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

Reflections on the Underlying Issues that Determine the Outcome of the Election: Who has got the Edge?

The Presidential election battle is gathering momentum with incredible speed. Defections and pledges of support to Sarath Fonseka (SF) have injected some nervousness for the Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) campaign.  The challenge could either induce panic and disarray or revitalize the campaign. Crucial to success will be understanding the electoral pulse of the people, learning the lessons of the campaign trail and addressing people’s fears.  Humility and openness are greater assets in democratic politics than rigid attitudes or political arrogance.

The main thrust of this article is to make some reflections on the underlying forces that support the two camps and the issues they bring into the bitter battle that is being fought throughout the country.

Partisan loyalties

Throughout the long and destructive war with the LTTE the Sinhalese polity demonstrated an unprecedented unity, patience and sacrifice by burying their partisan loyalties. The government used this in fighting the war and benefited greatly from the political stability which was instrumental in providing the manpower and logistics for the final victory against the Tamil Tigers. There is no single village that was unaffected by the war effort and there are countless poor families who have either lost their sons and daughters or find they have returned, maimed for life. The victory against the LTTE has now changed what was a time limited and temporary political allegiance to the regime. Dormant partisan loyalties have started surfacing in the presidential election, showing through in the dynamism of the SF campaign. The possibility of ordinary people with old loyalties to the UNP as well as the village level leaders crossing over to the SF campaign has increased with the gathering momentum being shown by the opposition party.

The groundswell of support the current regime enjoyed after the war victory was incorrectly assessed as a monolithic support to the regime by its supporters and ideologues alike. The regime’s political assessment of the support had been over estimated. That was because of the Sinhalese triumphalism immediately witnessed after the victory was devoid of any party loyalty and the UNP had hopelessly underestimated the capability of the security forces’ ability to win the war. The UNP leadership ridiculed the war efforts during the war against the Tamil Tigers, an attitude which did not strike the right chord with ordinary people who were intimidated and panicked about the menace of the LTTE violence and murders in the South. The ordinary masses appeared as aligned with the government war efforts. After the war was won the war victory against the LTTE itself was an affront to the UNP political leadership. However, Sarath Fonseka’s defection from the political and military leadership of the government as well other factors which will be discussed later, appear to have contributed to change the balance of political forces in favor of the opposition. The UNP old partisan support has started gaining political strength and SF has generated an unexpected dynamism in the Opposition campaign now.  The re-emergence of unresolved political issues in the election campaign and the lack of satisfactory answers by the current regime in relation to the allegations of corruption, nepotism and the culture of impunity along with the election violence will continue to provide new momentum and energy to the SF campaign until the election day. Sarath Fonseka’s campaign has been able to reconnect with the traditional UNP support base in cities and other areas where they were historically dominant. This will be a crucial factor in the SF’s campaign in days to come until 26th January.

Sinhalese hegemonic forces

SF’s defection from the political and military leadership has become a major contention between MR and SF over their respective contribution to the war and its victory. What was more crucial and determining factor? Is it political or military leadership? In the South whoever dominates the Sinhalese hegemonic forces will have the edge over the other person.  In challenging MR’s politically exclusive claim for the victory against the LTTE, a huge vote winner in the South, SF appears to have divided Sinhalese hegemonic forces right in the middle. However, the challenge has not been strong enough to beat MR’s dominance. The mass perception is that no other Sri Lankan leader would have withstood the enormous pressure the Western countries were putting on him to stop the war against the LTTE. Secondly, SF himself has acknowledged that MR’s leadership was a vital factor for the victory against the Tamil Tigers and this political recognition will contribute to give an added edge to MR over SF.

However, having an edge over SF within the Sinhalese polity presents another difficulty for MR. Any leader who has a political dominance over the Sinhalese hegemonic forces will have to follow the social and political rules which forbid him to devolve the power if he wants to maintain that dominance. This has been the route to political and electoral success for Sinhalese leaders, to the detriment of greater political devolution in Sri Lanka.  If MR maintains his edge over SR by invoking the forces of Sinhalese political hegemony, he will then be forced to prevent the opening of the democratic political space to the Tamil people. This has prevented MR from providing any firm assurance of political or democratic rights to the Tamil community. In order to maintain that dominance MR’s campaign has alleged that the TNA and the Opposition campaign have signed a secret agreement. This shows the historical duplicity of the Sinhalese leadership, with regard to the democratic rights of minorities, changing their tune when they address the Sinhalese polity whilst making other kinds of promises in the North and East.

Certain sections of the Sinhalese hegemonic forces draw their ideological and political strength and militancy from the JVP who will not support any devolution of power. The JVP’s presence in the SF campaign acts as a   militant bulwark also working against the devolution of power and any extension of the democratic space in the North and East.

Therefore any political victory that is dependent upon making overtures to Sinhalese nationalist sentiments will prevent the essential work of pluralistic and democratic nation building. In order to break this political deadlock the Sinhalese leadership will have to be open and honest and explain to the masses the maximum devolution they could offer to the Tamil community within a united Sri Lanka.

Political culture

One of the most difficult and unanswerable issues facing the MR campaign is nepotism, corruption and culture of impunity that they have allowed to flourish in the country. This political culture has started to haunt them in their campaign. In such a political culture the masses have no way out other than the regime change when fear prevents them from exercising freedom of speech, where dissent is punished with death and physical assaults, and where the rule of law falters. The MR campaign’s advantage could depend on whether the Sinhalese constituency is prepared to forget these very serious issues of authoritarian tendencies in the name of defeating the Tamil Tigers. This remains to be seen. However, the SF campaign and its political alliance of parties have a history of democratic rights violations and murder and they are no strangers to this culture of repressive politics. The UNP in its inception served against the interest of the people and their periods of power in the country has been the most repressive. Even the JVP has been responsible for horrific and gruesome murders of their political adversaries. It is laughable that they speak against the current political culture when they have not acknowledged their violent political extremism. In view of this it appears that both SF and MR campaigns were equally responsible for the anti democratic political culture. As the current Government, seeking re-election it remains incumbent on the MR campaign to reassure people of their commitment and plan of action to end corrupt, nepotistic politics and the culture of impunity if they want to maintain the edge over the SF campaign to serve the people of this country.

Crucial nature of the Tamil vote

The TNA’s pledge of support to the SF is a boost to his campaign. Apparently this support is offered to him without any substantial promise to the TNA on any devolution of power. This is an interesting development. There is a historical connection between the Tamil vote and the UNP.The Federal Party served during 1965-69 in the Dudley Senanayake government for a brief period. This historical affinity has resurfaced following the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. During the war against the Tamil Tigers the UNP’s public statements in devaluing the security forces gains also would have had some impact on the TNA and the Tamil voters for their support to the SF campaign. Then again  it was Ranil Wickramasinhe who signed the historic peace deal with the Tamil Tigers in 2004.After all it was the current regime’s political and military campaign that defeated the  Tamil Tigers and  the TNA the proxy of the LTTE has no political interests to re-elect the incumbent President. Since the Sinhalese triumphalism had contributed to the overconfidence of an overwhelming electoral success of MR, he was unable to offer anything to the TNA’s demands. It remains to be seen how much support the TNA can command and whether its support will make any significant difference to the success of the SF campaign. However, it appears that the MR campaign still maintains the edge over the SF campaign in the South and if the Tamil vote and turnout is substantial, it has the capacity to offset this lead. Then the Tamil vote could determine the final outcome.


It appears that the election is   reshaping the political forces that existed before the war. It is also bringing to the fore the old political problems. This election finds Sri Lanka standing at a crossroads. It is an indictment of our political parties that following the defeat of the Tigers and the opportunity to win the peace, all that is on offer to the voter is a choice between the anti democratic histories and repressive nature of the competing  parties. At stake is nothing less than the future of our fragile democracy.