A second chance for Kumaratunga

Published : Jan 08, 2000 00:00 IST

Chandrika Kumaratunga assumes office as Sri Lanka's President for a second term and warns the LTTE that its "days of terror" are numbered.

DECEMBER 1999 was a particularly eventful month in Sri Lankan politics. There was a high-decibel campaign for the presidential election, and on the day it concluded, on December 18, an attempt was made on the life of President Chandrika Kumaratunga at a public meeting in Colombo by a suspected Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) suicide bomber. In the December 21 election to the executive presidency, Kumaratunga emerged victorious by polling about seven lakh votes more than her main opponent, United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremasinghe. She won 51.12 per cent of the votes cast.

Undeterred by the injury caused to her right eye in the attack (she has since been told by doctors that she has lost vision in the eye), the President appeared on national television soon after assuming office for a second term and reaffirmed her commitm ent to end "the days of terror". She called upon the UNP, the main Opposition party to join the government.

The election witnessed a high percentage of polling. Only 1.99 lakh votes out of a total of 8.42 million were rejected (the size of the electorate was 11.77 million). Thirteen candidates were in the fray, and the contest was mainly between Kumaratunga an d Wickremasinghe.

In order to win the election in the first round of counting a candidate has to secure more than 50 per cent of the popular vote. Since it turned out to be a neck-and-neck race, expectations of a second count were high. A second count would have become ne cessary if neither of the main candidates had reached the 50 per cent mark. In such a case, the preferential votes cast for in favour of the main contestants by persons who voted for other candidates would accrue to the main contestants. The winner would then have been decided by a simple majority.

The second count appears to have been averted largely owing to the sympathy wave generated by the assassination attempt. Voters who had turned away from the People's Alliance (P.A.) led by Kumaratunga because of the "lack of progress on conflict resoluti on", probably changed their minds. Before the attempt on Kumaratunga, there were indications that they would vote either for the Left-radical Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or independent candidates.

The results show a decline in the votes polled by Kumaratunga - from 62.28 per cent in 1994 to 51.12 per cent. The UNP, on the other hand, made considerable gains: its vote share rose from 35.91 per cent in 1994 to 42.72 per cent. Recognising this fact, the President said in her address to the nation: "The nation has the strength to create two strong parties. I believe that these two strong parties together must use this strength to once again create a nation."

The highest number of votes for Kumaratunga came from her traditional stronghold, Gampaha district, where she won 532,796 votes. She polled the lowest number, 16,000 votes, in the Tamil-majority Vanni district, which has a large number of displaced perso ns. Parts of the district are under the LTTE control.

The JVP candidate, Nandana Gunathilaka, polled 3,44,173 votes (4.08 per cent). The party emerged third in most of the electoral districts, and Colombo, where it secured 44,009 votes, proved to be its strongest base. In Colombo Kumaratunga won 4.7 lakh vo tes against Wickremasinghe's 4.25 lakhs.

Significantly, despite calls from several organisations and a presidential candidate for a boycott of the election, the number of invalid votes was quite low. Kumaratunga's victory and the gains made by the UNP are seen as the electorate's support for an early resolution of the conflict in the North and East.

More than anything else, the 1999 verdict focusses on the centrality of the roles to be played by both the major parties in resolving the ethnic crisis. Much of the present situation, characterised by a militant LTTE and an ethnically polarised society, could be traced to the sharp differences between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which now leads the P.A., and the UNP since the 1950s.

The mandate, which reflects a sharp polarisation of votes, is also one that requires careful handling. The danger lies in interpreting the President's re-election as an essentially majoritarian southern (Sinhalese) vote.

AT 2.30 p.m. on a full moon Poya day, considered auspicious in the Buddhist-majority island, the President signed the oath of office. She re-inducted the entire Cabinet of Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranaike, without effecting any change in portfolios.

The President called upon Wickremasinghe to "join this government" and "honour the commitment" given during the election campaign "to this nation's peace, without compromising in any way with those who attempt to sow terror for narrow political gains."

The President continues to maintain a distinction between the Tamils and the LTTE. In the hard-hitting address to the nation, she warned the Tigers that their days were numbered. She said that "the days of terror" in the island "are numbered, and that nu mber is small". Simultaneously, an appeal was made to the LTTE's cadres to exert pressure on their leader, V. Prabakaran, to "renounce violence and join us in establishing peace." In an apparent reference to the attempt on her, she warned "all those who act in the name of hatred and terror in the northeast and their supporters in the south" that "far from being weakened by fear of attack, our resolve has been incalculably strengthened by your cowardice."

The President said: "As I hold the unique distinction of being the one political leader against whom an LTTE assassination attempt has failed, I say that I, as the President of this nation and the leader of all my peoples, of all races, religious and pol itical beliefs, will be the one political leader against whom the entire LTTE terrorist enterprise will fail."

Kumaratunga by and large exuded confidence, but for a brief moment, when she touched upon her motherhood, she broke down, saying that the victory over death was "not only for myself and not only for my two children whose mother has been spared, but... fo r our entire nation." Her grit and determination returned when she declared: "I believe that now stands before you, before this nation, the only leader who is the single-most qualified to lead us to peace. There stands before you the one leader who under stands precisely the sorrow of our nation's soul. The one leader who has felt every human pain that is possible to feel and yet has survived the strength, the ability and the resolve to triumph over pain and to eradicate its source." She appealed to the leaders of all communities and faiths in the island to "clear away this culture of terror and death".

For the "young and innocent who have far too long been intimidated by terror into supporting the LTTE," the President said, "I embrace you as dearly as I embrace my own children and entreat you to give up this hatred which is gnawing away at your heart a nd to join in this nation's collective noble effort for your salvation and ours." It was "only through that understanding that you will be able to convince your leaders that hatred is not the solution to any human problem."

THE post-poll reaction of the UNP has been of some comfort to political observers. While dismissing the possibility of joining the government as "very unlikely", the UNP said that it would consider providing "outside support" on specific issues in order to end the conflict.

Also apparent in the UNP's response was its perception that there was an imminent threat from the LTTE to the island's political leadership. Wickremasinghe told presspersons that as long as the present situation continued, the threat would remain. The fa ct that the UNP had lost practically its entire past leadership to violence was also not lost.

There is a growing realisation among the main political parties that pursuing a line of mutual opposition on national issues would be futile. The future of Sri Lanka's polity largely depends on translating this realisation into policy and action.


ON December 18, Chandrika Kumaratunga became the first major political leader to survive a suicide-bomber's attack. However, her escape was not without a permanent injury. The splinters may have impaired her vision in her right eye.

When the President assumed the oath of office for a second term, her right eye was bandaged. She left for London later to seek medical advice. Official statements maintained that the condition of the President's eye would be known only after the "protect ive bandage" was removed.

However, after consulting doctors in London, the President told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC): "Probably I have lost the sight of one eye." Her right eye remained closed during the interview. Asked if she felt fear, Kumaratunga said: "I am s urprised that I don't feel fear. I feel that there is something special that somebody wants me to do."

In contrast to the hard-hitting speech she delivered after assuming office, the President pointed out that it was Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader V. Prabakaran who had "an obsessive fear for peace".

"If he is willing to give up the only weapon he knows, that of terror and hatred, if he is willing to enter the democratic process and sit down and talk... I am willing to talk about anything" other than the separation of the country, she added.

The President, who returned to the island on December 30, reiterated her call to Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe to cooperate with the Government in resolving the conflict. The recognition of the fact that she had received a "fresh lease of life" was evident when she said that although she had been "seared with the weapons of hatred and terror," she was "spared to live, to talk of love, compassion and forgiveness".

On the minority Tamils who voted against her, Kumaratunga said: "I have done so much for them. I do not know why they cannot see anything." Urging them to "think with hearts and minds," the President said: "I believe the Tamil people have to look truth i n the face. They have to stop the terror and destruction of their own people. The have to tell Mr. Prabakaran, 'stop and come to the negotiating table'."

Calling upon the international Tamil community to stop funding the LTTE, she asked it not to be "carried away by the lies" spread by the Tigers. "All I can say is that the LTTE does not want a political settlement. They want to kill me before a political settlement can be arrived at."

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