Photo courtesy Transcurrents / by Tony Ashby, AFP
The Rajapakse Administration is gearing up to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM) later this year, in November. Last weekend’s news papers carried an interesting comment attributed to President Rajapakse that his government must be cautious that it does not face a repeat of history of a previous SLFP government, under Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike, which also very successfully hosted a significant international conference, the Non Aligned Movements’ (NAM) heads of government summit in 1976 but thereafter comprehensively lost the general elections, shortly thereafter in 1977. From which political wilderness, the SLFP did not come back for seventeen long years, until under former President Chandrika Kumaratunga the SLFP led People’s Alliance, in 1994 defeated the UNP. A state of affairs, which except for a brief and rather unsuccessful co-habitation experience for two years in 2002 and 2003, continues nineteen years hence, of which the past seven years has been under President Rajapakse.
The factors that led to the SLFP’s comprehensive defeat in 1977 were largely economic and quite unrelated to the foreign policy of the SLPF, which was actually quite successful during that period. Sri Lanka boxed way above its weight class in international relations. However, currently for the Rajapakse Administration its decision to host the CHOGM has resulted in several pressures on its domestic policy, which is constraining the Rajapakse Administration’s governing impulses, especially its national or ethnic policy and post war reconciliation policy.
President Rajapakse had two very different presidential election victories, pre war in 2005 and post war in 2010. In 2005 he barely squeaked in by a mere two (2%) percent majority over his rival, the much maligned Opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe. Post war in 2010, he won by a huge seventeen (17%) percent over his rival, Democratic Party leader General Fonseka. However in both election victories, the similarity was that President Rajapakse really only secured the Sinhala vote. In 2005, this would have been insufficient to win election, except that the LTTE ensured his victory, by calling for a boycott of the polls by Tamils. President Rajapakse’s victory margin of 180,000 votes being less than the likely UNP vote in the consequently polls boycotted Tamil majority Jaffna district which had over 320,000 registered voters and the likely UNP large majority there would have seen a Ranil Wickremasinghe victory. However, post war in 2010, President Rajapakse followed up with a 57% popular vote victory, gaining a preponderance of the Sinhala vote.
In both elections however, President Rajapakse has only secured the Sinhala vote. This reality has several policy implications for the Administration. One option would have been to use their political capital to expand the support base further and actually make the governing coalitions which includes a whole host of ethnic minority parties, especially Muslim parties into an electoral coalition which would be unbeatable. However the Administration advisers have, possibly due to their ethnic Sinhala nationalistic ideology taken the opposite and more conservative lesson from their poll results. They are convinced that the only future and sustainable support base for the Rajapakse regime is a purely Sinhala vote base and accordingly we witnesses, an Administration that is the most hostile, policy wise, towards minorities. An Administration that seeks to eliminate the limited devolution currently in existence, prevents the singing of the national anthem in Tamil among mono lingual Tamil speakers, creates an atmosphere where hate mongering and low level violence against religious minorities goes on with impunity, an intolerance of dissent and an unprecedented assault on the independence of the judiciary and completely ignoring the key recommendations of the post war Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).
Now the CHOGM summit is not costless, to the Rajapakse Government in policy terms. The Commonwealth recently adopted a human rights charter, which underscores the normal requirement that an incoming summit chair, namely President Rajapakse and his Administration needs to abide by basic international human rights norms and minority protections. It is on this basis that Commonwealth member nations have been making representations to Sri Lanka about its human rights and post war reconciliation process. Representations that dovetail with the growing consensus at the UNHRC, that Sri Lanka should be held accountable for its international commitments and obligations on human rights and post war reconciliation.
Accordingly despite its own inclinations to the opposite, the regime is compelled to call a Northern Provincial Council election, differ its ad hoc attempts at nullifying the 13th amendment through the 19th amendment and even show a semblance of engagement with South Africa on lessons learnt from its own reconciliation process. The Attorney General rather predictably announces (quite unconvincingly) fresh investigations into the murder of the five students in Trincomalee and the assassination of the seventeen, Action Against Hunger, aid workers in Muttur. There is even a tactical pause in the anti Muslim violence by extremists groups, though not in their hate speech and propaganda war. Their command and control structures, obviously rather well attuned to their master’s voice.
However the internal and external political pressures on the regime are growing. The governance issues are causing slippage in the support of the Sinhala constituency for the Government. From University lecturers, the private bar, the urban poor, trade unions, minority religious groups, all are having serious concerns and issues with the Rajapakse Administration. The big question is whether ever larger doses of ethnic Sinhala nationalism (as quite distinct from a civic Sri Lankan patriotism), would make the Sinhala electorate continue to back the Rajapakse Administration, in the midst of growing concerns on governance and policies.