To say that the decision by Sri Lanka’s major opposition parties to field Sarath Fonseka, the prematurely retired general, as their consensus candidate in the January 26 presidential election against the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa is opportunist is to state the obvious. The more serious question is what kind of political and ideological message the United National Party, the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana, and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (Mahajana wing) are sending to the people, the Sinhalese, the Tamils, and the other ethnic groups. Is this an invitation to yet another South Asian variant of Bonapartism? This is the first time in the 61-year-old history of independent Sri Lanka that a mainstream effort is being made to politicise the military, which has unswervingly stuck to its job unlike some of its counterparts in the region. The island nation stands at a crossroads of history following the comprehensive military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. There is a new opportunity to redefine and settle the terms of unstable relationship between the 75 per cent Sinhalese majority and the Tamil and Muslim minorities on the basis of genuine devolution, equality, and justice. President Rajapaksa, who has remained cool and confident in the thick of this drama, says he chose to advance the presidential election by two years in order to restore to the people of the Northern Province the right to a free vote that was snatched away by the Tigers. There is absolutely no reason for any one to grudge him the sentiment.
Opposition parties have a lawful right to go for their best shot at the top political job, especially when the odds seem stacked against them. Moreover, the combined Sri Lankan opposition can be given some credit for placing on the agenda the issue of the long-promised abolition, or at least whittling down of the powers, of the executive presidency. To be fair, Army Chief 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 quirkiness, triumphalism, chauvinism, and hints of political ambition. At the height of the Eelam War IV (August 2006 to May 2009), he went on record with assertions like “I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese” and that the minority communities “can live in this country with us but they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things.” Immediately after the final victory over the Tigers, he went completely over the top — publicly demanding a 50 per cent increase in the Army’s numerical strength for the peacetime challenge! Nor were the general’s political transgressions confined to domestic issues. He caused diplomatic embarrassment to the government he served by characterising sections of Tamil Nadu political leaders as a “bunch of jokers.” His most recent political pronouncement — that the 13th Amendment, which provides for devolution of powers to the provinces, needs “a re-look in the present context” — has mystified political observers. Ironically, Fonseka-in-uniform was waging a parallel war with his current political sponsors, some of whom dubbed him a racist and went so far as to accuse him of manipulating the data on Tiger cadres killed in the fighting to bolster the ‘sagging morale’ of the Army. Opportunism may be the norm in piquant situations such as the one that has arisen in Sri Lanka. But for the combined forces of the Opposition to be essaying into political adventurism, with a maverick and unpredictable retired general (in fancy dress) at their head, is to court humiliation and possibly trouble.