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Growing strains

Print edition : Nov 20, 2009 T+T-
President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Chief of Defence Staff Sarath Fonseka (left) look at weapons captured from the LTTE, at the Sri Lanka Armys 60th anniversary celebrations in Colombo on October 3.-LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP

President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Chief of Defence Staff Sarath Fonseka (left) look at weapons captured from the LTTE, at the Sri Lanka Armys 60th anniversary celebrations in Colombo on October 3.-LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP

AS Sri Lanka awaits an announcement from its President Mahinda Rajapaksa regarding the 2010 general elections and a possible presidential election at the convention of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) on November 15, bizarre events have began to unfold in the island nation.

For all practical purposes, Eelam War IV (August 2006-May 2009) might be over with the death of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabakaran. But an informal, no-holds-barred battle has broken out among those who spearheaded the fight against the Tigers. At the heart of it is a debate on who should share the credit for the military defeat of the LTTE, an event that will certainly influence in a big way the outcomes of the two mega elections in the offing.

The central characters in the unfolding drama are none other than the President, who is the Supreme Commander of the Sri Lanka Armed Forces, and the Army chief, General Sarath Fonseka, who was in the forefront of the war. Adding spice to the show is Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva, who retired from office in the first week of June.

The local media are full of news and views on the subject but skip the fundamental question whether it is permissible under the law for a serving military officer and the longest-serving Chief Justice (he demitted office less than five months ago) to jump into the political arena. The only exception was a news nugget in a local daily to the effect that President Rajapaksa had sought the opinion of the Attorney General in the matter of Gen. Fonseka.

The drama began in the first week of July after The Hindu published a three-part interview with Rajapaksa, who for the first time declared that he would seek re-election as President before the parliamentary elections. Under the Sri Lankan Constitution, the President is empowered to call a presidential election once he/she completes four years of the six-year tenure. Rajapaksa will complete four years in office in the third week of November. However, there is a difference of opinion about whether Rajapaksa, in the event of a re-election, can defer taking the oath of office until the end of his first term in November 2011. Observers are of the view that Rajapaksa wants an early second term as his popularity ratings in the south are high after the military defeat of the LTTE and the death of Prabakaran in May.

Managers in the Presidents camp believe that if Rajapaksa is re-elected, he will have a firmer grip on ruling party candidates for the parliamentary elections and will be better placed to seek a clear majority for the alliance led by him in the new House. If the ruling combine musters a two-thirds majority in the new Parliament, the President can push through amendments to the Constitution. On the top of his political agenda, like that of all his predecessors, is a switch from executive presidency to executive prime ministership under the parliamentary form of democracy.

Given the consensus within and outside Sri Lanka that the Constitution as amended by former President J.R. Jayewardene, and a President with sweeping powers are at the root of most of the problems of the island nation, the intentions of Rajapaksa are noble. However, there is a hidden agenda here a switch-over to parliamentary democracy would free Rajapaksa from the bar of ineligibility to seek a third term to the office of President and he can hope to rule as Prime Minister for as long as he has the backing of the electorate.

But, what has all this got to do with the two Saraths? For reasons that are not public knowledge, tension was brewing between the offices of the President and the Chief Justice, and this went on for several months before the latters retirement in June. Sources close to Justice Sarath N. Silva told Frontline that the legal luminary felt slighted over some of the actions of the President and if there was a consensus among Opposition political parties, he could consider running for the office of President to serve the people of the country he loves.

As for Fonseka, it appears to be a case of communication gap between the office of the President and the office of the Army chief. The misunderstanding apparently began sometime in the last phase of Eelam War IV. Thanks to some of the intermediaries from both sides, the misapprehension is only getting worse. Perhaps Fonseka is a victim of speculations over his political ambitions as well as the role he envisages for the military in reshaping Sri Lanka in the post-Prabakaran era.

The first signs of unease in government circles over Fonseka became evident in the last week of June when a Bill was hastily moved to institutionalise the office of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). Until Parliament enacted the CDS Bill, the post was held by an officer who was ninth in the military hierarchy. In a deft move that took everyone by surprise, Rajapaksa elevated Fonseka to the position of CDS in recognition of his valuable contribution in winning Eelam War IV.

Going by the accounts of representatives of various parties, who have been openly talking about the possibility of Fonseka joining the presidental race, the general was not elated at the elevation. His statement, in the course of an interview, on the need to augment the forces by another 100,000 soldiers soon after the victory over the LTTE has only reinforced suspicions in the presidential camp about his motives.

Neither side appears to be ready to talk peace. On October 23, a statement from the military spokesperson, Brigadier Udaya Nayyanakara, read thus:

It has already been observed that certain individuals who intend to engage in political work continue to use names of serving senior Army Officers for baseless reports in some print media reports and websites. Officers serving the Army are completely barred from political work, and use of their names for personal political gains and agendas for such wrong reports is therefore illegal and liable for prosecution.

Fonseka is currently on a private tour to the U.S. and is expected to return in the last week of October. Other than stating that his obligations towards the military are over and that he has now reached newer heights, he has scrupulously avoided making any comment on the statements by some Opposition leaders about his possible candidature for President. At the same time, he has not made any categorical denial in public.

In an analytical report titled Importance of being Fonseka, Col. (retd.) R. Hariharan says: In the progressively marginalised General Fonseka, the two major Opposition parties the United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) see a potential Opposition candidate who can give a run for the money in the presidential poll.

In the Oppositions political calculus, probably only General Fonseka has a chance of redeeming their reputation as he has a nationwide appeal. The JVP has spoken of its readiness to back General Fonseka to contest the presidential poll. Media reports indicate the UNP backroom politicians are working overtime to convince the reluctant general to join the presidential race. However, the general has to agree to be pitted against Rajapaksa as [the] Opposition candidate. It is not going to be an easy decision to make. It is going to challenge his strategic acumen, so effective in battlefields, in the political arena that is an entirely different ball game.

Despite the generals immense popularity, there are some difficulties in projecting him as an alternative to Rajapaksa. A section of the Tamil parties have already expressed their opposition to the candidature of Fonseka. The main Opposition party, the UNP, is also a divided house on the issue. In these circumstances, Rajapaksa seems to be having an edge over his possible competitors at the moment.