Sri Lanka Post Elections
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
Sri Lanka post elections
On 8 April Sri Lankans went to the polls to elect a new parliament. This was the first general election since the defeat of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in May last year and the first in almost 30 years which covered the whole nation.
It was a resounding victory, in seats, for the governing coalition headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The UPFA (United People’s Freedom Alliance) won 144 seats; the main opposition coalition the UNF (United National Front) 46; the DNA (Democratic National Alliance) consisting of a rump of the Marxist JVP (People’s Liberation Front) and supporters of retired General Sarath Fonseka, won five seats. Fonseka, who lost the presidential election in January and is now imprisoned and awaiting court martial on charges of fraudulent activities while Army Commander, won a seat in a Colombo ward.
Serge Halimi wrote in the January issue of Le Monde diplomatique: “Political combat sometimes stresses personal antagonisms and obsessive antipathies too much. The need for an all-out attack on an opponent makes for diverse alliances motivated solely by the desire to destroy the common enemy. But once that enemy has been brought down, the problems begin. What next? To make political decisions, the grey areas which in opposition had made an alliance possible have to be dispelled, and that brings disenchantment.” In this case the opponent was not brought down but disenchantment followed anyway.
I am not a great fan of counterfactual history but I would speculate that a military coup would have been possible if Fonseka had won the presidency. The coalition that supported his candidacy was fragile, its only unifying factor hatred of Rajapaksa. Fonseka’s intervention in politics has had the effect of weakening the opposition still further. The main opposition party, the UNP is dead in the water with its leader, Ranil Wickramesinghe, the butt of jokes. One of the kindest comments was that he is “personally hapless”. He gained 230,000 votes and a seat in Colombo but a former JVP man, Wimal Weerawansa, won more preferential votes (280,000).
The revolutionary JVP recovered from defeat (by torture and death squads) in 1989 to become a constitutional party that earned respect in many quarters for its grassroots approach to the problems of ordinary Sinhalese, and was seen as free of corruption. The JVP once had a say in government but joining Fonseka in his DNA party has lost them their previously solid bases: JVP activists are giving up politics and even leaving the country, and the party’s 39 seats in the previous parliament has been slashed to three.
The UNF tried to woo the minorities but failed. The Tamil National Alliance has transformed itself into ITKA (Illanka Thamil Arasu Katchi) and won only 15 seats, compared with the TNA’s 22 in the previous house. The governing UPFA won Nuwara Eliya, with its large population of plantation Tamils, from the UNF and the district now has seven Tamil MPs. Another district with a large population of plantation Tamils, Badulla, did not elect a single Tamil MP. There are signs that the dominant UPFA will become a national party with serious clout in the Tamil-majority areas of the north and east and that ITAK will decline without the LTTE’s muscle. The UPFA will probably extend its influence in the north through its ability to fund development and provide jobs and patronage.
There was a record number of candidates, but voting itself was lower than it had ever been. Sri Lanka has usually boasted a healthy turnout compared to most democracies – around 75%. Even during the times of the 1989 uprising (when the JVP were killing people who tried to vote and putting their heads on spikes), the turnout was 63%. This time it was around 50% and in the north it was a mere 23%.
The establishment of a Rajapaksa dynasty may be a matter of concern to commentators but it doesn’t seem to trouble the voters: Mahinda Rajapaksa got 60% of the vote in the presidential election. And in the general election, brother Basil got an astounding 425,861 preference votes. Three Rajapaksas were elected in Hambantota district. Rajapaksa has promised to abolish the executive presidency. Constitutional changes require a two-thirds vote in parliament. This has generally been thought impossible under proportional representation but Rajapaksa has almost achieved the requisite number of seats and has shown his skill in the past at forging coalitions and inducing crossovers. Some suspect that Rajapaksa wants to make constitutional changes because he is plotting a Putinesque ploy to become executive prime minister in perpetuity.
Many believe that devolution of power is essential to prevent further separatist revolts The 13th amendment to the constitution has been seen as the way forward on this but it has been in abeyance for some time. It was imposed by India, which is still promoting it. Not everyone, Tamil or Sinhalese, agrees that it is the panacea.
The 17th amendment has also been in abeyance. It was drafted to provide safeguards for human rights and curbs on police powers. Linked in with this are concerns about press freedom and corruption. Unemployment, youth and graduate dissatisfaction led to bloody revolutions in the past and the education system is felt by many to be in need of reform. A huge task faces the government if it is to reintegrate the north and east into the national economy.
Rajapaksa did not win the presidency easily in 2005 but now the nation seems transformed in his image. He has played a canny political game and people from a wide spectrum are grateful to him because, after 30 years of vicious war, there have been no terrorist incidents for over a year. Does he have the ability to now unite the nation and improve the economy?