Colombo, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

The General and his necessary evils

Pradeep Peiris, December 2007

Mahinda Rajapakse has won another decisive battle. At the last Presidential election, the LTTE, for reasons unknown, boycotted the election while the Marxist voices of the JVP waged a heavy pro-Rajapakse campaign. This JVP-LTTE combination turned up trumps for Rajapakse once again during Friday’s “Battle of the Budget”. While the LTTE played the role of the devil to be defeated, the JVP, cabinet ministers and those who voted in favour of the budget the victory hailed it one small step towards vanquishing the LTTE. Therefore, while the LTTE has been a strong factor in the president’s mass appeal, the JVP has always played the role of redeemer – with its constant desire for military solution and it’s UNP-phobia. This was further vindicated by the recent poll (27th wave, PCI November 2007) results of the Peace Confidence Index of the Centre for Policy Alternatives. According to the poll, two years into Rajapkse’s tenure as President, an overwhelming majority of the Sinhala community are satisfied with his ‘commanding of the war.

Rajapakse’s victory in November 2005 was a significant one in Sri Lanka’s sixty year electoral history. He is the first president to rise from the south. Even though he is from a political family, he is not of the same elitist class as the Bandaranaike dynasty that lead the SLFP since it inception in 1952 . Rajapakse’s labour union activism and role he played during the JVP’s second uprising in 1987-89 in lobbing for human rights has given him the image of a working class hero. Although the breaking of the Bandaranaike dynasty lost him the support of Chandrika Kumaranathunge Bandaranaike, he rose strongly at the election attracting various nationalist and socialist forces by signing a series of agreements. Despite his narrow victory over Ranil Wickramasinghe at the election, he managed to stand out as a popular Sinhala leader.

The general of the Sinhalese
The pre-election poll conducted by Social Indicator on the eve of the November 2005 presidential election showed that Mahinda Rajapakse was the exclusive choice of the Sinhalese unlike Ranil Wickramasinghe who was supported by the Sinhalese as well as other minority communities. People who voted for the JHU at the 2004 election were split between Ranil and Mahinda while entire TNA constituencies supported Ranil. 45% of the SLMC support base preferred Ranil and only 18% decided to vote for Mahinda. At that time Mahinda was considered the best in handling the peace process (45%), reducing the cost of living (41%), reducing unemployment (46%), preserving law and order (53%), preserving culture (54%) and safeguarding the country (52%) by the Sinhala community. Therefore he has been primarily supported by the Sinhala nationalist forces and elected by the Sinhala community perhaps as a consequence of what he espoused on the election platform under the banner of “Mahinda Chinthanaya”, a phrase borrowed from Gunadasa Amarasekara’s and Nalin De Silva’s ‘Jathika Chinthanaya’.

Shifting political bases
Even though he made a few attempts to revive the stalled negotiation process heeding to the pressure of the international community, he was unable to change the tide of nationalistic fervour created during his election campaign. During his two-year tenure, he led the so-called ‘humanitarian operation’ from Mavil Aru to ‘liberate’ the East by crippling the already wounded CFA of 2002. The process of a negotiated settlement has slowly transformed itself to a process of war during Mahinda Rajapakse’s two year tenure as President. The war agenda of his election manifesto “ Mahinda Chinthanaya” has successfully become the agenda of the country. However, Rajapakse’s political support bases have undergone some drastic changes. The champions of his manifesto, Mr. Samaraweera as well as the JVP are now in the opposition. Instead of them, some UNPers and the UNP extremist by-product, the JHU, have taken the responsibility of waving the ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya’ banner. Despite his popularity amongst the masses he has had to struggle to retain his parliamentary majority by manoeuvring ripples of crossovers with offers of lucrative but less influential ministerial portfolios. The budget debate and vote exemplifies the weak authority that Mr. Rajapakse has in the legislature. The culture of crossovers has resulted in a minority government that exists at the mercy of the JVP. In this context, it is interesting to know whether this shift in political alliance is also reflected amongst Rajapakse’s constituencies.

Exclusive appeal
The result of the latest public opinion poll, PCI, provides an interesting insight to his popularity. According to public opinion assessed from the 12th to the 26th of November one can see that his two years as incumbent has left a positive impression on the Sinhalese and, to some extent, the Muslims. Tamils and Upcountry Tamils, on the other hand, express extremely low satisfaction with the way President Rajapakse has performed in preserving law and order, controlling the cost of living, preserving social culture, maintaining international relations, conducting the war and conducting peace negotiations. Outside of these considerations – except for the controlling of cost of living- at least more than half and, in many cases, a substantial majority of the Sinhala community are pleased with President Rajapakse’s performance. According to the Sinhala community, it is in his handling of the conflict that Rajapakse shines. An overwhelming majority (87%) of the Sinhala community express satisfaction with the way President Rajapakse has conducted the war. Although the killing of the LTTE’s political head, S. Thamilchelvan would have certainly boosted the popularity of the government war machine it would be wrong to state that this is the sole contributor for the Sinhala opinion. 50% of the Muslims too praise President Rajapakse’s performance in conducting the war whereas only 16% of the Tamil and 2% of the Up-country Tamil community is satisfied with the way the President is handling the war.

According to the public opinion poll, President Rajapakse economic management creates the most dissatisfaction among the people- regardless of ethnicity. According to government statistics ( inflation has increased from 10% in December 2005 to 17.2% by this month. The Government argues that due to the increase of world oil prices and high spending on the war, this increase was inevitable. The opposition blames the government’s wastage and bad governance for the high cost of living. However, the poll shows that one third of the Sinhala community is satisfied with the way President Rajapakse has managed the cost of living. The Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil communities are highly dissatisfied with Mr. Rajapakse’s performance in handling the cost of living. More than half of the Sinhala community (53%) state that the present high cost of living is a result of the escalation of violence in the North and East. A majority of the minority communities also believe that the escalation of violence is the main cause of the present cost of living. Therefore, though there is consensus amongst the majority and minority communities on the cause of the high cost of living, it has had a positive influence on the way the Sinhala community has evaluated President Rajapakse’s performance. At the same time, the case has been quite the opposite for the minorities. The poll further shows that about two third of the Sinhalese are willing to bear the present cost of living as the government is engaged in a war against the LTTE. However the minority communities state that they are not willing to bear the cost of living because the government is engaged in a war with the LTTE. This statistic explains why one third of the Sinhalese still think President Rajapakse’s performance in controlling the cost of living is satisfactory.

With friends like these…
It is not false to say that the JVP did more than the President’s own party- SLFP- in bringing him into power as President at the November 2005 election. Even while they occupy seats on the opposition bench, the leaders of the JVP still spread propaganda for President Rajapakse whilst criticizing the Government. Therefore it is not surprising to learn that President Rajapakse is popular amongst the JVP’s constituencies. What is puzzling is that UNP supporters also extend substantial satisfaction on the subject of President Rajapakse’s performance. The SLFPers and JVPers are overwhelmingly and equally satisfied with President Rajapakse’s performance in preserving law and order, preserving culture, handling international relations and the way he has conducted the war. Moreover, 40% of the UNPers too extend their satisfaction at President Rajapakse’s performance in these issues. Half of the UNP supporters are pleased with President Rajapakse’s contribution to preserving culture and conducting the war. However, over 70% of the UNPers and JVPers are dissatisfied with President Rajapakse’s record in controlling the cost of living. 30% of UNPers and 26% of JVPers believe the present high cost of living is due to the bad economic management of the Government.

The vendetta with the Bandaranaike family and the defection of SLFP strongmen like Mangala Samaraweera would certainly have created a rough sea for President Rajapakse’s journey. However, with strong support from his siblings, the president has managed to consolidate himself, as the poll shows that 78% of his party members are pleased with his performance in managing the party.

Tread one path
Therefore, Mahnida Rajapakse enjoys a strong popularity amongst Sinhalese due to his success against the LTTE, so far. He has set the political stage for a full scale war with the Tigers. His future popularity would largely be determined by the success of the war, therefore, president Rajapakse would continue to use war option rather than enter into negotiations to end the ethnic conflict. However, by now he must have realised that sustaining his popularity forces him to gamble. Because, any surprise attack of the LTTE – such as the recent explosions in Nugegoda and Narahenpita- coupled with skyrocketing cost of living could easily cause his unpopularity.

The advantage that Rajapakse would get in opting for the continuation of a military option, is that it would make it less difficult for JVP to rationalise their ‘no matter what’ support for the president. What is clearer is that from the period of the next election and thereafter – potentially be a phase of cohabitation between the president and a UNP government – Rajapakse would continually need the support of the JVP and the other nationalist forces, there is a strong potential for there. There remains, then, for him, only one path- the continuation of a hard lined military offensive.