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The landslide

Print edition : Feb 26, 2010 T+T-
in Colombo

PRESIDENT Mahinda Rajapaksa proved pundits wrong by trouncing former Army chief and the common opposition candidate, General Sarath Fonseka, by a margin of nearly 18 percentage points. The hype and hyperbole created by the political foes of Rajapaksa had convinced everyone that the general-turned-politician would unseat the incumbent President. As one commentator noted, considering pre-election prognostications by almost everyone in the punditry that the 2010 presidential election was going to be a close call, what resulted must indeed be called not a landslide, but an avalanche.

How did the situation come to such a pass? The answer perhaps lies in the wishful thinking of pundits that the people of the island nation were fed up with the so-called dynasty politics of Rajapaksa and the tales about corruption and nepotism, and were yearning for a change. But the rural voters, overwhelmingly hailing from the Sinhalese community, sealed the fate of Fonseka.

The January 26 election was described as the mother of all elections in the 62-year-old history of Sri Lanka as an independent nation. It was mainly a contest between Rajapaksa, who chose to advance the election by nearly two years, and Fonseka. Rajapaksas decision to call an early election was solely intended to reap the full benefit of his popularity as the head of the state who had provided the leadership for the comprehensive military defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). But Rajapaksa had not anticipated the rise of Fonseka as the rallying point for all his political foes, including the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA), and the high-pitched opposition campaign targeting exclusively him and his kith and kin.

The opposition parties, though they hold diametrically opposite views on virtually every contentious subject, saw the politically ambitious commander as their best bet to oust Rajapaksa. They showed little care for consequences such as the politicisation of the military and the divisions in the already polarised society in the post-poll scenario. It did not require anything more than common sense to predict that the alliance of disparate and desperate elements would fall like ninepins once the dust kicked up by the presidential election settled, and well before the parliamentary elections in April.

The irony of the President being pitted against his former Army chief apart, the presidential race was devoid of important debates. The core issues concerning the ethnic conflict were sidelined though the military defeat of the LTTE had thrown up an opportunity to refashion and stabilise the relationship between the 75 per cent Sinhalese majority and the Tamil and Muslim minorities on the basis of genuine equality and justice.

The 14-point agenda put forth by the opposition candidate was vague and full of contradictions. Fonseka could ill-afford to antagonise the main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), and the ultra-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which are poles apart in ideology.

Though Fonseka tried his best to put at rest the doubts in the minds of majority community voters, his alignment with the TNA gave room for suspicion regarding a secret pact for the re-merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The opposition attempt to sell the presidential election as a golden chance for constitutional and electoral reforms, eradicate nepotism and corruption in high places, and work for a solution to the ethnic problem was nothing short of sanctimonious humbug.

The outcome of the exercise, the first on such a scale in the post-Velupillai Prabakaran era, was of immense interest to all Sri Lanka watchers. It was considered to be the harbinger of a new political, economic and social welfare order after almost three decades of violence and terrorism. The opposition parties made the election look like a contest between Rajapaksa and the rest of the polity. The outcome, unfortunately, brought to the fore two serious fault lines in Sri Lankan society.

One, it proved once again that nothing has changed on the ground in terms of the ethnic and religious divide that characterises the basic identity of the island nation. Second, with serious implications for the medium and long term, it showcased for the first time the politicisation of the military.

A particularly unsavoury spectacle was the utter lack of grace on the part of the opposition in coming to terms with the ground realities. Almost two weeks after the election, the opposition continued to allege large-scale irregularities, particularly in the process of counting.

The opposition was reportedly even preparing to petition the Supreme Court questioning the legitimacy of the election result. Appeals from within and outside the island nation to the opposition parties, including from the United States and the European Union, which had made no secret of their desire for a regime change, to reconcile with the post-election realities have had little impact.

Part of the reason for this stubbornness is the impending parliamentary elections; they cannot concede defeat when another election is due.

It is not that the election process was not flawed. State media as well as state resources were misused. The Elections Commissioner himself alluded to these violations before declaring the winner.

But the truth is that Rajapaksa polled 1.8 million votes more than Fonseka. It is impossible for any candidate to rig the mandate of the people on such a large scale.

H.L.D. Mahindapala, an ardent supporter of Rajapaksa, pointed out in an article in Daily Mirror on February 1:

As the voting pattern of the results reveals, the battle lines were drawn distinctly between the majority and the minority. The position of the Northern Tamils was predictable. Of the minorities, it is the Muslims who went against Mahinda Rajapaksa despite the fact that his domestic and foreign policy has been very much in favour of the Muslims. Despite the two major minority groups going against Mahinda Rajapaksa, he won the day because the Sinhalese stood by him solidly.

There is certainly an expectation of stability, and President Rajapaksa needs to be humbled by this overwhelming public preference for him and to temper his second term with proactive acts of good governance and accommodation of the minorities and dissenting points of view. The absence of these were the negative aspects of his first term, which was marked by his resounding victory in the war, the reason why the Sinhalese-dominated areas voted for him overwhelmingly.

It is a fact that most of those who would have perhaps voted for the retired general did not bother to do so. For instance, of the 988,334 registered voters in the Northern Province, only 292,812 exercised their franchise. Jaffna district has 721,359 registered voters but only 185,132 voted; and of the 266,975 eligible voters in Vanni district only 107,680 voted.

Both districts in the Northern Province were won by Fonseka, who polled 184,244 votes, while Rajapaksa received 72,894 votes. Forty per cent of the Vanni voters cast their votes, while in Jaffna only 25.66 per cent voted.

Of 45,542 displaced voters in the North, only 25,541 exercised their franchise; of them 16,614 voted for Fonseka. Independent candidate M. K. Sivajilingam received 3,754 votes in the Northern Province.

On the electoral outcome, Sri Lanka expert S.D. Muni writes:

What basically carried him [Rajapaksa] through this gamble were his determination to militarily eliminate the LTTE and his control over the state apparatus. The war on the LTTE was fought under his leadership against heavy odds and international pressures. His campaign effectively drove home the point that despite his opponent and erstwhile Army Chief Gen. Sarath Fonsekas claims for an equal share in crushing the LTTE, victory primarily belonged to him. In democracies, critical initiatives are the territory of the political leadership, not of the army generals or bureaucrats. The Tamil voters also seem to have endorsed this point, though negatively, by impressively voting against him in the LTTE-dominated North and East regions.

President Rajapaksas incumbency gave him the critical control over the official machinery.

The January 28 editorial of The Hindu best articulated the significance of the election. It read:

Mahinda Rajapaksas victory in Sri Lankas presidential election has exceeded all expectations, including the most optimistic projections made within the Presidents camp on the basis of hard-nosed pre-election opinion polls. The 17.73 percentage point margin of win is a reaffirmation of the maturity and good sense of ordinary voters who, given a choice between an experienced political leader in the saddle and an unpredictable adventurer sponsored by an unnatural combination of political irreconcilables, made it a virtual no-contest at the national level. The divergence in the voting behaviour of the Tamil minority and the Sinhala majority was as striking as it was expected; in turnout as well as choice of candidate, they behaved as polar opposites. This gives us a measure of the trust gap in the polity that needs to be bridged if Sri Lanka is to do well in future.

politics in the island can return to a more normal state ahead of parliamentary elections, which are due in April 2010. The hope is that the campaigning will be on real issues, most importantly, a just and sustainable political solution to the Tamil question based on genuine devolution of power within a united Sri Lanka, and revitalisation and development of the war-ravaged areas of the North.