A narrow victory

Print edition : December 16, 2005

Mahinda Rajapakse wins the hard-fought presidential election in Sri Lanka mainly owing to a polarised electorate and a boycott by Tamil voters in the northeastern electoral districts.

V.S. SAMBANDAN in Colombo

President Mahinda Rajapaksa.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

"Political power is not a privilege but only a temporary trust. I am not the master but the trustee of the country."

- Mahinda Rajapakse, Sri Lanka's fifth Executive President, in his first presidential address on November 19.

ON November 18, Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse could not have received a better birthday gift on turning 60 than being declared elected the island-nation's fifth Executive President. Jubilant supporters burst firecrackers and welcomed him as he arrived at the office of the Commissioner of Elections to receive the result. Small groups of party supporters who had gathered at street corners broke into spontaneous celebration.

The presidential election was held on November 17. Voting took place in 10,486 polling stations spread across 160 polling divisions in 22 electoral constituencies and recorded a 73.74 per cent voter turnout. Rajapakse was among 13 candidates who contested the election. The poll was marred by a near-total "boycott" by voters in the Tamil-majority northeastern districts.

After a five-week, hard-fought campaign, Rajapakse elbowed out his main opponent, Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party (UNP), to clinch the presidency. The verdict, which was given by an electorate that was polarised along ethnic, religious and political lines, was the closest in the history of the country's presidential elections.

The voting pattern was discernible weeks before the polling date. The polarisation, which was evident soon after Rajapakse signed poll pacts with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), unfolded rapidly and a clear pattern began to emerge in all the electoral districts. Rajapakse's poll alliance had two implications for the future of the Sri Lankan state. First is his promise to the two parties to preserve the unitary nature of the state in a clear reversal of the policies set by his predecessor, President Chandrika Kumaratunga. This led to the first element of polarisation - the division between the unitarist electorate (comprising nearly half the Sinhalese votes) and the federalists (comprising the minority Tamils and Muslims and another half of the Sinhalese votes).

The second element was the outcome of the tie-up with the JHU, which had introduced an anti-conversion Bill in Parliament to prevent "unethical conversions". This resulted in the alienation of Sinhalese Christians who account for a small segment of the Sinhalese vote.

More than anything else, it was the polarised electorate that gave rise to the dominant view during the run-up to the election that it would be a close finish. Added to this was the uncertainty of the northeastern vote, which was seen as pro-Ranil Wickremesinghe.

In the event, Rajapakse and Wickremesinghe won 11 each of the 22 electoral districts. Rajapakse, backed by the unitarists, won in the Sinhala districts, while Wickremesinghe, backed by the federalists, won in districts in which the minority ethnic communities were in large numbers or in those that had a mix of the three main ethnicities - Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim.

Of the 13,327,160 registered voters, Rajapakse polled 4,887,152 votes and Wickremesinghe 4,706,366. Rajapakse secured 50.29 per cent of the valid votes cast, crossing the legally required 50 per cent mark by a margin of 28,632 votes. Wickremesinghe polled 48.43 per cent. Rajapakse's victory is thus attributed largely to a polarised Sinhalese electorate and the "boycott" by Tamil voters in the northern and eastern districts.

UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.-SENA VIDANAGAMA/AFP

Citing the "extremely narrow margin", the UNP requested the Commissioner of Elections, Dayananda Dissanayake, to exercise his "statutory power for a re-poll". The request, however, was turned down. The UNP, in a statement said that "no candidate has a mandate" as "hundreds and thousands of voters" who were prevented from exercising their franchise in the north, east and south exceeded the victory margin secured by the Prime Minister.

At a press conference, Wickremesinghe, who signed the 2002 ceasefire agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) when he was Prime Minister, described the verdict as "a setback to the peace process". The result reflected "a very polarised society, without a clear mandate", he said.

The country, he said, was polarised into "those who voted for me, for Mahinda, and those who could not vote". Referring to his campaign, in which he had "always sought a Sri Lankan mandate", Wickremesinghe said, "Unfortunately there is no Sri Lankan mandate. It is a divided mandate." On the course ahead for Sri Lanka, he said "a lot of questions arise" and that the nation was "headed for a period of uncertainty".

On November 19, the day he was sworn in President, Rajapakse promised to fashion a "new Sri Lanka" in which he would strive for "an honourable peace", without dividing the conflict-scarred island-nation. "This is a victory for peace, and I stand by that," he told journalists in a brief interaction.

Chandrika Kumaratunga.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, a Minister in the outgoing Cabinet who is known to hold a Sinhala hardline position, was appointed Prime Minister on November 21.

AT a well-attended ceremony held in the Presidential Secretariat, Rajapakse was sworn in by Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva. A packed hall resounded as the audience broke into applause as Rajapakse made his inaugural address to the nation. While he spoke in Sinhala, a Tamil interpreter was at the other end of the dais rendering a sentence-by-sentence translation of the President's speech into Sri Lanka's other national language.

"From now on Mahinda Rajapakse as President will not be a leader that belongs exclusively to any single party or group. I will not discriminate on party, colour and racial or religious grounds," he asserted.

President Rajapakse's message was concise but clear. He would usher in a "new Sri Lanka" which would grapple with the vital issues of conflict resolution and economic well-being. In addition, in line with his left-of-centre politics, he placed a strong emphasis on social issues.

For conflict resolution, Rajapakse outlined the broad parameters of the "honourable peace" he had promised in his election manifesto. Minutes before he symbolically set free a dove into the sky, the new President said it was not his intention to return to war against the rebels.

"War is not my method. I will initiate a new round of talks with all those who have a stake in the solution of the national question," he said, promising an inclusive approach to negotiations. "On this occasion I would like to reiterate my desire to engage in direct talks with the LTTE," he said.

The more critical element of his approach to negotiations is his intention to replace the current "bilateral mode" of engaging just the government and the LTTE in the talks, with "a multi-party approach". In line with his election speeches, Rajapakse also said he would "revise and review" the existing ceasefire agreement "to overcome its defects".

The new Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

The third aspect of his speech was also the most sensitive one - his views on the role of international mediators. "I would appeal to India and other friendly Asian neighbours as well as to the international community who love our small island-nation to assist us in reaching an honourable peace in the country," he said. It remains to be seen what these initial pronouncements would mean as the presidency evolves.

Rajapakse also announced his intention to set up a new institution to deal with tsunami reconstruction. On economic and social issues, he said: "I will steer a macro-economic policy that will ensure social justice, while opening ample opportunities for the development of the individual with the objective of building a new economy that could take Sri Lanka to a strong position in the world economy."

At another level, the Rajapakse victory symbolises the shift of the Sri Lankan power equation from the Colombo-centric, English-educated patrician to the southern, rural-based leadership.

How President Rajapakse hopes to realise his dream to build a new Sri Lanka will also depend on his ability to shake off the image that he nudged his way to the victory stand on the strength of his majoritarian allies, the JVP and the JHU. The powerful Executive President has several options before him to make his transition from a political leader to a statesman.

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