President Mahinda Rajapaksa has scored a stunning victory in Sri Lanka’s presidential election. While the winning margin of 17.73 per cent is remarkable, the opposition candidate, retired Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka, has asked for an annulment of the election, alleging intimidatory violence, misuse of the government machinery, especially the state-owned media, and ‘vote rigging.’ These accusations have been strongly denied by government circles. Had the result been close, these allegations may have been treated more seriously, but the huge majority garnered by President Rajapaksa has deprived them of potency.
Elected executive President on November 17, 2005, Mr. Rajapaksa had two more years to complete his first six-year term. The decision to cut short the first term and advance the next presidential contest by two years — which the Sri Lankan Constitution allows — was a shrewd political move. The idea was to cash in on the popularity gained from the total military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May 2009.
Bringing forward the election seemed a very bright idea until the emergence of the Fonseka factor. The former Army chief, who was widely regarded as a brilliant commander, began nursing ambitions of becoming President on the strength of the military triumph, for which he claimed sole credit.
His entry electrified the 2010 presidential campaign. What was seen as a one-horse race turned into a real contest. With a cross-section of opposition parties ranging from the right-of-centre United National Party (UNP) to the ultra-left Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and minority community parties like the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) backing the general, the race was perceived as being neck-and-neck.
Initially, the electoral battle was all about who deserved the greater share of laurels for the magnificent military victory. With the backing of opposition parties, General Fonseka then repositioned himself as a candidate for ‘believable change.’ His campaign aimed at exploiting subterranean resentment against the Rajapaksa regime on account of alleged corruption, nepotism, and abuse of power. With unprecedented crowds flocking to see and hear the challenger, his camp was optimistic about edging out the incumbent.
The Rajapaksa campaign countered this by reiterating the need for continuity and stability and spotlighting the incumbent’s political experience and accomplishments. The landslide for the President has shocked the pro-Fonseka forces and shattered illusions of an achievable regime change. The election was certainly not perfect. But not even the opposition parties have so far challenged the legitimacy of the outcome or suggested that the several flaws the process suffered from sufficed to negate the people’s verdict.
What should not be lost sight of, however, in the euphoric aftermath of Mahinda’s magnificent triumph is the mixed nature of the result. Quantitatively, the mandate seems overwhelming but qualitatively it appears fractured. The ethnic divide in the voting is impossible to overlook. Both candidates received support from the three main ethnic groups — the Sinhalese, the Tamils, and the Muslims. But there was ethnic polarisation, with the Sinhala majority preponderantly voting for the incumbent and the Tamils and Muslims for the challenger.
The five electoral districts of Jaffna, Wanni, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, and Amparai (Digamadulla) in the Northern and Eastern Provinces polled in favour of General Fonseka. Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims comprise more than 95 per cent of the North and 75 per cent of the East. In the hill country, Nuwara-Eliya district, with its large population of Tamils of recent Indian origin, was also taken by the general. In addition, several electoral divisions in the highlands and Colombo with substantial concentrations of Tamils and Muslims recorded majorities for him.
The President’s electoral district-wise successes were in the 16 districts with a Sinhala majority. In a sense, it was a replay of 2005 when Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory was enabled by greater support from the Sinhala majority while the minority ethnicities backed opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe. It was estimated that in that close contest, roughly 60 per cent of the Sinhala votes went to Mr. Rajapaksa and the rest to Mr. Wickramasinghe. This time the preliminary assessment is that about 70 per cent of Sinhala votes were cast in favour of Mr. Rajapaksa.
Such a sharp ethnic divide in the pattern of voting does raise anxiety about the country’s future. It is imperative that President Rajapaksa address the legitimate aspirations and redress the real grievances of the Tamil and Muslim people. The total military defeat inflicted on the LTTE and the re-capture of territory retained by it does not automatically or even necessarily mean the extinction of ethnic estrangement. A political settlement rather than a military solution would help conquer hearts and minds.
Another facet of the fractured verdict is the urban-rural divide. It will take some time before a detailed analysis is available. But preliminary assessments indicate overwhelming support for President Rajapaksa in Sinhala rural regions while General Fonseka performed better in urban and semi-urban areas. There is little doubt that Mr. Rajapaksa, with his strong rural roots and an aura of rustic simplicity, exercises far greater appeal in the villages.
But there is also the class dimension. A hallmark of the upper and upper-middle classes, as opposed to those drawn from the less privileged strata, is the usage of the English language. Although a comprehensive demarcation cannot be made on these lines, there has been a tendency to categorise class through this linguistic definition. The election campaign revealed a hiatus between the Sinhala- and English-speaking sections of the electorate. It can at least be surmised that the English-speaking classes rooted heavily for the general while the astute politician projected himself successfully as a man of the Sinhala-speaking masses.
Against such a backdrop, some observers feel that the election outcome revealed a difference in support along class lines too. The sharp urban-rural divide adds credence to this belief.
All this demonstrates that the electoral verdict, although conclusive on the whole, has some cracks in parts. As the President of the whole country, Mahinda Rajapaksa must take the initiative and reach out to those sections of the people who have been alienated in terms of ethnicity, class, and the urban-rural divide.
Aside from these issues, the country is afflicted with a deep-seated malaise, the symptom of which was unambiguously revealed by the Sarath Fonseka phenomenon. It is extraordinarily rare for an erstwhile Army chief to challenge his Commander-in-Chief in an electoral contest held in the aftermath of an impressive military victory. It is as improbable as Bernard Montgomery taking on Winston Churchill immediately after the Second World War ended or Sam Maneckshaw contesting against Indira Gandhi in the wake of the Bangladesh triumph. But this extraordinary development, however controversial it may be, cannot and should not be viewed in isolation. Rather it has to be seen as the logical culmination of a long process.
There have been two processes under way in Sri Lanka during the past few decades. On the one hand, there has been a politicisation of the military and, on the other, a militarisation of politics and society (albeit to a lesser extent). Both processes have been complementary; they were not mutually exclusive. Although these processes began in the 1950s, the prolonged savage conflict with the LTTE enlarged and hastened them.
Both processes gathered tremendous momentum under the current dispensation because of its all-encompassing, total commitment to the goal of eradicating terrorism by annihilating the Tigers. Despite the military success gained through this single-minded pursuit, an undesirable consequence has been the acceleration and expansion of the process of the military being politicised. This process reached new heights in the shape of ex-Army chief Sarath Fonseka aiming at the presidency.
By throwing his beret in the arena of the contest for the presidency, the general caused tremors in both the political and military establishments. In consequence, the Army was embroiled in politics in a way never seen before. A vivid example of this was the spectacle of troops surrounding the hotel where the general was staying after the presidential poll. Earlier, the country witnessed distasteful scenes of serving military officers participating in election propaganda. In this context, the political defeat of General Fonseka could usher in an end to the process of politicisation of the military. Reversing this process and restoring highly professional, apolitical standards should be taken up as an urgent institutional task.
Several unfinished tasks and imperatives are on the table of the newly re-elected executive President. The great hope is that Mahinda Rajapaksa, the amiable leader with a kurakkan-coloured shawl, will face up to those tasks with political skill, responsibility, and sincerity.
The electoral verdict, stunning and conclusive on the whole, has some cracks in parts. As the President of the whole country, Mahinda Rajapaksa must take the initiative and reach out to those sections of the people who have been alienated in terms of ethnicity, class, and the urban-rural divide.