The people of Sri Lanka have voted and chosen Mahinda Rajapakse as President once again with a bigger margin than 2005. The President has defeated his former army chief General (retired) Sarath Fonseka on 26 January 2010. The elections, called almost two years prior to the completion of term, were a tactical move by Rajapakse to convert his recently concluded military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) into an electoral one, a move that worked. The clean sweep that the United People’s freedom Alliance (UPFA) made in the Southern Provincial Council elections in October last year was an indication of how things could be. The UPFA won Galle, Matara and Hambanatota districts winning 38 seats and nearly 68 per cent of the votes. The United National Party (UNP) managed to come a distant second with a mere 26 per cent. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which was known to have a stronghold in the south managed only three seats and six per cent of the votes polled. The choice of General Fonseka as a candidate of the united opposition seemed like a coup of sorts by the UNP, JVP and Mangala Samaraweera. It brought together a motley group of 14 parties and put up an opponent from the winning combination itself to make a contest out of a no-contest.
Psephologists and political analysts calculated that this would split the majoritarian Sinhala vote between Rajapkase and Fonseka - both sharing spoils of war. The minorities would therefore tilt the balance. Electoral developments in January added fillip to the electoral momentum of the combined opposition. The decision of Batticaloa Mayor, Sivageetha Prabhakaran of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and more importantly the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), an umbrella of Tamil parties to support Fonseka raised the hopes of the united opposition. It is ironical that the TNA had lent its support to the man who is known to have been minority unfriendly in the past. Their choice seems to be based more on political expediency, made after separate meetings with the two contestants. Post-electoral arithmetic indicates clearly that the Sinhala south voted overwhelmingly in favour of Rajapakse while there was less than 30 per cent voting in Tamil areas. This is unfortunate and dangerous for any democracy because it sends a message to majoritarian parties that they do not need minority votes. Sometimes democracy becomes a number game with electoral victory being the high point, and victory can be heady. It can lead to reduced attention to minority needs and demands which can sow seeds of discontent, leading to further polarization of society and polity. Sri Lanka has learnt this the hard way and been through a very violent period in its history for nearly three decades. It cannot afford to allow history to repeat itself. The united opposition too should stand tall and respect the mandate of the 4.17 million people who have voted for it, and play the role of a responsible and reasonable opposition.
During the last leg of the war particularly in the last three years, there was severe erosion of democratic space, institutions and freedom of speech. The end of military warfare needs to restore genuine democracy and governance structures in place so that peace is stable and sustainable. It would be necessary to repair institutions like the judiciary and media which were significantly compromised in the course of decades of war induced Emergency Rule, which the government has not yet lifted. There are other pressing issues for the Tamil and Muslim minorities. People are still displaced and living in fear, harassment at check points. Lack of transparency, unemployment, and suppression of media are other issues which are crucial. Unfortunately the blocking of several websites by Sri Lanka Telecom since the day counting of ballots started and army presence outside the hotel where Fonseka and his team were staying are not positive signs.
One of the important issues that came up during elections was the proposal to end the executive presidency. The first of Fonseka’s ten-point manifesto was ‘winning over peace by establishing democracy’ which will be achieved through the abolition of an executive presidency. Rajapakse responded to Fonseka’s proposal in a more guarded way by promising to reduce ‘unnecessary powers’ of the executive presidency. The unlimited powers vested in the hands of an Executive President and less accountability to Parliament have been a matter of serious concern both practically and theoretically since JR Jayewardene introduced Executive Presidency replacing the Westminster model in 1978. Though Chandrika Kumaratunga promised to return to the model of Parliamentary democracy during her first campaign in 1994, she remained in power for two consecutive terms and did not abolish it. So this would probably be a big challenge ahead for the Sri Lankan President. Since the previous elections were conducted at the height of the conflict it was a mandate to end the war. Let this be a mandate for peace and take the country forward to make it the ‘emerging wonder of Asia’.