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Lankan Roulette

[Outlook, Saturday, 19 December 2009 12:44 No Comment]

rajapakse_20091228 Ironically, war has come to dominate Sri Lanka’s first peace-time presidential election in 26 years. The historic event—scheduled for January 26—has turned into a battle between two mascots of the war against the separatist Tamil Tigers. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is bidding for re-election as the supreme civilian leader under whose regime the LTTE was vanquished. Challenging him is his former army commander Gen (retd) Sarath Fonseka, considered the key military strategist of the victory. Six months ago, as the Sri Lankan army decimated the LTTE, both Rajapaksa and Fonseka were toasted as heroes, gallant and resolute men who had extricated the country from the mire of death and destruction.

Even as Sri Lanka hoped for a better and secure future, Colombo bustled with speculation about Rajapaksa advancing the date of the presidential polls, due late 2011, to ride the tide of victory and secure another term. His own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was more than eager, hoping to cash in on Sinhalese nationalism, one of its founding principles. Rajapaksa had fought the 2005 presidential election promising to defeat the LTTE. As president, he had offered critical support to the army, warding off pressure from the West to halt the war against the Tigers. An election victory after that should have been par for the course.

But within days, Rajapaksa and Fonseka fell out, bringing about a dramatic change in the dynamics of Sri Lankan politics. Fonseka’s war credentials are indisputable—he had even been injured in a suicide bombing. The opposition, naturally, was quick to capitalise on their differences. As Fonseka began to speak out against Rajapaksa, the considerably liberal United National Party (UNP) and the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) cobbled up the United National Front (UNF), a coalition of 18 parties, to endorse the retired general’s candidacy. Traditionally, these two parties have been bitter foes. “We could get the JVP on board due to Fonseka. It would not have supported UNP leader Ranil Wickramasinghe as opposition nominee,” said Rauff Hakeem, leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC).

Fonseka’s decision to jump into the fray was a breather not only for the opposition, it’s looked upon as a sliver of hope for the beleaguered Tamil community. Fonseka played the part to the hilt, promising, as he did in an interview to Outlook, to look beyond the 1987 Indo-Lanka accord and the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution to find a political settlement for Tamils. They constitute 12 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population of 20 million, and most analysts feel their vote could determine the next president. In the 2005 election, for instance, if the people in areas under LTTE control had voted, Wickramasinghe could have defeated Rajapaksa, who won by a thin margin.

But can the Tamil community trust Fonseka over Rajapaksa? Or is it the proverbial case of getting caught between the devil and the deep sea? Arguably the largest political representative of the Tamil community is the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), an umbrella group of four parties which is yet to decide its strategy for the coming polls. In the 2004 general elections, the TNA polled 6.9 per cent of votes and sent 22 members to the 225-seat Parliament. However, the TNA is a divided house today.

Mahalingam K. Shivajilingam, a TNA MP from Jaffna, has decided to contest the presidential elections as an independent. He has the support of a handful of his colleagues from the alliance. “We don’t have much to choose between Rajapaksa and Fonseka but we need an electoral expression because our legitimate political aspirations must be met,” says TNA Jaffna parliamentarian N. Sri Kantha, who’s backing Shivajilingam. Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, leader of the TNA in Parliament, is holding his cards close to his chest. Sampanthan has met Rajapaksa and Fonseka to elicit a response from both on critical issues such as devolution of powers in the north and east and the future of three lakh displaced people.

“The TNA should reveal its position at the very last minute after watching how things play out in next few weeks,” says Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director, Centre for Policy Alternatives. A majority of the TNA MPs are in a dilemma. With the LTTE decimated, the TNA’s dreams of an Eelam is in tatters. On the other hand, the Tamil leaders feel that if they join the Rajapaksa or Fonseka camp, it could be interpreted as betraying their followers who have borne the brunt of war.

Then there are those who have freed themselves from the challenge of choices long ago. LTTE renegade Vinayamoorthy Muralitharan aka Karuna Amman remains in Rajapaksa’s SLFP, which he joined in ’08. Ditto the minister of social services K.N. Douglas Devananda, whose Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) prefers a “pragmatic” approach to the vexed issue of rights for minorities. There’s also Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, who, before he became chief minister of the eastern province last year, was known more for being an LTTE child soldier once. His Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) supports Rajapaksa but, according to some reports, he’s still mulling his options.

Says Jayadeva Uyangoda, who heads the department of political science and public policy, Colombo University, “Neither of the two main candidates are particularly attractive to the Tamil population. From the minority viewpoint, this election does not present a choice.” He says this despite the rhetoric in play. At the helm of the Sri Lankan war machine between August 2006 and May 2009, during which the army was accused of committing atrocities, Fonseka talks of setting right the country’s human rights record. Will people believe him? In contrast, Rajapaksa has said he will ‘not allow war heroes to be put before a war crimes tribunal’; that he would ‘never betray the security forces who have made tremendous sacrifices’.

For the battered Tamil population, the placement of war as the unique selling proposition of the January elections does not inspire much confidence. Talks of reconciliation might be the only way for political leaders to reconnect with people lost for years in the crossfire between the government and LTTE. Politicians and rights activists fear Tamils may boycott the elections but they warn that such a measure will adversely affect the community.

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