THE 10-party United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) led by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa scored a spectacular victory in the parliamentary elections held in Sri Lanka on April 8. With a projected 143-seat count in a 225-member House, the group is merely seven short of a two-thirds majority. The elections, the first to be held after the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the death of its leader Velupillai Prabakaran in May 2009, saw a low voter turnout: tentative estimates of the votes polled vary between 52 and 56 per cent.
Significantly, these are the first elections since 1978, when the Constitution was amended and the proportional representation system was introduced, in which an alliance has not only won a clear majority but come close to the two-thirds majority required for passing amendments to the Constitution. There is a distinct possibility of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the main constituent of the UPFA, getting a simple majority in Parliament on its own.
A UPFA victory, although not its magnitude, was anticipated, particularly after the Rajapaksa landslide in the presidential election against the combined opposition nominee and former Army chief, General Sarath Fonseka. The President got an endorsement for a second term in office with an impressive margin of nearly 18 percentage points over the commander-turned-politician in the January 26 vote.
The re-election of the UPFA shows that there has been no change in the ground situation since the presidential election. The pattern of voting in the two elections, held within a span of three months, is almost the same. The increased margins recorded by the UPFA nominees came as no surprise as the opposition was a divided house. In the presidential election, the entire opposition rallied behind Fonseka. However, in the parliamentary elections the opposition was divided into at least three groups.
One of the groups was led by the main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP) under the leadership of former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The second, the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), of which the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) is the main constituent, was in the fray under the leadership of Fonseka, who is under military detention, facing court martial on a number of charges. The arrest of Fonseka was the main campaign theme of the DNA. The sympathy factor apparently helped it win six seats and a seat for the general from Colombo district.
The third group, the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA), was mainly confined to the provinces of the North and East. With a projected seat share of 16, compared with 22 in the dissolved Parliament, the TNAs performance is considered extremely good. The emergence of the TNA as a major political player is a commentary in itself.
Although the military might of the LTTE is a thing of the past and Prabakaran is no longer on the scene, Tamils in the two provinces have clearly demonstrated through the ballot that they will pitch for the party that articulates their legitimate grievances.
Therein lies the challenge and opportunity for Rajapaksa. The military decimation of the LTTE and a much-weakened opposition do not mean that the reasons that gave birth to Tamil separatism and militancy have disappeared. The ruling combine will have to reach out to every section of the nation in general and the Tamils in particular to find a solution to the real and perceived grievances of the minorities if it intends to place the much-needed development on top of the nations agenda.
Much of the energies and attention of Rajapaksas first term as President, which is to end in November 2010, have understandably been spent in fighting the protracted war against the LTTE and re-settling and rehabilitating the nearly three lakh war-displaced people in the North. Besides, his combine did not have the necessary numbers to muster the required two-thirds majority in Parliament to push through constitutional amendments to find a pragmatic political solution to the ethnic strife.
However, seven months ahead of his second tenure, Rajapaksa is armed with all the necessary political instruments to make a serious effort at working out a national consensus on a whole range of issues undermining developmental efforts, including national reconciliation through a power-sharing arrangement among all communities and the much-debated political reforms, including a possible switch from the present executive presidency to a parliamentary form of democracy akin to Indias.
Rajapaksa and his managers can no longer fall back on the argument of lack of numbers in Parliament. A two-thirds majority is his for the asking, particularly for a skilled politician like him who managed to convert his minority grouping in the dissolved Parliament into a comfortable majority through defections from the opposition ranks.
The TNA has already hinted that it is more than willing to cooperate with the government if the latter shows the necessary political will and understanding to reach out to the Tamil people. The TNA is in a position to provide the numbers to the ruling combine for making the necessary constitutional changes.
On the face of it, there are a few obstacles, but they are certainly not insurmountable if there is sincerity on both sides. For instance, the insistence of the TNA on a re-merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces is a hitch.
But there is no reason to presume that the TNA will remain adamant on this if the political package the President and his combine have in mind is attractive enough. If both the UPFA and the TNA are serious in getting at the bottom of the ethnic strife that has been the bane of the island for nearly three decades, the outcome of the general elections leaves them with little option but to cooperate.
The immediate response of the President to the outcome is encouraging. Rajapaksa said: The assured majority in Parliament given by the voters encourages the government to proceed with its policies for the strengthening of peace and reconciliation, reconstruction, greater infrastructure development, increased investment in identified areas of growth, and the overall development of the country to make it the centre of economic and social progress in South Asia.
These results, coming after the successful elections to Provincial Councils and the presidential election, are proof that democracy is fully in place in Sri Lanka and the commitment of our people to the democratic process.
Maithripala Sirisena, SLFP general secretary, has gone one step further and appealed to all parties to rise above partisan lines and cooperate with the government in fulfilling its development agenda. While the appeal gives an impression of being an invitation for a national government, such a grand gesture is perhaps too much to expect in a country where the two mainstream political parties have practised politics of opportunism with a vengeance.
Against this background, it remains to be seen how the President will win the faith of the likes of the TNA in the coming months and years.
The peculiar logic and reasoning provided by Ranil Wickremesinghe, who led the UNF to its worst drubbing, clearly shows that the main opposition has not learnt any lessons from the electoral reverses it has suffered in recent years.
Wickremesinghe argued that the decision of nearly 45 per cent of the electorate not to vote was a clear reflection of the peoples disillusionment with the electoral system, and that the failure of his combine to capture a decent number of seats in the new Parliament was no reflection on his leadership. He conveniently chose to remain silent on the question of why he should be part of a Parliament with which people are disillusioned, and that too as the Leader of the Opposition.
Moreover, the electoral system he is presumably referring to is the creation of his own party and has been in place since 1978 despite the all-round consensus that the executive presidency is at the root of some of the serious problems afflicting Sri Lanka. It is the same system that facilitated him to the office of Prime Minister from 2002 to 2004 and that of the Leader of the Opposition several times.
The UNP leader cannot escape responsibility for the dismal performance of his party in the parliamentary elections. He chose to back a complete novice like Fonseka in the presidential election and thus, for the first time in the partys history, allowed a political non-entity to be in the limelight, for temporary gains. The only reason for the move was that Wickremesinghe did not want to risk facing defeat at the hands of Rajapaksa a second time in the presidential race.
But, the incidental consequences of this were felt on the parliamentary elections.
It is the legitimacy provided by the UNP that pitch-forked Fonseka centre stage, and a desperate JVP was more than willing to elevate him to the leadership of the third front, in the hope of cashing in on his name, particularly after his arrest.
Fonseka, along with the JVP, did more damage to the UNP than to the UPFA. This was evident in the decision of the general to contest from the urban Colombo constituency rather than his hometown, Ambalangoda, in the South.
Wickremesinghe has claimed that the outcome of the parliamentary elections is not a mandate for the UPFA to effect constitutional reforms or other changes. This statement cannot get more ironical, for in the run-up to the presidential election, Wickremesinghe and others focussed on the urgent need for constitutional reforms.
A great deal of debate has been going on within and outside the nation on the lowest voter turnout and the reasons for it. True, it was the dullest election in the history of the country, but that need not necessarily reflect the voters disillusionment with democracy. After all, there was a 75 per cent turnout for the hotly contested presidential election in January. Nothing earth-shaking has happened in the past few weeks for such a dramatic transformation in the mood of the voters.
There are a number of reasons for the voter apathy. First and foremost, for right and wrong reasons the presidential election is the most important electoral battle in Sri Lanka as the 1978 Constitution makes the presidency an all-powerful institution. It would have been a cause for concern had the voters stayed away on January 26.
After the decisive victory of Rajapaksa, an impression gained ground that the ruling combine was all set to storm back to power, and so the parliamentary elections were deemed to be a non-contest. The perception got reinforced in the wake of the failure of the opposition to stay united and come forward with a credible agenda.
Just a couple of months ago, the entire opposition screamed from every available podium that Fonseka was the best qualified to be the President to deliver the nation from all its problems. Two months later, the voters had to reconcile to the logic that while Fonseka might have been the best bet for the job of President, he was not the ideal choice for prime ministership.
Another reason for voter apathy could be election fatigue. Since May 2008, when the first election was held to the Eastern Provincial Council, the country has witnessed elections in every nook and corner barring the war-torn North. And there was the presidential election, billed as the mother of all elections.