Gearing up for polls

Published : Sep 26, 2003 00:00 IST

With elections on the horizon, the major political parties in Sri Lanka begin to evolve poll strategies that are invariably linked to the resolution of the ethnic crisis.

SILENTLY, but clearly, Sri Lanka is gradually entering the election mode. With a string of polls on the cards from next year, electoral imperatives have started to direct the moves of the island's major political forces. The ever-possible snap general polls apart, elections to the Provincial Councils next year and the still-distant presidential election in 2005 are starting to weigh clearly in the public pronouncements and political manoeuvres of the ruling United National Party (UNP), the Opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the Left-radical Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The UNP government's August 26 announcement of the launch of a Rs.17,400-million development assistance scheme, spread over the next 18 months, must therefore be seen in this light. The implications of the announcement for elections to the Provincial Councils and upwards cannot be ignored, especially as President Chandrika Kumaratunga has been restrained from contesting for another term of office and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe being a possible presidential candidate.

When Chandrika Kumaratunga's second six-year term in office ends in 2005, there is the possibility that she will call for early parliamentary elections along with the presidential election. The Constitution empowers the President to dissolve Parliament and call for fresh polls any time, though the present Parliament's six-year term expires only in 2007.

August saw the first but distant signs of electoral preparations by the three parliamentary political parties. The first to wake up to the election mode, predictably, has been the Opposition. Stating clearly that the "duty of the Opposition is to become the government", the SLFP embarked upon broadly two strategies: to take on the UNP government on the issue of its handling of the island's economy and the peace process with the LTTE, and to strike an alliance with the JVP, which shares with it a deep animosity towards the UNP. The SLFP maintained that the government had "failed on all fronts", that the handling of the peace process was "unprofessional", and that the end result of the ongoing negotiations would be a division of the island.

For the government, which had pinned its hopes on delivering upon the peace process, while simultaneously attempting to counter the constitutionally powerful President, the most important electoral imperative is to revive the peace talks, unilaterally suspended by the LTTE on April 21 this year. Yet another is to avoid a fresh outbreak of war.

As for the JVP and the LTTE, they have gained the most from the decades of bitter rivalry between the mainstream political parties; they are now in a situation where they can tilt the electoral scales in favour of either the SLFP or the UNP.

THE government's latest offer is its first "peace dividend" package for the country after starting direct talks with the LTTE in February 2002. The development projects, "largely restricted" to southern Sri Lanka, would include massive road building and rural electrification projects, said government spokesman G.L. Peiris. He said these projects were part of the "Take Your Share of Peace" programme and a direct result of the 19-month-long ceasefire. Reminding the people of the importance of a situation of no-war that has been in place since the UNP's victory in the 2001 general elections, Prof. Peiris said, "None of this would be possible if war starts again".

On the timing of the announcement, Peiris, who is also the island's Constitutional Affairs Minister, said the government had to "work hard" for the past 21 months to bring the economy "under control". That was "made easier by the effects of the ceasefire" and hence it was "now in a position to share some of that peace dividend amongst the people."

Asked if the announcement was timed for the polls, Peiris said that it was not the issue at all as some election or the other would be on at any given time in democracies. Referring to the current "availability of suitable resources", he said the government would have to "grab that opportunity with both hands... elections or no elections".

Some of the key projects under the proposed peace dividend programmes include increasing rural electrification from the present 63 per cent to 72 per cent within the next two years, construction of rural roads and improving water supply. Work on highways from Colombo to Matara in the south, Kandy in the central hill-country and Katunayake, where the island's only international airport is located, would also be accelerated, "creating several thousands of jobs during the construction phase".

When the UNP government embarked on the island's latest peace process, it said the benefits from peace would include improving the economy by diverting funds spent on the war. The August 26 announcement is the first major move by the government on this front.

The government's announcement has come at a time when the peace talks remain suspended. The LTTE, which has demanded an interim administration for the north and the east, described the government offer of a Provisional Administrative Structure as "failing to meet the expectations of the Tamils" and is currently preparing a set of counter proposals. With the resumption of talks with the rebels remaining uncertain, the government could well be preparing the public mind to back its peace initiatives if elections were called suddenly.

THE JVP, which is a cadre-based party, put up a show of strength in end August. It took out a four-day, 116-km "long march", beginning August 25, from the southern town of Galle, its traditional stronghold, to the capital Colombo, to protest against the latest negotiations. "We are against the division of the country," said Wimal Weerawansa, propaganda secretary of the JVP and one of the party's 16 Members of Parliament. The party expressed its opposition to the government offer of an interim administration to the LTTE.

For the JVP, the march and the anti-federalism slogans were a show of strength directed at the SLFP, which is trying to negotiate an electoral deal with the leftist party. The talks have dragged on for nearly eight months. According to sources, the serious difference between the two parties is on the issue of the SLFP's strategy to move away from the concept of a unitary Constitution. While the SLFP proposes devolution of power as the cornerstone for a solution to the ethnic conflict, the JVP is against any such move.

The SLFP's 52nd anniversary celebrations on September 2, held in Kurunegala, about 100 km from Colombo, aimed at keeping its cadre in good spirit. Making a compromise on the devolution question is a difficult one for the SLFP, and hence an alliance with the JVP appears distant.

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