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Yahapalanaya wins:

Rajapaksa comeback thwarted

The recently concluded Parliamentary elections held on August 17 brought to conclusion the process of political change that the January 8 presidential election had initiated under the good governance platform. This election was closely contested between the forces that wanted to reverse the January 8 mandate and those who wanted to continue with the reform process. The elections was significant as it decisively put an end to the political ambition of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa who, after his shocking defeat in the January 8 presidential election had aspired to become the Prime Minister.

Pic: ANCL Media Library

Nevertheless, there will be several challenges that the government may face from Rajapaksa supporters in the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) to have a smooth sailing, both in terms of resuscitating the economy and delivering on long pending political grievances of the Tamils who have pinned their hopes in this reformist government.

Close fight

The election was closely fought between the UPFA and the United National Front(UNF), competing mainly for the Sinhala Buddhist votes. The UPFA went to the election with a one-point agenda to make Mahinda Rajapaksa the Prime Minister and many of the candidates tried to piggyback on his personal charisma and his image as war hero to win elections.

The common thread that ran through the campaign of the UPFA was the issue of national security and saving the motherland from international conspiracy and Tamil separatists. The familiar argument that the UPFA had always peddled in the past was how Ranil Wickremesinghe's victory will undermine the country's security.

President Sirisena who rejected Rajapaksa's aspiration to become the Prime Minister in an open letter during the election campaign accused that his brand of politics was a crime against the country and was responsible for the degeneration of the SLFP from a party that represented the plurality of the country to denote narrow ideologies and converting itself to a Sinhala Buddhist party.

Feeding fears

The UPFA campaign line gave prominence to national security and how the victory of UNF would allow the reemergence of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE). Arrest of some LTTE cadres with cyanide capsule in Chennai was given publicity to underline the emerging threat.

They also highlighted how President Sirisena engaged a Tamil lawyer to fight the case of suspension of 13 Central Committee members of the UPFA. However, the rejection of the UPFA and also the TNFP in the North, reflected the post-war political situation that is not favourable to extreme nationalist parties.

It is important to note that notwithstanding the UPFA impressive total it was convincingly defeated by over one million vote and losing out in districts that were earlier strong bastion of the party.

While the UPFA - in spite of division within the party - managed to get 95 seats, the UNF received only 106 seats, seven seats less of absolute majority. Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the political conglomerate that represents the Tamils minorities managed 16 seats and winning most of the seats in North and East, reflecting the segregated pattern of voting by the two communities representing two different political aspirations within a united Sri Lanka.

The UNF would be forming a coalition that would be similar to the one that it is set to replace. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has signed a MoU with the UNP to form a national government and work on the broader agenda of January election. Other constituent of the UPFA like National Freedom Front, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna and the Democratic Left Front have decided to sit in opposition.

The removal of 13 of Mahinda's supporters from the Central Committee of the UPFA and replacing them with his loyalists before the election by President Sirisena was a move to deal with the post-election situation and to prevent the the Rajapaksa comeback.

However, with a new Central Committee replacing the Mahinda loyalists, President Sirisena would take steps to reconstitute the party and pave the way for the smooth functioning of Ranil-led national government.

Though the Colombo District Court has issued an interim injunction allowing Duminda Dissanayake to function as SLFP General Secretary and Prof. Wisva Warnapala to perform his duties as acting General Secretary of the UPFA till August 28, the party tussle needs to be put to rest.

Consolidating SLFP

President Sirisena as the leader of the UPFA and SLFP needs to establish firm control over the party to succeed in fulfilling the promises that he made when he assumed the office of Executive Presidency.

There will be several challenges before the government. The UN investigation report is expected next month. The government needs to take steps to move towards the resolution of long-pending Tamil issue.

It will really be a challenge how to resolve the issue that meets the Tamil political aspirations, and at the same time, acceptable to the Sinhala majority population. With the Rajapaksa group being active and ready to derail any such resolution, the peace process is going to be a long drawn one.

However, it needs to be stressed that after President Sirisena assuming office took several measures that signaled a new era of ethnic relations. For example: removing the check post in Omanthai that eased travel between North and South, release of land in the North, replacing the retired military personnel with a civilian one as Governor of the Northern Province, replacing the Chief Secretary - a longstanding demand of the TNA and allowing the national anthem to be sung in Tamil.

While the TNA's victory suggests that Tamils continues to repose their faith in the party which they consider as their own, their overwhelming support to President Sirisena in the presidential election which played a decisive role in his victory attest to their faith on the regime in Colombo. Ranil Wickremesinghe, who earlier preferred a peaceful settlement to the longstanding ethnic crisis, is considered as a leader who would not approach the Tamil issue from the standpoint of victorious Sinhalese. While Mahinda Rajapaksa won the war, he lost the peace by overplaying ultra Sinhala nationalism that had no compassion for Tamil political grievances.

The change of government is likely to create an enabling environment that would provide space to reconciliation as essential precursor to ethnic peace.

The government, that has larger international support as many in international community held the view that under the Rajapaksa regime the country had taken a decisive turn towards authoritarianism.

Banking on China's support to rebuff international pressureon accountability and reconciliation; Mahinda Rajapakse did not hesitate to mortgage the country to provide China a strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean at a huge cost to Sri Lana's economy.

As the new government gears up for the UNHRC report that may have implications for the domestic politics, the TNA that now represents the Tamils needs to be supportive of the UNF effort to keep the radical separatists Tamil diaspora and their domestic constituent at a distance. This will not only provide space to the new government but would help TNA to meaningfully engage the new government to seek a solution to the Tamil grievances.

Sri Lanka political transition from de-democratisation personified by Rajapaksa regime to democracy and accountable government will surely have a salutary effect on larger issue of democracy and inclusive government of which the Tamil minorities are inalienable partner and would be a greater beneficiary.

(Dr. Smruti S Pattanaik is a Research Fellow at the new Delhi-based Institute of Defence and Strategic Analyses (IDSA)

 

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