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

Post-presidential elections: The new challenges before Sri Lanka

Citizens are living through a politically decisive week with just days to elect Sri Lanka’s next Executive President. The next elected Chief Executive, unlike his predecessors, will acquire a unique place in the island’s political history as the country’s first post war president.  In many ways, it is an honour. It also comes with attendant problems, multiple challenges and unique opportunities.

As a violently fought campaigns draws to a close casting aside any hope of a free and fair poll, the main political platforms demonstrate a disappointing quality in their failure to address crucial issues that need urgent attention, a process that is mandatory to ensure the transition of a nation after 30 years of a protracted war.

Burden on state coffers
For decades, the war weighed heavily on the island’s Exchequer.  According to Deputy Finance Minister, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya, what was lost to this nation due to military costs, investments lost and properties destroyed as a direct result of the war totals to a staggering Rs. 23,000 million.  With the war finally coming to an end, our country has the opportunity to move towards an era of accelerated growth.

The war effectively turned Sri Lanka into a national security state, with the military defeat of the LTTE achieved at great human and financial cost. Good governance and civil liberties took severe beatings in the process.  There are little or no visible signs of demilitarization of this society to ensure normalcy and to prepare for an era of growth and prosperity.

The election campaigns now in their final stages are replete with promises that range from dismantling high security zones and immediately resettling internally displaced to generating thousands of jobs and curbing corruption.  In all these discussions, a vital aspect continues to go missing – the political phase which is vital to complete this country’s transition from a national security state to a post war, growth- driven and politically mature nation.

With the burdensome war consigned to history, Sri Lanka is presented with a unique opportunity to develop itself.  The people, having borne the brunt of the war for three decades collectively deserve something better than a second edition of ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ or a ‘common minimum program’ from the common opposition candidate which are beautifully- worded but incorporate unrealistic pledges.

The next president has multiple challenges before him and it is vital that he embraces the political reality of addressing the root causes that fuelled Tamil militancy to a full-blown war. Only such an approach can help the island achieve its true potential and leave our tragic past truly behind.

New political priorities
The next Chief Executive will have many priorities including achieving rapid economic progress, curbing corruption, a development drive, the resettlement and rehabilitation of the internally displaced, demilitarization, ethnic integration and new efforts at nation building.

Six months after the war, the citizenry would have hoped for a resounding commitment from the incumbent to address the above issues and a work plan to achieve them, than a costly and premature presidential race.  Like this writer, perhaps others too were hopeful that post war, this country would have moved towards that illusive yet vital second stage – the post war political phase to address the root causes of the separatist movement.

The two main candidates have proved disappointing in this area. For the plethora of promises made from these multi hued platforms including the use of the military victory as a key bargaining chip, there is hypocritical reluctance to make any commitment to pursue a permanent solution to the political question.

Perhaps there is little reason to be surprised by such a lack of response. Both Mahinda Rajapakse and Gen. Sarath Fonseka are resigned to the reality of rainbow coalitions and feel shackled by their diverse demands. At this moment, political prudence requires them not to ruffle feathers and to maintain diplomatic silence despite the enormity of the question.

This approach however, is reminiscent of the political behaviour of successive leaders who pussy- footed with the political demands of the Tamil community dating back to the time of the late G G Ponnambalam and his demand for equal representation for Tamils.

Diluted Tamil parties
So much water had flown since Ponnambalam’s demand and the walkout by the formidable Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) from parliament expressing vehement opposition to the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution.

Post war, the dilution of formidable Tamil political parties like the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) and TULF is complete. The conversion of these political parties into LTTE proxies and the subsequent splits within parties too can now be consigned to our chequered political history.

Following the military defeat of the LTTE, the Tamil political parties, once forced to acknowledge the Liberation Tigers as the sole representatives of the Tamil people and forced to take directives from the armed group is now presented with an opportunity to make independent political decisions.  They are no longer parties held hostage by the Tigers and forced to fall in line.  Fragmented though they may be today, it marks a new beginning for the Tamil political leadership.

Admittedly, their bargaining clout has significantly reduced with the defeat of the LTTE. Yet, these parties have members elected by popular vote who can offer legitimate representation to the diverse Tamil political viewpoints.

Deep reluctance
That perhaps is why the reluctance of the southern political leadership to complete the transition is more disappointing.  Driven by a desire to simply garner the support of Tamil political parties in a bid to magnify their vote base by January 26, the Tamil political question just as the military defeat of the LTTE are reduced to campaign slogans. But the main contenders are slow to promote the concept of a political solution though they relish the opportunity to claim sole proprietorship over the war victory.

Meanwhile, TULF Leader V. Anandasangaree and TNA Leader R. Sampanthan have both listed out some urgent concerns to be addressed by the main candidates during and after the poll. But these views appear to have fallen on deaf ears in a fierce battle for preferential votes.

In retrospect, this is indeed the approach adopted by the southern leaders since the Thimpu talks, the first attempt to bring about a consensus through politically addressing the Tamil question.  A reluctant President J R Jayawardene next entered into an Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord under duress largely to prevent direct Indian intervention.  The treaty signed under compulsion failed to gain true acceptance by the Sri Lankan people and was viewed as repulsive act of political interference by India.

Things have altered significantly since the Jayawardene era.  India played a vital role in militarily defeating the LTTE this time around.  Though concerned about possible war crimes and human rights abuses, the international community too could not compel Sri Lanka to abandon the war effort in a backdrop of broad world consensus post 9/11 on the need to crush global terror.

Peace Accord
As a direct result of the signed Accord, Provincial Councils were introduced through an amendment to the Constitution.  These bodies were created to devolve power to the periphery and especially to the northeast to address the political demands behind the growing Tail militant movements.

The northeastern provincial council established under the then merged northern and eastern provinces was not allowed to function and its frustrated Chief Minister Varatharajah Perumal raised the Eelam flag after and soon fled the country.  The provincial body never took off while northern militancy intensified.

Following the demerger of the northeast by a Supreme Court order, a separate provincial council for the Eastern Province is now in operation.  A similar body in the north yet to become a reality.

In retrospect, the only real power sharing effort this country has ever known stemmed from the Thirteenth Amendment. Attempts by four presidents thereafter to engage the LTTE in a dialogue process proved futile.

Not go beyond
President Rajapakse has resolutely stuck to his commitment to fully implement the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.  Conversely, this also means his reluctance to go beyond the provincial council system.  Interestingly, Rakapakse, who is no believer of power sharing, is also the politician who mobilized the people to take to streets opposing the establishment of provincial councils.

Perhaps those who have knowledge about Rajapakse’s inherent reluctance to share political power may concede that the incumbent president may not be persuaded to go beyond the existing constitutional amendment.

On the other hand, the Common Opposition Presidential Candidate Gen. Sarath Fonseka is not a man sympathetic to power devolution either. In fact he has famously referred to minorities as creepers that grow around the tree, the tree of course meaning the majority community.  Many have been his pronouncements about ‘minorities living at the pleasure of the majority’. It is hoped that his entry into mainstream politics may have softened the racist thinning at least to accommodate divergent groups on his platform.

Fonseka today is a prisoner of his rainbow coalition partners despite TNA’s presence by his side.

The Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Perauna (JVP) is unlikely to extend support to extensive devolution as much as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) would covet the same complete with a merged northeast, if possible.  The Sri Lankan Muslim Congress (SLMC) would ideally wish for a separate unit within the Eastern Province but will not wish for a merged northeast which would place the Muslim community in a vulnerable position.

Whatever the political realities of the two main candidates may be and irrespective of who wins the election, it is vital that the next Head of State addresses the actual cause behind the Tamil uprising.  Only then can this country experience permanent peace.

Broad political consensus
The next Sri Lankan President will inherit significant political baggage. It will be up to him to steer this country towards an era of prosperity and undertake a massive development drive.  He will also be tasked to crown the military victory with a political solution to prevent a future bloodbath.

For too long the real Tamil political opinion was forced into submission by the LTTE that brooked no opposition.  This would be the real test before the country’s next national leadership.  If this glorious moment to uproot the root of militancy is missed, the future could well be marred by further violence.

Post January 26, there should be political commitment to enter a broad consultation process with all political parties, both in and outside parliament to reach broad consensus. Let that process yield the vital answers to the questions that plague and persist our country even post-war. Let that process decide whether people wish for a merged northeast or not and what the contours of a sharing mechanism should be.

What is important is to ensure that Sri Lankan swiftly move into that phase with the urgency it deserves.