A victory and after

Published : Apr 23, 2004 00:00 IST

The victory of the alliance led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga in the Sri Lankan parliamentary elections brings to an end the bitter politics of cohabitation with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, but the inherent contradictions in the alliance portend another phase of unease.

in Colombo

SRI LANKA embarked on an uneasy political course, after the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga emerged as the single largest party in the 225-member Parliament in the April 2 elections, but fell short of a majority to form a government on its own.

The UPFA, a combine of Kumaratunga's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), won 105 seats, but did not reach the mid-way mark of 113.

The elections, called after the collapse of a bitter cohabitation government between the constitutionally powerful executive President and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, resulted in a widely predicted hung Parliament. Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP) ended up with just 82 seats.

The four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which was backed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), swept the Tamil-majority areas in the North and the East. With 22 seats, it emerged as the third largest party. The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), which fielded Buddhist monks in all constituencies, succeeded in sending nine of them to Parliament. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) won five seats, while two other parties - the anti-LTTE Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) and the Upcountry People's Front (UPF) secured one seat each. The Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), which contested under the UNP banner but retained the option to function independently, is another possible ally.

In its own way, the mandate reflected the multi-ethnic and deeply divided national polity. The elections, conducted under the proportionate representation system, has once again thrown up a situation where the main parties could not form a government without the support of smaller parties.

The options for the UPFA include, seeking the support of the SLMC and the CWC, but a day after the results were announced, there was no public announcement of support from either party, which could hold the key to governance. Yet another possibility would be to depend on the JHU's members. But the JHU has announced that it will not join any coalition and that it is willing to extend issue-based support.

While the UNP is clearly out of the race at the start of the government formation exercise, the position of the UPFA is marked by differences within and without. One reason that triggered the parliamentary polls four years ahead of schedule was the political compulsion of the SLFP-JVP combine to gain power. Although the two are Left-of-centre parties, they have differences, and in the crucial issue of conflict resolution, their positions are diametrically opposite. In a way, there is relatively more convergence between the SLFP and the UNP on the issues that dominate Sri Lankan politics but they cannot come together because of the historical rivalry between the parties, the need for political survival and the inability to put behind personal rivalries.

When the SLFP and the JVP joined hands in January after year-long discussions, they agreed to disagree on the fundamental issue of solving the decades-long separatist crisis. While the SLFP wants to end it through greater devolution of power, marking a move away from the unitary state, the JVP is sharply opposed to these concepts and does not want any dilution of the nature of the state. The JVP's views on this issue are closer to that of the JHU.

The TNA has contested the elections on the twin planks of accepting the LTTE as the sole representatives of ethnic Tamils and its proposals for an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) as the basis for negotiations. Reminiscent of the 1977 elections when the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) based its campaign on the Vadukottai Resolution and translated its victory to a mandate for Eelam, the TNA has taken the ISGA proposals as its main plank. For the LTTE, which participated in elections for the first time, the verdict in the Tamil areas was a message to both the "Sinhala nation" and the international community. The organisation, which refused to lay down arms or renounce violence during the negotiations with the UNP government, is now represented by its nominees in Parliament. A key factor is the emergence of the TNA and the JHU that marks the entry of blocs of Tamil and Sinhala nationalisms in Parliament, providing the setting for the clash of hardline opinions.

THE UPFA's victory is also a clear indication that economic issues took precedence over the peace process. Its overwhelming mandate is a result of the poll arithmetic of the SLFP-JVP alliance and an endorsement of its main contention that the UNP was "conceding too much" to the LTTE in the negotiations that have been stalled since last April.

The success of the arithmetic is evident from the vote tally of the UPFA. In the 2001 elections, the SLFP won 37.2 per cent and the JVP won 9.1 per cent, making a total of 46.3 per cent of the vote. The UNP had won 45.6 per cent of the vote then. In this election, the UPFA secured 45.6 per cent. However, while the UNP's electoral combine with the CWC and the SLMC had ensured it a majority in the last elections, the UPFA did not have that advantage this time.

Moreover, the exact composition of SLFP and JVP members in the UPFA line-up is not yet known. Given the backdrop of differences between the two parties and the broadly similar political constituencies that these parties share, the UPFA government's performance would be largely directed by the number of JVP members.

Unlike the 2001 mandate, which led to a bitter cohabitation government of the President and the Prime Minister, the parliamentary majority for the UPFA has opened the possibility of a return to relatively frictionless governance.

The emergence of two extreme ends of Sri Lanka's political spectrum - Tamil and Sinhala nationalisms - also has a bearing on the future of peace negotiations. While the TNA has already said that getting the ISGA, as proposed by the LTTE, is a high priority, the JHU wants to end the "domination by the minorities" in Sri Lankan politics.

The UNP's defeat is seen more as a sign of popular disagreement over the manner in which the peace process was handled than an outright rejection of the process. The UPFA had made it clear in the run-up to the elections that it would continue with the negotiations but "with a correct approach". Significantly, despite the UPFA's criticism of the peace process, it was keen to emphasise that the ceasefire agreement would continue.

The UPFA would have to embark on a two-stage process to revive the peace talks. Initially, it would have to convince the main constituents, especially the JVP, that their political sensitivities would not be affected. The understanding between the SLFP and the JVP to disagree on issues relating to the peace process would also be put to test, depending on the parliamentary strength of the latter.

The second stage of restarting talks with the LTTE would involve issues such as the LTTE's insistence that it be accepted as the "sole representative" of the Tamils. Opponents of the Tigers are emphatic that, particularly after the split in the organisation, the Tigers could no longer make such a claim. The UPFA has kept the option open on separate discussions with other groups.

The immediate task for the UPFA would be to choose the Prime Minister. A day after the results were announced, two senior party leaders, Leader of the Opposition in the dissolved Parliament Mahinda Rajapakse and former Foreign Affairs Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, emerged as likely prime ministerial candidates.

Translating its electoral victory to effective governance will be a challenge for the UPFA, unless the CWC and the SLMC join the government. As the UPFA gears up for a phase of governance, Sri Lankan politics enters untested waters of a combination of opposing forces, which would have to stay together if any meaningful gain is to be made from the mandate.

The verdict saw the emergence of all sections of the polity - groups that are for and against the peace process and the LTTE, those who want greater economic reform and those who want to restore the Sinhala Buddhist glory.

SRI LANKAN elections, where voters would have to first choose a party and then indicate the preferences for candidates from the chosen party, are usually a pointer to the popular standing of leading politicians. Despite the UNP's defeat, Wickremesinghe topped the list of candidates elected with the highest preferential votes.

Wickremesinghe, who contested from the Colombo district electoral constituency, polled 3,29,524 votes, topping the list of 20 candidates elected from Colombo. Wimal Weerawansa, JVP's propaganda secretary, secured 2,37,185 votes as the UPFA candidate.

However, the UNP saw an erosion of its support in its traditional stronghold, Colombo, with the entry of the newly formed JHU.

In Colombo, former Minister for Economic Affairs Milinda Moragoda polled 99,146 votes, while his former colleague T. Maheswaran, who survived an attempt on his life on March 27, won 57,528 votes.

In Gampaha, the President's brother Anura Bandaranaike was second on the UPFA list with 1,98,444 votes, after the JVP's Vijitha Herath (2,15,540). Karu Jayasuriya, deputy leader of the UNP, secured 2,02,029 preferential votes in the same district.

In the UPFA stronghold of southern Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapakse was the choice of 1,07,603 voters in Hambantota district, while former Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera secured 1,18,745 votes in Matara district.

Rival leaders of the Estate Tamils - Arumugan Thondaman of the CWC and P. Chandrasekaran of the UPF, secured 99,785 votes and 42,582 votes respectively from the Nuwara Eliya electorate.

UPFA's sweep in 14 Sinhala-majority districts, TNA's victory in the four Tamil electorates and the UNP's retention of its traditional strongholds, despite the rout in other areas, are also pointers to Sri Lankan voter expectations. The defeat of UNP, particularly in districts adjoining the war-torn North and East, which are also extremely impoverished, is also a pointer that while a bad war will ensure defeat, the absence of fight does not ensure victory.

While the elections were by far the most peaceful in decades, there are complaints from the northern and eastern districts of "`massive impersonation" by voters from LTTE-held areas.

Several voters from rebel-held northern and eastern Sri Lanka were exercising their franchise after three decades and the government had put up a cluster of polling stations at Army checkpoints close to LTTE-held regions.

Alleging widespread impersonation, the EPDP, which won one seat, has said it would challenge legally the elections held in the northern Jaffna Peninsula, as there was "no option" for election authorities to annul the polls as demanded by it. TULF president V. Anandasangaree has also complained of impersonation of voters from LTTE-held areas. The TNA emerged as the third largest party defeating the EPDP, Anandasangaree's independent group and the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) in the northern and eastern electorates. TNA candidates dismissed the allegations as "totally false".

THE 13th Parliament is likely to face its first test as soon as it meets on April 22. Under the Sri Lankan law, Parliament cannot be dissolved within a year of elections, unless a government is defeated twice on Finance Bills or the House seeks dissolution by a resolution.

If the UPFA is unable to muster a working majority before forming the government, a legislative standoff is likely, with a minority government depending on parties for issue-based support. The possibility of a national government is extremely unlikely given the sharp differences between the two main parties.

At the political level, the emergence of the UPFA is also indicative of the rise of the JVP, which took to parliamentary politics in 1994, after two failed insurrections and increased its vote share from just around 1 per cent a decade ago to 9.1 per cent in 2001.

The overall significance of the elections would be the interplay between traditional, mid-course political parties such as the SLFP and the UNP and the nationalist parties such as the JVP, the JHU and the TNA. The manner in which this new dynamic unfolds will determine much of what this Parliament would be able to achieve in addressing the most fundamental problem that has plagued the country since independence - building a peaceful multi-ethnic nation.

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