Ending a controversy

Print edition : September 23, 2005

The Sri Lankan Supreme Court rules that President Chandrika Kumaratunga's tenure ends in December this year and sets in motion the process to hold the next presidential election.

V.S. SAMBANDAN in Colombo

President Chandrika Kumaratunga.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

ENDING a phase of political uncertainty, the Sri Lankan Supreme Court on August 26 ordered the holding of the next presidential election later this year. A five-member Bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva, in a unanimous verdict, ruled that Chandrika Kumaratunga's second - and final - term as President would end on December 22, 2005 (six years after she was "declared elected"), thereby stemming the controversy over the period of her tenure and setting in motion the electoral process.

In the run-up to the election, a range of situations that have a direct bearing on the island-nation's conflict resolution process are expected to emerge as the bitterly divided political groups make known their alliances and positions. On test will be a key unfinished agenda of the 11-year rule of Chandrika Kumaratunga - a move away from the unitary state as the template for conflict resolution.

The spotlight would now turn on the key presidential contestants - Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP). Also in focus will be the two extremes of the polity - the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), unwavering in its blood-splattered secessionist aims, and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which took to the parliamentary path after two failed insurrections.

In a marked change from convention, Chandrika Kumaratunga advocated the theory that in a multi-ethnic and bilingual Sri Lanka, a move away from a centrist and unitary state was essential. This deviation from the previous approaches by the state threw a direct challenge to the Tamils' separatist mode.

As the Anglican Bishop Duleep de Chickera said in his memorial service in Colombo for the slain Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, there are three broad historical paths adopted to solve the ethnic conflict - assimilation, annihilation and separation.

Chandrika Kumaratunga's 1994 paradigm of a "Union of Regions" was aimed at providing a way out: political coexistence not just between the Sinhala and Tamil linguistic groups but also among the diverse ethnic identities such as Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim.

That task remains unfinished, and how it will be taken forward or abandoned will depend on how far the SLFP and the UNP stick to this path.

In 1999, when Chandrika Kumaratunga was in the fifth year of her first six-year term, she called for an early presidential poll. The setting then was the military reversals suffered by the government forces in the long-drawn-out Operation Jeyasikuru (Victory Assured). The "war for peace", aimed at weakening the LTTE militarily and forcing it to the negotiating table, had begun to falter.

Politically, however, Chandrika Kumaratunga's People's Alliance (P.A.) had registered a string of victories in the Provincial Council polls across the island, except in the North-Eastern Province, where elections have not been held since the withdrawal of the Indian Peace-keeping Force in the late 1980s.

Rather than wait for the term to end, the President opted for an early election, propelled by the political factors prevailing at that time, mainly the electoral ebb reached by Wickremesinghe, who was her main presidential opponent.

On December 18, 1999, the last day of the presidential poll campaign, Chandrika Kumaratunga survived an LTTE suicide-bomb attack and went on to win a second term. On December 22, 1999, she was sworn in President for a second term.

Presidential candidate and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse of the SLFP.-GEMUNU AMARASINGHE/AP

Early last year, Chandrika Kumaratunga said she had a second "secret swearing-in" in November 2000, to mark the commencement of her second six-year term and hence would be entitled to hold the presidency until 2006. For much of last year, political debates in the country centred on when her term would end. To a large extent, this issue had even overtaken other important matters such as the stalled peace talks and the post-tsunami reconstruction activities.

While the President and her Ministers insisted that the term would end only in 2006, the UNP protested. In July, UNP leaders undertook a long march from Dondra, at the tip of southern Sri Lanka, to Colombo, demanding that the presidential poll be held in 2005 itself.

In early August, the President sought the Supreme Court's determination on the issue. This was followed by a fundamental rights case, filed by the all-Buddhist-clergy, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), seeking a binding verdict.

A broad-brush view of the political parties and their politico-economic positions is essential to know the implications of the ruling for the course the country has set for itself. Since 1994, both the SLFP and the UNP have witnessed several changes. Leadership change in both parties, which brought in Chandrika Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe, also meant that there was scope for accepting the paradigm shift from the unitary state.

The fundamental change brought about by Chandrika Kumaratunga to the SLFP was that she changed its image of a unitarist, majoritarian-driven party, which had introduced the unilingual `Sinhala Only' policy, and set it on a course for greater devolution of powers.

The SLFP, which in pre-Kumaratunga days had opposed the India-backed solution to the conflict, went several steps more than the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in the devolution of powers in the post-Kumaratunga phase. The coming days will be crucial to know whether the SLFP will continue in this mode or lapse into the pre-Kumaratunga days.

The UNP, for its part, has also moved away from the unitary framework, and the high point of this shift was its negotiating team agreeing to explore "federal models" in December 2002 as a way out of the separatist crisis.

The JVP, which opposed India's "intervention" and resorted to violence during the first Provincial Council polls, held in the late 1980s, is today a complete political entity that endorses the Provincial Councils and wants the active involvement of India. It, however, remains steadfastly unitarist and is not for devolution of powers.

As the President is elected by an island-wide vote, the minorities will constitute a significant factor in the electoral outcome.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has emerged as the parliamentary voice of the Tigers and appears set to follow the LTTE line. The Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), a faction of the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front - Padmanabha (EPRLF-Padmanabha), the Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) led by the former eastern special commander of the LTTE, V. Muralitharan (`Col.' Karuna), and the president of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), V. Anandasangaree, are pro-devolution and anti-LTTE. However, their ability to mobilise the Tamil vote, particularly in the rebel-held northern and eastern Sri Lanka, is doubtful.

Significantly, the presidential poll will also put to test the ability of the LTTE to sway the Tamil vote after the rebellion by `Col.' Karuna.

The setting for the December poll, therefore, is not as simple as it was in 1994, when Chandrika Kumaratunga secured a landslide victory.

Nagging issues such as the possibility of another snap parliamentary election, a possible realignment of the SLFP and its former ruling ally, the JVP, the hardening of positions by the LTTE, and the manner in which Muslim parties and the Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC) position themselves are likely to come centre stage.

However, it is time for Sri Lanka's political leadership to grapple with hard facts. At the national level, the single largest issue facing political leaders is conflict resolution. Interlocked with this are key concepts such as the role chosen for the LTTE and the nature of the unitary state in a post-conflict resolution scenario.

The LTTE's track record of striking during election time, as in 1994 and 1999, does not rule out the possibility of yet another blood-splattered election campaign.

Presidential candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe of the UNP.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

A beginning of a polarisation of sorts is on the cards with strands of opinion emerging on how the talks should be held with the LTTE - if at all they are held - and whether a move away from the unitary state is required to end the conflict.

At a broad level, Chandrika Kumaratunga's idea is that the talks should focus on the core issues of the conflict and any interim solution should be linked to the final outcome, which would be a move away from the unitary state. If the SLFP and the JVP strike an alliance (on August 29, the JVP offered its conditional support to Mahinda Rajapakse), this concept would come under test.

This position, that the conflict should be sorted out, contrasts with the UNP's thinking that the secessionists require management and working with, in a manner in which the LTTE could be mainstreamed. A commonality between the two main parties is that they largely endorse a move away from the unitary polity for conflict resolution.

A third strand of thought is articulated by the JVP and the JHU. These two parties oppose any talks with the Tigers, particularly after the assassination of Kadirgamar, and see parleys with the rebels as a trap best avoided by the Sri Lankan state.

Simple though it may appear, this line-up does not in any way mean that the SLFP and the UNP would make common cause, based on their non-unitary outlook. Nor have the JVP and the JHU shown any indications of coming together.

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