A tiring battle

Print edition : March 26, 2004

As Sri Lanka prepares to go to the polls, there are signs of a realignment of majoritarian forces on the one hand and a reassertion of Tamil nationalism on the other.

in Colombo

UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe at a campaign rally in Kandy on February 26.-ANURUDDHA LOKUHAPUARACHCHI/REUTERS

ANY nation that goes to the polls for the third time in four years should have a tragic political tale to tell. The main characters in Sri Lanka's unending angst are a rigid Constitution that is biased towards one-party rule, competitive majoritarian politics, and assertive minority formations that hold the power to leverage governance under a proportionate representation electoral system that effectively rules out a two-thirds majority to any government.

Hence, when Sri Lanka went into election mode, there was none of the excitement that a nation going to the polls to elect its rulers for a six-year term usually witnesses. The campaign of the main political parties for the April 2 polls is by and large defensive in nature.

The forthcoming elections will put to test the validity of the axiom that minorities determine the electoral outcome. Sri Lankan politics is a cocktail - of two major parties, the ruling United National Party (UNP) and the Opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and a motley group of smaller parties, with the balance of parliamentary powers held by the minority Tamil and Muslim formations. In its own way, the proportionate representation system provides the minorities some leverage in terms of parliamentary power in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious polity where Sinhala Buddhists are in a majority but none of the main parties is in a position to gain a two-thirds majority. A key question about the forthcoming elections is whether the minorities will continue to have any leverage on the outcome.

The consequences of the formation of the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) as the result of an alliance between the two main Opposition parties - the SLFP and the radical-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) - go beyond mere arithmetic. The alliance raises questions about how differing convictions of two parties might affect conflict resolution, as the UPFA's aim seems to be to consolidate the majority vote.

According to current indications, the elections to Sri Lanka's 13th Parliament - the sixth under the proportionate representation system - is likely to mark the continuation of the past when minority parties determined the character of the government. But the campaigning that will last several weeks can swing the outcome. The most important element in the elections is the different perspectives that the political groupings bring to them. While the mainstream political parties see them as a battle for the consolidation of domestic political power, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) wants them to be a "demonstration of Tamil aspirations to the international community".

According to the 2001 Census, 76.7 per cent of the population is constituted by Sinhala-Buddhists. The other religious groups include Muslims (8.5), Hindus (7.9) and Christians (6.9). The two major languages are Sinhalese and Tamil, spoken by 81 per cent and about 18 per cent (comprising Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils and Muslims) respectively.

With much of the Sinhala-Buddhist population divided between the UNP and the SLFP, it is minority dynamics that often determines the electoral outcome. Since the proportionate representation system was introduced, four parliamentary elections have been held. Except in the 1989 polls, when the UNP won 51 per cent of the vote share and got 125 seats, no party has been able to get a majority on its own. The outcomes of two key elections held in the last decade point to the influence of the minority vote and its political impact of the Executive Presidency.

In 1994, when President Chandrika Kumaratunga led her People's Alliance (P.A.) to power, breaking the UNP's 17-year rule, the support she received from the minorities was overwhelming. Similarly, the UNP, which defeated the P.A. in the 2001 elections, had the advantage of the minority vote.

The minority parties have had, at least on paper, a double electoral advantage as their support has been a crucial component in tipping the scales in favour of either of the major parties. In addition, with their own blocs in Parliament, they have been instrumental in determining the final ruler. The second capability was put to use most effectively by the Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC), on whose support the governments assumed office for over three decades. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) followed suit.

In 1994, for instance, when President Kumaratunga swept the polls to form the first P.A. government, her party had an all-time high of 48.9 per cent of the vote share but still ended short of securing a majority on its own, with 105 seats. The UNP came second with 44 per cent of the votes and 94 seats. Kumaratunga's rallying call at that time - a promise to bring peace through negotiations and put an end to the bloody separatist conflict and ensure the re-democratisation of Sri Lankan society - struck a chord among the minorities and the majority alike.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga at a rally in Anuradhapura on February 26.-

In the most exciting exercise of government formation, long forgotten in the hurly-burly of subsequent political and military developments, the SLMC, with a 1.8 per cent vote share and seven seats, extended support to the P.A., taking it to the midway 112-mark in the 225-strong House. It was P. Chandrasekaran, an MP from a breakaway faction of the CWC, who contested and won as an independent representing the upcountry Tamils, who tipped the scales in favour of Kumaratunga. The government then survived on the support extended by the CWC, which won on the UNP ticket. The party's leader, the late S. Thondaman, switched sides and became a Minister, and the P.A. continued in power.

The key difference between the situation in 1994, when the P.A. government continued in power for six years with a two-seat majority, and the two-year run of the Ranil Wickremesinghe's administration, which assumed office in 2001, is the role of the Executive Presidency. As the President has vast executive powers and the absolute power to dissolve Parliament after it completes one year in office, the Constitution is seen as having been crafted to give the President's party the upper hand.

A key factor that was ushered into Sri Lankan politics in 1994 was the emergence of peace as a political plank. The next polls to change a government - held in 2001 - saw a shift in the campaign with the UNP taking over the no-war and peace-through-negotiations plank. By then, with the resumption of hostilities leading to restrictions on the movement of goods and people to the northeast, the minority support for the P.A. had thinned out considerably. Escalation in armed conflict since the mid-1990s, military setbacks, an all-pervading gloom after the LTTE's attack on the Bandaranaike In,2,1>ternational Airport, and the promise of ending hostilities by the UNP, saw Wickremesinghe's party riding to power on a mandate of peace and development. In addition to the overwhelming support it received from the majority, the crucial backing that it received from the minorities was symbolised in the party's win from Jaffna.

WHEN elections were announced on February 7, the peace process, already on hold, was receding from public debate and the focus was on the shrill cohabitation battle between the President and the Prime Minister. With no clear wave in favour of any party, the basic calculation of the SLFP-JVP combine is that it would make it past the winning post in at least 10 southern electoral districts. This, according to the alliance, would translate into a percentage-point advantage and result in the gain of at least 10 more seats in southern Sri Lanka. Whether the combine will make it past the halfway mark remains unclear. There is the danger of the campaign striking an emotional pitch in the days ahead.

The UPFA, which formally came into being on January 20, after year-long negotiations, has entered the elections with the betel leaf symbol. Conceding that the Wickremesinghe peace process had "some good things", the UPFA is promising continuity with change. As local body polls in the northeast are pending, a new political party cannot be registered. The UPFA overcame this legal hurdle by changing the name, office-bearers and symbol of an existing party. After its request for the lotus symbol was turned down, the UPFA considered the `butterfly', but finally chose the `betel leaf', which is considered an auspicious symbol. Its new symbol also reflects the rallying point of the JVP - a return to tradition and the restoration of the pre-colonial nationhood.

The UNP started the campaign on a low key, with Wickremesinghe asking the people to decide whether Kumaratunga's decision to dissolve Parliament and call fresh polls was right. The UPFA has been attempting to reverse its earlier criticism of the LTTE and the peace process, with Kumaratunga asserting that she would "encourage the LTTE" to take to democratic politics. The LTTE, on its own steam as always, took to active electioneering in a break from the past.

Buddhist monks pray at the Kelaniya temple in Colombo before launching their campaign for the general elections.-ANURUDDHA LOKUHAPUARACHCHI/REUTERS

Setting the tone for the UNP's election campaign, Wickremesinghe said that his government had brought an end to the 20-year-long war in two years but was denied its mandate by the dissolution of Parliament. In his first address to the nation after Parliament was dissolved on February 7, he charged Kumaratunga with jeopardising the ceasefire agreement and scuttling the government's economic recovery plan. The April 2 snap polls, he said, would give voters "an opportunity to decide" on the recent political developments in the island. Wickremesinghe conceded that "shortcomings" might have been there during his tenure, and added he would "take responsibility and express sorrow" for the difficulties, "whoever may be the reason for them".

Although there is no pointer to the final victor, as the winner does not take it all under the electoral system, the margin of the ruling combination in the next Parliament could be minimal, unless a clear wave emerges during electioneering.

The President, who is also the Defence and Interior Minister, has ruled out holding elections in rebel-held Sri Lanka. The key issue regarding elections in the region is the legal requirement that security for polling stations be provided by the Sri Lanka Police. With rebel control stretching across the northeast, the Sri Lanka Police have had no presence in some areas of the region for nearly a decade. The LTTE, which takes every decision with an eye on its long-term implications, is more likely to convert the situation to its advantage rather than concede to a legal requirement of the Sri Lankan state.

Three years ago, Sri Lanka was a war-weary nation. Today, it is dangerously poised on the verge of becoming a poll-weary nation. As the people prepare to hear political leaders spell out their main planks, the basic issues remain the same - the threat of separation, the need for overarching unity and, most important, the need for the two main parties to move away from their almost fatalistic mode of working towards mutual political destruction.

In addition to the already existing divisions, the early symptoms of a hardline Sinhala-Buddhist revivalism, which will be countered by a political assertion of hardline Tamil nationalism, make the forthcoming elections significant in more ways than one.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor