Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory in Sri Lanka’s presidential election has exceeded all expectations, including the most optimistic projections made within the President’s camp on the basis of hard-nosed pre-election opinion polls. The 17.73 percentage point margin of win is a reaffirmation of the maturity and good sense of ordinary voters who, given a choice between an experienced political leader in the saddle and an unpredictable adventurer sponsored by an unnatural combination of political irreconcilables, made it a virtual no-contest at the national level. The divergence in the voting behaviour of the Tamil minority and the Sinhala majority was as striking as it was expected; in turnout as well as choice of candidate, they behaved as polar opposites. This gives us a measure of the trust gap in the polity that needs to be bridged if Sri Lanka is to do well in future. Unfortunately, the election was also unusually bitter, with unsubstantiated allegations, personal attacks, and conspiracy theories flying thick and fast and the challenger, retired General Sarath Fonseka, introducing a paranoid note into the campaigning.
Everybody knew in advance that it was the successful ending of the 26-year-old civil war and the elimination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as a politico-military formation that had pre-determined the character of a presidential election brought forward by two years. Everybody also knew that Army Commander Fonseka commanded the respect of his men and had a reputation for professionalism — as long as he stayed a soldier. The problem was that, from time to time, he crossed the lines and betrayed vaingloriousness, chauvinism, foot-in-the-mouth disease symptoms, and hints of political ambition. The last thing Sri Lanka needed at this juncture was yet another South Asian variant of Bonapartism, or any more politicisation of the military that we have witnessed in recent months. Instead of waging a good political and ideological fight, the combined forces of the Opposition – the centre-right United National Party, the ultra-left Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, the minor league Sri Lanka Freedom Party (Mahajana wing), and the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance — showed appalling political judgment in lining up behind a candidate whose agenda for change was so vague, so empty-headed, and so self-contradictory that it made no political sense and, in fact, damaged the credibility of his sponsors. It is by no means clear that a serious UNP candidate like Ranil Wickramasinghe would have fared worse than General Fonseka, who is not even a registered voter, in a presidential contest. After this drama, politics in the island can return to a more normal state ahead of parliamentary elections, which are due in April 2010. The hope is that the campaigning will be on real issues, most importantly, a just and sustainable political solution to the Tamil question based on genuine devolution of power within a united Sri Lanka, and revitalisation and development of the war-ravaged areas of the North.