Elections, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

An Unprecedented Presidential Election and the Future of Sri Lankan Democracy

Never before has such a major rift opened up between the political and military leadership in electoral politics as what has been witnessed over the recent months. By luring Sarath Fonseka to fight against the incumbent President on their behalf, the newly formed opposition took the Sri Lankan polity as well as the diaspora by surprise. As a result, what looked like an unassailable position for Mahinda Rajapakse now looks more vulnerable. This was a clever political move by the UNP and others in the United National Front (UNF) but it has major implications for the ongoing debate facing Sri Lanka about its democratic future. The resignation by an ex- military chief to lead the opposition without his own political base or significant background and training in democratic politics highlights the acute political crisis we are facing and the dangers that our fragile democracy will have to overcome if the UNF wins.

In coming days and weeks the contest will be developing into a major political battle where the civilized norms of political behavior of an election campaign would be forgotten. The power grabbing would become an illusive and distant hope for either party without submerging in an undemocratic political culture that is riddled with corrupt practices, intimidation and violence that is not entirely unfamiliar to Sri Lankan politics. Their inability to follow the civilized norms of political behavior would demonstrate their lack of respect for democracy and in turn how they would govern if elected.

The main thrust of this account is to look at the future of Sri Lankan democracy in relation to the outcome of the presidential election in January next year.

Sarath Fonseka’s unexpected bid for presidency is a manifestation of the crisis at party political level. The UNF has been able to unite socially and politically dissimilar and diverse forces on the sole aim of dethroning Mahinda Rajapaksa.In political battles when the battle lines are drawn the  unity of such dissimilar and diverse forces    are usually capable of providing the wining combination . The UNP and the JVP electoral pact can seriously undermine Mahinda Rajapaks’s dynastic hopes. Along with this Sarath Fonseka has ended the monopoly of the government’s claim to Sinhalese triumphalism. And now the opposition has also gained a legitimate right to make such claims due to Sarath Fonseksa’s decision to challenge the incumbent President in the election. It is ironical how the UNF political formation has embraced the ex -general who was publicly ridiculed and undermined by some of them during the war, in order to grab political power riding on his back. They have not shown any political embarrassment nor withdrawn their critical public statements made against the ex-General’s abilities over his war plans against the LTTE. Such an unprincipled political culture within the UNF would not make the UNF politically stable or democratically accountable to the people. Apart from the sole aim of dethroning Mahinda Rajapaksa the underlying political unity of the UNF runs against the wider interest of expanding the democratic space in Sri Lankan politics.

Meanwhile Mahinda Rajapaksa appears to enjoy substantial support amongst the Sinhalese for defeating the LTTE and providing the crucial political leadership to achieve the victory. His alliance of parties is not very different from the UNF as far as the political will and commitment is concerned in relation to the devolution of powers to the Tamils. As in the UNF, the composition of the UPFA consists of the Jathika Hele Urumaya (JHU) and the JVP breakaway groupWeerawansa’s National Freedom Front (NFF), even to oppose the 13th Amendment being implemented. The Tamil parties in the UPFA face the same challenge in articulating how they would persuade Mahinda Rajapaksa to offer a substantial package of devolution of power to the Tamils.

There are crucial issues about the culture of impunity, media freedom and rampant corruption that makes the life of the average Sri Lankan so unsafe, intimidating, miserable, helpless and disappointing in their day to day life. This would compel for people to use the election in order to seek a way out   and realize that this cannot be done without a regime change. This is where Sarath Fonseka offers the opportunity as well as the danger in relation to the Sri Lankan democratic future. The danger one should not take lightly.

The media freedom has come under severe strain with physical assaults, death threats and the death of a prominent journalist, Lasantha Wickramatunga. The culture of impunity has provided an unhindered fertile ground to launch an assault on the press. Some of the journalists have been forced to leave the country making the suppression of press freedom counter productive as they continue to campaign for press freedom. The JVP has already banned two media organizations covering their meetings. This shows how the opposition will treat the media if they win the Presidential election.   The Presidential candidates should make it clear and promise the people how they are going to restore press freedom and unless they show genuine political courage the Sri Lankan democracy will disappear fast   making way for an authoritarian rule.

Whoever wins the election, the democratic freedom and rights will take a further battering. The Sri Lankan democracy is so fragile for an ex – General to be politically trusted. The incumbent President appears so unconcerned about the culture of impunity, freedom of the press and rampant corruption.

The Tamil parties have neither unity nor political direction to utilize the election to further their political course on a position of strength. The TNA’s political project is in disarray after the LTTE’s defeat and it appears that they are unable to accept the political reality in the post LTTE politics as well as the available political opportunities in participating in the Presidential election. The TNA needs to understand the opportunities that would work in their favour in democratic politics, if they are to actively negotiate and participate in resolving the national question. It remains to be seen whether or not the Tamil political parties would be able to make any influence on either Presidential candidates to make a firm offer on devolution of power to the Tamil community. Firstly the political character of the alliances would obstruct making such an offer. Secondly both candidates are being led by them rather than leading the alliances as far as the resolution of the national question is concerned.

The defining issue of this election should be expanding democracy particularly explaining to the people the need to re-constitute the post independent Sri Lanka state to devolve the political power to the minorities within a united Sri Lanka. The JVP with its violent history of anti-devolutionary political and military campaign between 1987-89 against devolving power to the Tamil community would contribute to maintain the  essence of Sarath Fonseka’s  ideological and  political line that Sri Lanka belongs the   to  the Sinhalese. It would be hard to argue that General Fonseka’s has changed his ideological and political ideology regarding the minorities’ political demands overnight.  The Sri Lankan political leadership again will miss the historic political opportunity to provide a lasting solution to the Tamil national question.  It would be quite an uphill political task for any Tamil political party to ask the Tamils to vote for the ex-General who led the war against the LTTE without the promise of substantial political rights for the Tamil community in return.

Both Presidential candidates should explain how they are going to resolve the national question and the need to devolve power in clear terms. Any ambiguity or playing with narrow national interest will ruin our ability to restore and maintain a healthy democratic culture. If we do not provide a solution to the Tamil community based on democratic rights we will never get rid of the culture of impunity or restore media freedom and other basic elements of good governance. We need to resolve the historical grievances of Tamils not because it would negate the possibility of another ethnic rebellion, but because it is a right and civilized political act to follow by the political leadership in the country. Never before in our political history has two powerful men vying for the Presidency had the historic opportunity to resolve the burning issue of our democracy, the Tamil National Question. Never before in our electoral history has the fate of our democracy been so dependent upon the ability of these two leaders to transcend the confines of the Sinhalese majority.  That is why this election will be unique if a solution is found .It will be a disappointment if it fails. We are not able to claim our national pride when our people continue to queue up on the shores of other countries for political asylum claiming persecution on the grounds of ethnic discrimination. Those claims are not easy to refute when the IDP camps form a system of suppressive human habitation of the post war Sri Lanka. During the war and the post war period Sri Lanka has dispatched thousands of Tamils to other parts of the world. Almost all Tamil immigrants have a tragic story to convey to fellow human beings. The Presidential candidates must focus on building up our nation giving equal opportunities to its’ every member, irrespective of their ethnicity and removing discrimination in all spheres of life. When our country men and their families with children flung into the sea in search of a safer place to live because they speak a different language with a different culture our ability of tolerance and respect for human diversity becomes highly questionable and makes us inadequate humankind.

It is a political and moral responsibility of the Presidential candidates if they want to lead this nation they should question their own conscience and humanity and provide a reasonable political solution so that all Sri Lankans can live with dignity. So far it is unconvincing that they will have the political courage and honesty to tackle this issue head on.