At a time when so many urgent tasks are pending â€“ not least that of rebuilding the war-ravaged areas of the country and resettling lakhs of IDPs in proper homes with proper facilities â€“ colossal expenditure on a premature election could be seen as criminally irresponsible. Why, then, was it undertaken? Clearly, the incumbent president sought to reinstate himself and his family in power while post-war euphoria was still high, and before the inevitable disenchantment with his regime gripped the majority of the population.
However, given that we are encumbered with this election, it certainly becomes more interesting with the prospect of a real challenge. It is true there are several candidates, but only two can realistically be expected to win: Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka. Do they offer us any choice at all?
When we remember that not so long ago Fonseka declared that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese, and that he played a major role not only in defeating the LTTE but in inflicting the enormous civilian casualties which accompanied that defeat, it comes as a surprise to find that Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MPs are supporting him. These MPs have betrayed their constituents in the past, acting at the behest of the LTTE rather than in the interests of their constituents. But now that the tyranny of their erstwhile armed master no longer rules them, it is likely that they have to represent their electorate more honestly in order to survive. So what possible reasons could they have for preferring Fonseka to Rajapaksa? The latter never expressed Sinhala supremacism in quite such a crass manner, though his actions showed him to be no less committed to it. Both were responsible for massive civilian casualties inflicted during the war; perhaps Rajapaksa was slightly more responsible, as the ultimate commander-in-chief, but Fonseka displayed no reluctance to carry out his orders. At first sight, there seems to be no reason why Tamils of the North and East should vote for either of them.
However, when we consider that some of the other minority parties have also thrown their weight behind Fonseka, and even anti-LTTE Tamils have observed that it was only after Fonseka joined the fray that the Vanni IDPs were released from detention, two interesting hypotheses emerge. One is that just as much as the carnage at the end of the war, it is the events that preceded and followed it which are responsible for the disenchantment of minorities with Rajapaksa. Fonseka has promised an end to the state of Emergency and the ‘white van’ culture of disappearances and extrajuducial killings, but makes no mention of a political settlement. His promises are minimal, and there is no guarantee that he will deliver on them. WhatÂ is guaranteed, however, is that if Rajapaksa comes back to power, there will be no political settlement, nor an end to the culture of impunity for gross abuses of human rights. He has had plenty of opportunities to achieve these things, and has failed to do so. Even if he claims it was impossible to bring about a just political settlement and reconciliation between communities during the war, he could have achieved these goals in the two-and-a-half years of his incumbency remaining after the war ended. The cruel treatment of Tamil IDPs after the war is simply one indication that he had no such agenda in mind. Partial restoration of freedom of movement in the North started only after it became clear that he could no longer count on overwhelming support from Sinhalese voters.
As Namini Wijedasa pointed out, the fact that the TNA could be won over to support Fonseka by a written commitment from him to restore basic democratic rights and civil liberties to Tamils should make us ask: why were these not restored earlier? President Rajapaksa gave us the answer when he said at an election rally that he would abrogate this agreement (!) if he were re-elected: i.e., he gave us a commitment that minorities would continue to be deprived of basic democratic rights and civil liberties if he came to power. His ‘Mahinda Chintanaya 2010’ promises to ‘accord Buddhism pride of place as the state religion,’ and to retain the ‘Unitary state’. His attempt to woo Sinhalese Buddhist voters by projecting himself as the most hardline Sinhala supremacist in the fray disregards the risk that carrying out his promises would re-create precisely the conditions that led to the war in the first place. Genuine Buddhists would not want their great and noble religion to be hijacked thus by a corrupt, unjust and brutal state.
The second hypothesis is that Tamils and Muslims are no less concerned about general issues of democracy and governance than their Sinhalese compatriots. For the majority of Sinhalese, Rajapaksa’s strongest recommendation is that he presided over the demise of the LTTE. But just as Fonseka shares the blame for crimes committed at the end of the war, he shares the glory for ending the threat of terrorist separatism. Again, perhaps Rajapaksa is more responsible for the victory because he was ultimate commander-in-chief, yet it should be obvious that he could not have achieved the victory without Fonseka. On this count, therefore, there is not much to choose between them.
The foremost grievance of Sinhalese opponents of the incumbent seems to be the mind-boggling levels of nepotism and corruption that have engulfed the country during his rule. According to Ven. Dhambara Amila Thero, 391 members of the Rajapaksa family have been installed as heads in various government institutions. If this is anywhere near the truth, it must surely be unprecedented in the thousands of years ofÂ Sri Lanka’s history! That one family should monopolise so much power and wealth while the majority are struggling to survive is an understandable source of bitterness.
This is exacerbated by the shameful abuse of this power. A recent example is the use of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC), a public body, to order all mobile operators to send a free SMS to their subscribers on 1 January supporting the president’s re-election bid. As an irate subscriber commented on Groundviews, ‘However much Mr Rajapakse and his humungous extended family believe that anything called an institution in this country â€“ from every branch of government to the media, the arts, sports, and civil society, to St Thomas’ College â€“ is theirs for the taking, invading and populating, I am sorry to say it is not so; and if we value our dignity and democratic citizenship, we should tell them that very clearly.’
The ugly face of this abuse of power is illustrated by the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga a year ago. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s responses in a BBC interview made it clear that this was in reprisal for his criticisms of the regime, which allegedly put him in the camp of the terrorists. The fact that the self-confessed killer, Mervyn Silva, remains at large and continues to be close to the president fuels the suspicion that he was acting as the Rajapaksa brothers’ hit-man. No one can feel safe under such mafia-like conditions unless they are part of the president’s coterie.
Fonseka has promised to abolish the Executive Presidency, implement the 17th Amendment and end the state of Emergency: measures which would go some way towards re-establishing the rule of law and checking the corruption, nepotism and abuse of absolute power that mires the present regime. Again, there is no guarantee that he will keep his promises if elected to power. But the fact that these measures have not already been taken by the incumbent president is evidence that if Rajapaksa were re-elected, this would merely enable his regime to ‘consolidate its stranglehold on power,’ to quote Lasantha’s widow, Sonali Samarasinghe Wickramatunga, and make the further subversion of democracy and looting of our country inevitable.
It is important to note that even if Rajapaksa was the right leader to win the war against the LTTE, this does not make him the right leader in peace-time. Churchill, a great leader during World War II and immensely popular at its end, nonetheless lost in the 1945 elections. Clearly, the qualities that are necessary for winning a war are not the same as the qualities required in a peace-time leader. The British electorate was wise enough not to allow their gratitude to Churchill blind them to the fact that he was not the best leader for the post-war period. Rajapaksa may have the ruthlessness required to eliminate the LTTE, but the demise of the Constitutional Council, vicious attacks on freedom of expression, and discriminatory treatment of Tamils and Muslims have resulted in the inexorable shrinking of democratic space during his term as president. This has continued even after the end of the war. It should be clear that he lacks the qualities of a good peace-time leader. Perhaps he is aware of this fact, which is why he keeps trumpeting the debt owed to him on account of his success in wiping out the LTTE.
It would be a tragic irony indeed if the Sinhalese people ofÂ Sri LankaÂ express their gratitude to Rajapaksa for ending the war by re-electing him, and thereby allow him to create the conditions for a new terrorist separatist war! There is no doubt whatsoever that our country is better off without the LTTE. But if Rajapaksa’s only positive achievement is that he has eliminated it (and it is impossible to think of any others), then it most emphatically means that he doesÂ not deserve our votes, even as a second preference.
It remains to be seen whether the unlikely consortium which has assembled to support the common opposition presidential candidate will actually deliver in terms of votes. If it does, that would suggest that a large section ofÂ Sri Lanka’s population finds the present dispensation intolerable. As one despairing citizen put it, ‘When you are in a frying pan, you have to jump!’ There is, of course, a serious risk that you will land in the fire and perish anyway, but there is also a slim chance that you will jump clear of the fire and escape. It looks as if many of those who vote for Fonseka will do so not because they have any illusions in him, but because they are grasping at the fragile hope that a change of president will open up some democratic space, whereas a return of the incumbent will mean that we remain in the frying pan and get fried.