Sri Lanka elections: Of tumbling skeletons and bumbling politicians

Can Rajapaksa change his style of functioning?

 |   Long-form |   11-08-2015
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With a week to go before Sri Lanka elects a new Parliament, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa predicted the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which had fielded him, would win "up to" 117 seats. However, a pre-election survey showed only 27.5 percent voters preferred him over his bête noir and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the rival United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG), who had a near 40 per cent preference.

The secret of Rajapaksa's confidence may not be solely due to the good luck charm - an elephant hair bracelet - he is seen wearing these days. Nor can it be an astrological prediction that let him down badly in the presidential poll.

The survey conducted by the Centre for Policy Analysis in July-end showed that Tamil and Muslim minority voters who handed him a defeat in the presidential election, continue to be firm supporters of Wickremesinghe. However, it must be consoling for the former president to know that he remains a favourite of Sinhala voters with 36 per cent support, while Wickremesinghe trails with 31.9 per cent support.

It was, perhaps, the Sinhala voter-support and the impressive line-up of the UPFA leaders - including some of the senior stalwarts of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) who turned up in his support on the stage - that encouraged Rajapaksa's optimism at the press conference. Their support for him, despite their leader President Maithripala Sirisena's dénouement of Rajapaksa, seemed heart warming to the former president. He was so sure of the UPFA getting a majority that he dismissed the idea of forming a national government as suggested by the United National Party (UNP) leader Wickremesinghe. Rajapaksa said it only showed the lack of confidence of his opponent.

The election manifesto, for a change, seems to be more voter-friendly than in the past with the coalition deploying social media to get interactive feedback from the voters. It is a welcome change from the days when Rajapaksa remained the sole fountainhead of wisdom of the coalition (Has it changed?).

Despite Rajapaksa's confidence, the odds do not seem to favour him. His problems are more serious than Wickremesinghe's. Rajapaksa is contesting an election when he is out of office for the first time after he became president in 2005. He neither has favours to trade for political support nor powers to command the official machinery that aided his election campaigns in the past.

Government officials openly canvassed in support of Rajapaksa in his heyday. When he contested the presidential poll for the second time, the then army commander appeared on national TV in his support. But the electoral environment has changed now.

The police and election commission have remained neutral as far as possible. Army commander Lieutenant General Crisanthe De Silva has issued a series of orders to prevent service personnel from engaging in political activities during the election lest they are lured by political parties canvassing for support. The restrictions on service personnel include a curb on expressing views on social media networks and allowing the use of army video footage for political propaganda. The Army headquarters too has warned that punitive action would be taken against those acting in contravention. These orders could hurt Rajapaksa more than his opponents, because his military victory against the Tamil Tigers in 2009 had earned him more admirers among the armed forces and their families.

A second aspect are the continuing internal squabbles between Rajapaksa loyalists and anti-Rajapaksa factions that have paralysed the internal party apparatus. The convening of the SLFP central committee meeting has been suspended till after the election through a court order! This has produced an anachronistic situation with the two factions openly working against each other rather than focusing on winning the election! Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga as well as President Sirisena have continued to remain in the SLFP despite their stout opposition to Rajapaksa's candidature. And they seem to be doing their bit to undermine party support to the former president.

Kumaratunga had been more direct in her attack on Rajapaksa; she has accused him of spreading racism and using religion for political ends. Though Sirisena has said he would remain neutral, he has repeatedly appealed to the people for carrying forward the changes ushered in January 8 with the defeat of Rajapaksa and the promise of a corruption-free government.

In fact, at the farewell ministerial meeting of the Cabinet, Sirisena said that he was looking forward to working with them again to carry forward his January 8 agenda - clearly hinting at support to the United National Party-led (UNP) coalition.

President Sirisena has continued to be firmly opposed to appointing Rajapaksa as prime minister even if the UPFA wins a majority and chooses him as the PM candidate. So we can expect the "UPFA and SLFP logjam-II" to be enacted even if Rajapaksa turns defeat into victory.

But more damaging to Rajapaksa are the skeletons tumbling out of the cupboards locked up during his regime on the eve of polls. The latest allegation relates to the suspected murder of Sri Lanka's rugby star Wasim Thajudeen whose body was found burnt inside his car in a Colombo suburb on May 17, 2012. Though the police closed the case as accidental death at that time, minister Dr Rajitha Senaratne had alleged that three Special Task Force (STF) soldiers attached to presidential security division at that time were involved in the murder. So the charred body was exhumed after the CID obtained a court order for further investigations as they considered it a murder. Evidently, there were a number of lapses in the earlier police investigation as many pieces of evidence were not considered. The CID conducting the investigations for the second time said Thajudeen was attacked with a sharp object in the neck and beaten with a blunt object.

There were scenes of low comedy as bumbling politicians from both the UPFA and UNF camps freely traded threats and insults.

When SLFP spokesman Dilan Perera took out four bottles of poison and invited the UNFGG members to drink them, the UNP's Harin Fernando retaliated by brandishing two cans of poison at a news conference and said that now Perera was welcome to drink them. A rival group of gangsters fired shots at an election meeting of the UNFGG in the early stages of the campaign. However, there have been less violent incidents this time, perhaps due to greater vigilance and a shorter gestation period for the election process.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, heading the UNFGG, has not started counting the seats he would win. But he must be beaming at the survey results. He has entered the fray under a cloud of corruption surrounding the Central Bank bond issue. How much it would affect the chances of the UNFGG, particularly with his emphasis on clean governance, remains the big question. As the pre-poll survey was conducted in July-end, generally swing votes can be expected to make all the difference between defeat and victory. So it is to be seen whether he would continue to retain the support base that helped him to engineer the defeat of Rajapaksa.

The UNFGG manifesto, like all election manifestos in Sri Lanka, is tall on talk and full of promises. Whether it can deliver them, particularly when the economy is cash strapped, is the moot point. This applies to all political parties. But the most disappointing manifesto was of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). It started with the traditional "manifesto focus" on the history of the Tamil struggle for equity - repeated many times - instead of pointing to burning issues related to Tamils, which have been tucked towards the end. How much it would impress the impatient younger generation of voters who are tired of pedantic style of politics and its ponderous ways remains to be seen. But the TNA's advantage is it enjoys the support of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) - perhaps the largest Tamil diaspora body.

There are two other dark horses challenging the political free run the TNA had been enjoying in the North and East. The "Crusaders for Democracy", a new outfit formed of former cadres of the LTTE is contesting the election as an independent group focusing on the grievances of Tamils in the post-war scene. It was cobbled by Vithyatharan, former editor of Uthayan, a Jaffna Tamil daily, and political wheeler-dealer after the TNA refused to field any former LTTE cadres as its candidate. The entry of rehabilitated Tiger cadres in the political arena is a welcome sign that Tamils are at last coming to terms with the political reality of Sri Lanka after 2009. But the TNA's bigger challenge could be from veteran Tamil politician Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam-led Tamil National People's Front (TNPF).

The UPFA campaign, de facto led by Rajapaksa, seems to have learnt a few things from his defeat in the presidential election as acknowledged by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, the coalition's foreign policy advisor, when he met foreign correspondents at an interaction. He said, "the foreign policy of the UPFA will be a series of concentric circles, the closest circle being the immediate neighbourhood. Specific mention has been made about India in the foreign policy segment of the UPFA manifesto. Good relations with India is axiomatic. Good relations with India will be a corner stone of the UPFA's foreign policy. On relations with other countries he said the first circle in the series of concentric circles will be South Asia; the second will be Asia; the third will be Euroasia, the fourth will be the Global South and finally the world."

Dayan's foreign policy construct is logical; he had always valued India's special status in Sri Lanka's foreign policy firmament. But in the past, Rajapaksa had shown neither patience nor interest in such a nuanced approach to policymaking. Can he change his style of functioning? Let us wait for the election results for the question to become relevant.


Colonel R Hariharan Colonel R Hariharan @colhari2

The writer is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia with rich experience in terrorism and insurgency operations.

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