a decisive victory to the country over the LTTE and who resigned from the army,will be pitted against him. Fonseka perhaps hopes to ape Caesar,at least in that part of his career when the Roman was elected with a landslide to consulship. But Caesar started his career as a politician,not as a soldier,while Fonseka,a career soldier will be pitted against a wily career politician,Rajapakse,who too has been hailed as the saviour of the nation. The entry of Fonseka has two positive and two negative effects on Sri Lankan democracy.
First,his proposed candidacy for presidency is a sign that democracy (whether one chooses to call the Sri Lankan variant procedural,illiberal or ethnic) has not died in Sri Lanka. The reports emanating from the island in recent months were depressing accounts of discoveries of mass graves,white vans whisking off anybody who dared to question the governments policies,particularly towards the minorities,the incarceration of some 200,000 Tamils in camps,and disappearances and murders of activists and journalists brave enough to speak out. The generals recent speeches and resignation letter,which criticised the president for failing to deliver the peace dividend,increasing economic hardships,waste and corruption,and curtailing media freedom,and failing to take care of the problems of the war-displaced persons,have borne some dividends. On November 21,the president directed the authorities to resettle the 136,328 war-displaced persons in camps by January 31,2010,and directed that the monetary relief to the displaced persons be doubled to Rs 50,000.
Second,Fonsekas candidacy has brought the fractured opposition together in a concerted alliance to oust Rajapakse. A functioning democracy needs an opposition,which has been woefully absent in the last two years. The general is being supported by a diverse set including the UNP,the Marxist ethno-nationalist JVP,and some Tamil and Muslim parties. However,the generals penchant for speaking his mind (he called Tamil Nadu politicians a bunch of jokers),his intolerance of criticism and the allegations against him of human rights abuses against Tamils could make the oppositions solidarity a short-lived one.
The first of two negative effects is the dangerous politicisation of the military. While large sections of the army may support him,Fonseka does not have similar backing from the police,navy or air force. These divisions may have the effect of assisting the civilians to remain in control and thus abet the cause of democracy,but such control may come at the price of security.
Second,the tussle between two Sinhalese nationalists,neither of whom has been silent about his belief that Sri Lanka is a country for the Sinhalese,may produce more virulent ethno-nationalist election rhetoric and vitiate relations with the Tamil and Muslim minorities. Fonseka said that he strongly believed that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese,but there are minority communities and we treat them like our people. They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to,under the pretext of being a minority,demand undue things. While Rajapakse has toned down his speeches and is fashioning an image for himself representing all groups,his administrations deeds in incarcerating Tamils from the north in makeshift camps point in the same direction as Fonsekas words.
An alternative scenario is that the two competitors will try to outdo each other in their support for democracy and human rights. Ironically,Fonsekas recent speeches have focused on human rights,though he himself is under international scrutiny for human rights abuses. This scenario is in play at the moment but as the election date draws closer,the rhetoric could become more virulent.
Fonseka resigned citing loss of face because he was appointed chief of defence staff in July,an honorary position that carried no command responsibility and allowed him to act or advise only with the consent of the defence secretary,Rajapakses brother,who had served under Fonseka. Rajapakse was quick to cut the ground from under his victorious general because he did not want to encourage competitors to the presidency or encourage a Musharraf-like coup. Like Nawaz Sharif who forbade Musharrafs plane from landing in Islamabad,Rajapakse generated a scare about a coup attempt,and unlike Sharif was successful in averting the alleged or real threat. These political successes of the current president against his erstwhile commander indicate that Fonseka has an outside chance at best. But even if the general loses,his candidature has injected a crucial dose of competitive opposition to Rajapakses presidency and thus allowed elements of democracy to survive in Sri Lanka. Now,it is up to the opposition parties to sustain it.
Shankar is the author of Scaling Justice: Indias Supreme Court,Anti-Terror Laws,and Social Rights