For a winning formula

Published : Nov 04, 2005 00:00 IST

Federalism fades away from the political debate and economics and emotional politics come to the fore as the fifth Sri Lankan presidential election enters the campaign phase.

V.S. SAMBANDAN in Colombo

THERE were 13 candidates for Sri Lanka's fifth presidential election when the filing of nominations closed on October 7. The main contest, however, in the November 17 election will be between Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Leader of the Opposition and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP).

Rajapakse has struck deals with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), both of which are strongly opposed to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and want the unitary character of the Sri Lankan state to be preserved. On October 5, the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) announced their support for Wickremesinghe. The SLMC and the CWC, representing the interests of Muslims and plantation Tamils respectively, are key minority parties that have influenced past elections. Together they have a potential support base of about one million in the 14-million-strong electorate.

Over the decades, the CWC and the SLMC have emerged as key players in Sri Lanka's presidential and parliamentary polls. As the directly elected executive President should win more than 50 per cent of the valid votes polled to get elected, the votes of the minorities are crucial in deciding the outcome. The proportional representation system makes the minority parties significant power blocs in parliamentary elections.

Rauff Hakeem, SLMC leader, said Rajapakse's deal with the JVP and the JHU marked a shift from the ruling SLFP's policies on conflict resolution. "The moderation of the SLFP has been compromised," he said. Describing the agreements reached by the Prime Minister to protect the unitary state as a "totally obnoxious position", Hakeem said: "It is a very retrogressive measure to go back to such an emotional platform." Calling for "peace with dignity" for the Muslim community, the SLMC leader said: "We also have to give a reasonable chance to engage in the peace process."

The support by the CWC and the SLMC to Wickremesinghe has accentuated the polarisation in Sri Lanka's bitterly divisive politics. The presidential election is likely to become a head-to-head battle between the unitarist and non-unitarist camps and, more seriously, the majoritarian and inclusive camps.

Meanwhile, on September 27, Wickremesinghe released his manifesto for the presidential election. A key subtext in the manifesto is that it factors in the 2004 defeat of the UNP in the parliamentary polls, when the party was voted out of power. In addition to the electoral arithmetic of a combined SLFP-JVP line-up in 2004, the UNP had to contend with rising costs of living and popular discontent that its administration was conceding too much to the LTTE in the peace negotiations.

In contrast, the UNP's 2005 manifesto has swung to the populist mode. In what Wickremesinghe described as a "people's agenda", he promised to create more jobs, increase rural assistance, rein in prices, and double incomes "in less than 10 years". The manifesto stressed the need to "defeat separatism", a clear response to political criticism in the run-up to the 2004 election that Wickremesinghe's negotiations were leading to a "separation of the island". He promised a "permanent resolution" to the ethnic conflict "though a political solution based on a united Sri Lanka".

The most striking feature of Wickremesinghe's manifesto is that there is no direct mention of the term "federalism", which had occupied much of the political discourse for the past decade. The fading of federalism from the political discourse could be traced to the SLFP-JVP-JHU pact in which Rajapakse has promised to preserve, protect and defend the unitary state. Although the manifesto does not talk about federalism, an indirect reference to it comes in its mention of the 2002 Oslo communique, under which Colombo and the LTTE agreed to "explore" federal models to find a solution within a united Sri Lanka, and the 2003 Tokyo declaration which emphasised issues relating to human rights in conflict resolution. Wickremesinghe also sought the popular mandate to "discuss and reach a consensus" with the SLFP.

"I deliver on what I say," Wickremesinghe told a media conference after releasing the manifesto. Referring to his main opponent, he said: "They were there for 18 months, problems were not solved. If you cannot solve it in 18 months, you cannot solve it in 18 years." He promised to set up a "separate ministry" to deal with the problems of the war-displaced people in the north and the east. He "guaranteed the security and protection of the Eastern province" and "representation in the peace talks" to the Muslim community.

The UNP proposed to draw up a 10-year defence plan and build an armed force equipped with modern weapons. On economic affairs, Wickremesinghe promised to make Sri Lanka the "commercial hub of the Indian Ocean", his party staying the course in an open economy.

The Rajapakse camp had not released its manifesto at the time of going to press. Differences between President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who is also the SLFP leader, and Rajapakse's supporters on the commitment made by the Prime Minister to a "unitary" state is the widely attributed reason for the delay in releasing the manifesto. Moreover, as Chandrika Kumaratunga continues to have the potential to swing the popular vote, how Rajapakse's campaign shapes would depend on the actions to be taken by the President.

SRI LANKA'S powerful executive President is elected in an island-wide vote. In addition to being the head of the state and the armed forces, the President is the head of the government and the Cabinet and has powers to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament. The only restraint on the President's power to dissolve Parliament is that it cannot be done within a year of a parliamentary election.

The most recent interpretation of the Constitution, which further empowered the President, is that the Defence portfolio is "inalienable" and hence it could not be parted with even if the incumbent wants to do so. Although the 2003 interpretation was made against the political backdrop of a bitter cohabitation struggle between President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe, then Prime Minister, its effect on the polity was that any subsequent President would also be the Defence Minister of the island-nation.

This vast nature of presidential powers and the several problems faced by contemporary Sri Lanka make the coming election crucial in deciding the path to be taken by the island-nation. Given the sharply contrasting line-ups formed by the two major candidates, a significant result of the election result will be the message it sends out on the political and economic nature of tomorrow's Sri Lanka.

A cursory study of past presidential elections and the policy changes that followed on political and economic issues shows the evolutionary path taken by the Sri Lankan state since the introduction of Executive Presidency in 1977.

It shows the broad patterns of governance of the two major parties, the SLFP and the UNP, in the manner in which they addressed the twin issues of politics and economics.

When the executive presidency was introduced, Sri Lanka's separatist conflict was very much within the political realm, with the phase of militancy yet to begin. Economically, it was a nation that had embarked, along with the times, on a socialist path. However, it was precisely the ill-implementation and politico-administrative misinterpretation of the socialist vision that created popular disgruntlement.

Elected on a massive mandate, the then Prime Minister and architect of Sri Lanka's present Constitution, J.R. Jayawardene, changed the political and economic vitals of the island-nation. A Westminster system was replaced by a Gaullist presidency, the first-past-the-post electoral system was converted into one of proportional representation, and the socialist state was replaced by a "liberal" free market economy.

The net effects of the constitutional changes are several and have been reflected in the outcome of the past elections. One premise has been that a directly elected President could not run the risk of alienating the minorities in the multi-ethnic state where the Sinhalese constitute the majority (76.59 per cent), followed by Sri Lankan Tamils (10.96 per cent), Muslims (9.18 per cent), and Tamils of Indian origin (1.16 per cent). This, coupled with the President's vast executive and proclamation powers, was perhaps intended to bring in legislative and administrative measures that could ensure that the simmering separatist tension would not boil over and the socialist economy would be accelerated along the free-market path. Hence the views of the President on the twin issues of conflict resolution and the economy are critical.

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