A new combine in Sri Lanka

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

The SLFP and the JVP decide to fight the next elections jointly, based on "five noble objectives", and the question widely asked is what its impact on the peace process will be.

in Colombo

We are prepared to discuss everything... At this point of time there are no preconditions whatsoever.

- Lakshman Kadirgamar, Senior Adviser to President Chandrika Kumaratunga, January 21, 2004.

This anti-peace pact... might create the necessary conditions for the resumption of the ethnic war... [It] is totally opposed to Tamil aspirations...

- Anton S. Balasingham, chief LTTE negotiator, January 21, 2004.

THE Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the radical Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) formally announced on January 20 the formation of a joint front, the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), aimed at defeating the ruling United National Front (UNF) and establishing a government based on "five noble objectives".

The general secretaries of the SLFP and the JVP, Maithripala Sirisena and Tilvin Silva respectively, signed a seven-page memorandum of understanding (MoU) marking the culmination of year-long talks. The document spells out the five broad objectives in the areas of economy, ethnic harmony, democracy, culture and foreign policy, clearly displaying a return to the policies followed by the People's Alliance (P.A.), between 1994 and 2001, with subtle changes to accommodate the differences between the alliance partners.

A day after the UPFA was formed, its senior leaders, without going into electoral or political details, promised continuity and change, if elected to power. The creation of the UPFA also marks another round of political battle between the country's two powerful leaders - President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who heads the SLFP, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who heads the UNF.

Over the past year, the SLFP and the JVP had been critical of Wickremesinghe's handling of the peace process with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The MoU reflects this criticism. However, the two parties also acknowledged the need for a political dialogue to carry forward the peace process.

The diagnosis of the situation was made entirely along expected lines, based on already articulated positions. In a direct and no-holds-barred criticism of the peace initiative of the UNF, the MoU says: "As a result of the wrong policies followed by the ruling United National Front (UNF) government, the country faces the prospect of losing its territorial integrity and the establishment of a parallel Eelamist state. Conditions for international support for such a separation are being fostered by the UNF."

Commenting on the situation, it says: "The ethnic question of Sri Lanka too has taken an undesirable turn since the formation of the UNF government. In the name of the aspirations of all our peoples for an honourable and durable peace, the UNF has set out on a path which would lead to a separate Eelamist state."

Continuing its argument against the ceasefire agreement between Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader V. Prabakaran, the UPFA says: "The agreement signed by the Prime Minister did not have the prior approval of the head of state, the President, Parliament or even the Cabinet and the parliamentary group of the UNF."

Its terms "have been flagrantly violated on numerous occasions by the LTTE, but the UNF government has been unable to respond. Consequently, the objectives of the separatist forces have received a boost while the legitimate rights of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim peoples of the country have not been recognised," it says.

Arguing that the UNF's lapses had made the LTTE stronger, the UPFA points out that the rebels had "laid claim to a naval zone for its Sea Tigers thus reinforcing their claims to a separate navy". Referring to the pressure that was brought upon by the LTTE during the stalled peace process, the MoU says: "The security forces of Sri Lanka have been under intense pressure to vacate the High Security Zones" and "they have been rendered ineffective in the Northern and Eastern provinces". The LTTE "is also continuing to abduct thousands of innocent Tamil children, extort money in the guise of "taxes" and harass Muslims and the Sinhalese in order to drive them out from the Eastern province", the MoU says. Based on these developments, according to the two parties, "the so-called peace process will not usher in a durable peace but threatens the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of the country degrading its dignity".

The alliance's position on the counter-proposals submitted by the LTTE on October 31 is a reiteration of its constituents' earlier stand that "the LTTE's proposals for an Interim Self-Governing Authority go far beyond the resolution of the problems of the Tamil people and other minority communities and create the basis for a separate Eelam state."

If the diagnosis was predictable, the prescription did not break new ground, barring a loose acknowledgement by the JVP that there is the need for a political dialogue. Eager to convince a nation that is going through its longest spell of calm, the UPFA says it is for a continuation of the dialogue process. It also wants to launch "a multi-faceted programme, which will ensure that all people who have made Sri Lanka their home do not suffer any discrimination on grounds of race, religion, language or culture and totally to remove all manifestations of differential treatment". The alliance also wants to "ensure that attempts at separatism based on language and religion" are "combated and defeated", while safeguarding the "territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence" of the country.

Rejecting "separatism and political violence", the alliance emphasises the need for a "negotiated settlement to the ethnic question". In a subtle but significant positioning, it wants "correct dialogue with the LTTE and other relevant groups" to ensure that a political solution will "safeguard the political equality and democratic rights of the Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and other communities". The two parties have also agreed that "this problem must be settled on the basis of ensuring the equality of all ethnic groups and guaranteeing of all human and democratic rights, which will signify such equality".

It is still not clear whether the alliance will continue the peace talks exclusively with the LTTE, as initiated by Wickremesinghe, or insist on the participation of other Tamil groups as well. This position could emerge as an important determinant, given the backdrop that the LTTE had, in the past, rejected the idea of Colombo talking to any group other than itself. The statement made by the LTTE's chief negotiator, Anton S. Balasingham, at one of the rounds of the peace talks that "whether it is peace or war, the government would have to deal with us", sets the rebel mindset in clear terms. Sticking to the LTTE position of being the sole representative of the Tamil people, he said that the rejection of this position by the alliance was "unacceptable". He reiterated that "our liberation organisation will not enter into negotiations with anyone who does not recognise the LTTE as the sole and authentic representative of the Tamil people."

More important than the practical position of who talks to whom is the key question of what is to be offered. At the conceptual level there is a continued difference of view between the SLFP and the JVP on the solution. The MoU makes it evident: "The SLFP holds the view that these objectives could be achieved by the devolution of power to provinces within a united state. The JVP holds the view that these objectives could be achieved by administrative decentralisation to the local authority level, in order to ensure the ethnic identity and safeguard the cultural heritage of all groups within a unitary state".

That neither party is prepared for a compromise is evident. Acknowledging this, the document says: "However, both parties agree that divergence of views regarding final settlement should not be an obstacle to their journey together to overcome the serious crisis, which is faced by Sri Lanka."

In addition to agreeing to "enter into a process of political dialogue with the LTTE and all other relevant groups and communities on the correct basis", the alliance has agreed to "go forward to a final solution and abide by the results of the negotiation process and the wish of the majority of the people".

This position seen against the backdrop of the rigid constitutional structure and the known majoritarian resistance to moving away from the unitary state, does not have the kind of support from the People's Alliance, which had championed the cause of devolution. Rather it is a compromise reached, although reluctantly, by two parties that hope to win the elections without diluting their respective stands.

The alliance's prescription for conflict resolution would depend on the dosage of the political rhetoric that would be dished out at electoral platforms. Kumaratunga is the most ardent advocate of devolution of powers. Having initiated the concept in the island's political discourse, and having prepared a draft Constitution which envisages the devolution of substantial powers to the regions, it would be extremely difficult for her to go back on this promise. The JVP, which has never accepted the need for devolution of powers, has been critical of the idea and is an unabashed supporter of a unitary state. The most it is willing to allow is "administrative decentralisation".

Elaborating on the alliance's position, Senior Adviser to the President on Foreign Affairs and former Foreign Affairs Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar told a press conference on January 21 that it was for greater inclusiveness in the peace process. Dispelling apprehensions of a return to war if the alliance was voted to power, Kadirgamar said: "The ceasefire stands and will stand." Referring to the overall mood in the government and in the LTTE, Kadirgamar was of the view that no government would start a war and that too in the current situation.

The LTTE made it clear that it had apprehensions of war. "This anti-peace political pact articulating an incoherent, confused and mutually contradictory position on a serious national issue might create objective conditions for the resumption of ethnic war," Balasingham said.

Ironically, the more difficult questions are the situations for peace. Kadirgamar said the alliance was "prepared to discuss everything". Questioned further on the threshold expectations of recommencing talks, he said: "At this point of time there are no preconditions whatsoever." The objective of the alliance, he said, was to "take the sad chapter" of the island's ethnic conflict "to a close" with "balance, fairness" and "representation of all the parties". The "direction of the talks" would be on "a correct approach" aimed at reaching a solution "based on the wishes of the people", he said.

A crucial difference, Kadirgamar said, would be a "going away from the exclusive negotiating process" adopted by the UNF administration, through a "considerable widening of the peace process". He saw the alliance with the JVP as one that would bring the radical party into the negotiating fold. "There is no question of the JVP saying they will not talk," he said, adding that the position of that party "is very encouraging for Sri Lankan democracy".

Asked if the alliance would hold talks exclusively with the LTTE, which was the approach of the UNF government and if widening of the process meant the inclusion of other Tamil groups as well, Kadirgamar said it was not clear if the UNF had accepted the rebels as the sole representatives of Tamils. Barring the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), none had made the claim, he said.

The approach of the UPFA, Kadirgamar said, would be to "broaden the scope of the peace process". It may be recalled that when the latest peace process started, official talks had involved only the government and the LTTE, with the demand for a separate Muslim party remaining unresolved. The TNA backs the LTTE, while other Tamil parties have complained of being excluded from the process.

IT was with a sense of continued hesitancy that the nation watched the new political engagement on January 20. Political exigencies came to the fore when the two parties, both occupying the island's left-of-centre political landscape, performed another coming together of such forces in the island's parliamentary politics. The differences between the two parties are significant, not just in degree but at the policy and conceptual levels. Yet, electoral arithmetic and expectations of mutual benefit prevailed.

Prayers by religious leaders, barring Christian priests, who merely "sent their blessings" and patriotic fervour marked the formal event.

A senior leader of the alliance told Frontline that political discussions were continuing. According to present indications, the crucial post of general secretary of the alliance will be held by the SLFP. The JVP would be given the post of chairman. President Kumaratunga, who is also the leader of the SLFP, is to hold the position of the leader of the alliance.

Clearly, the alliance has been formed with the elections in mind. Mangala Samaraweera, former Media Minister and a key architect of the UPFA, said that the alliance was sure of electoral victory. "It is based on simple mathematics," he said, referring to the results of the 2001 parliamentary polls.

At the all-island level in the 2001 polls, the ruling UNF polled 45.62 per cent, followed by the SLFP (37.19 per cent) and the JVP (9.10 per cent). Advocates of the alliance point out that based on these calculations, the combined voting percentage (46.29 per cent) of the alliance could edge out the UNF, if the voter behaviour remains the same.

Sri Lanka's Proportionate Representation system provides for a bonus seat in each of the 22 electoral divisions for the party that polls the highest number of votes. Based on the 2001 results, the combined votes polled by the SLFP and the JVP would give the alliance a majority in 10 electoral districts in the predominantly Sinhalese constituencies: 58.64 per cent in Hambantota, 55.86 in Matara, 55.41 in Monaraglala, 54.53 in Gampaha, 54.39 in Galle, 52.7 in Anuradhapura, 51.83 in Kalutara, 51.04 in Ratnapura, 51.04 in Polonaruwa and 50.32 in Kurunegala.

The expected addition of the 10 bonus seats is seen as the minimum tilt towards the alliance in any prospective poll. In this background, with an electoral campaign dominated by rhetoric, the shift could be even more. At the campaign level, charges of betrayal and attempt to divide the country could strike an emotive chord, particularly in the constituencies which are Sinhala-majority and where the SLFP has a sizable following.

For the UNF, the single plank for effective campaign is the peace process. Unshackled by governance and with the advantage of an Opposition party, the SLFP is poised to launch a sharp attack on the UNF on several counts. Having made out its case against the UNF's handling of the peace process, the alliance has also challenged it on the economic and cultural fronts.

Samaraweera, borrowing a British phrase, described the alliance as a "reaffirmation of the radical centre". The MoU is particularly harsh on the UNF's handling of the economy. "The foundations of a vibrant national economy are being systematically destroyed and a new economic configuration based on crony capitalism, racketeering, corruption and subservience to international financial institutions is being rapidly established," it says.

The JVP has been particularly sharp in its criticism of the UNF's economic policies during the past two years. The SLFP too has not missed an opportunity to take on the government's economic policies. The alliance says: "The policies of the UNF are determined by the lending agencies with scant regard for local priorities and the aspirations of the people." The government was particularly criticised for the sale of "strategic national assets" (such as state banks, the petroleum industry and power), "economically viable state ventures" (such as insurance companies) and "vital social services"(such as transportation). However, whether the objection is to the sale itself or the manner in which it was done remains fuzzy. At the press conference, the JVP went the extra mile to say that it was "not against the private sector" but was for a "healthy competition" between the state and private enterprises.

Both parties have particularly wooed the agriculture sector. The MoU says that "policies inimical to local farmers are being pursued" by the UNF. Invoking the foreign factor, it charges that "laws relating to land sales are being amended to suit foreign investors". Pushing the case for subsidies, it points out that fertilizer subsidy and other assistance granted by the previous government has been curtailed and a water tax proposed in the guise of water management.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have borne the brunt of the criticism by the Opposition during the past two years. Listing out the instances of removal of subsidies and grants, the UPFA said that "the poor are called upon to bear the brunt of these policies" and that the "safety net against poverty established by the People's Alliance government" was "removed by curtailing social welfare programmes". These issues, which relate to unemployment benefits, fertilizer subsidies, allocations for school textbooks and uniforms, cost of living, wage levels, public sector recruitment, labour welfare measures, expenditure on public education and health, could strike a chord among the people.

FOR the UNF, the performance on the peace process is its main election plank. The political peace dividends for the party have been considerable, but the crucial question is whether these would suffice to take it past a potentially winning combination, if factors such as the economy and the perceived threat to the nation's sovereignty and territorial integrity are the main campaign points raised by the SLFP-JVP combine.

On foreign policy, the UPFA has charged the government with serious compromises. "Our foreign policy, which was based on regional cooperation and mutual respect, has been replaced by one of servitude and the absence of national dignity. Such a change in our policy can even pose a threat to our neighbouring countries. We must therefore return to a balanced approach, which is our valuable legacy from the past," the MoU said. The issue of foreign policy for a small country like Sri Lanka, which has always been sensitive to any external involvement, has engaged much political space. The JVP, sees the involvement of the international players as one that would lead to separation. The most recent example was the opposition by the two parties to the visit of the European Union External Affairs Commissioner, Chris Patten.

The UPFA said its foreign policy would be "based on safeguarding our sovereignty and independence while maintaining friendship and goodwill with all state and international organisations". It "will not be aligned or subservient to any camp" the document says, adding that "in particular, we should ensure that our foreign policy should not endanger the sovereignty and independence of our neighbouring states but should rather preserve and expand our existing goodwill with these neighbouring countries in the spheres of political, economic and cultural relations".

WHILE the alliance has spelt out its position, the crucial questions are: will it win a popular mandate and can it deliver on its promises? More important, what would be the nature of its campaign, particularly when it is co-chaired by an emotive party like the JVP?

Despite clear prospects of an election, it is still unclear when the President, who is empowered to call elections, will take the decision. Much of the electoral outcome would be determined by the campaign strategy. The re-emergence of a hardline nationalistic rhetoric is a distressing possibility, which is not ruled out.

Irrespective of who wins the coming round, the margin of majority is likely to be slender. None is more aware of this than President Kumaratunga.

For decades, Sri Lanka's minority parties determined who would rule the country. Now as the SLFP-JVP alliance sets the stage for another polls, the single largest gainer from a snap poll is expected to be the TNA, which is currently the fourth largest party in Parliament, with 15 MPs, or any formation that is backed by the LTTE.

The LTTE's immediate reaction to the new alliance does not raise the prospects of an early resumption of talks between the new formation and the rebels, unless either party moves away from its position.

The two possibilities currently hovering over the Sri Lankan political landscape are the formation of an SLFP-JVP government, though short-lived, in the present Parliament, or the dissolution of the House. The third, and more serious, way out would be for the two leaders, Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe, to put together an effective co-habitation government that would take the island towards a more inclusive polity.

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