Sri Lanka: A victory of sorts
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE, India - Reversing a string of defeats over the past seven years, the opposition United National Party (UNP) has surged ahead in Sri Lanka's 12th parliamentary elections. While the final tally is yet to be announced, computer projections of results indicate that the UNP will secure about 113 seats in the 225-member parliament - a simple majority enabling it form a government on its own.
However, even if it should fall short of a simple majority, it should be able to form the new government with support from Tamil and Muslim parties. In the run-up to election day on Wednesday, opinion polls pointed to a UNP victory. However, the margin of victory anticipated was far smaller than what has emerged from the ballot box.
The People's Alliance (PA), which came to power under Chandrika Kumaratunga in August 1994, is facing its first defeat after seven successive wins, including two presidential, two parliamentary and three provincial elections.
The outcome of the latest poll represents a mandate for change. The PA's indifferent performance in government on all fronts was responsible for voters switching support to the UNP.
President Kumaratunga's failure to resolve the ethnic conflict after coming to power on a peace plank contributed in substantial measure to the erosion of support for the PA. To be fair, she did try to negotiate with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the rebel group that is engaged in armed struggle to carve out an independent state of Tamil Eelam in the Tamil areas in the north and east of the island. But the talks soon collapsed. Besides, the military offensive, too, made little headway.
The state of the Sri Lankan economy added to voter discontent. In the doldrums for several years, the economy was dealt a devastating blow in July when the LTTE attacked Bandaranaike International Airport in the capital Colombo. But the Colombo stock market reacted with great glee to the UNP's pending victory by rising nearly 21 percent on Friday.
In 1994 and thereafter, support from the island's ethnic minorities - the Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims and Tamils of recent Indian origin - buoyed the PA to power. In the December 5 elections, however, parties representing these minorities were ranged against the PA. The PA's understanding with the leftist-Sinhalese nationalist Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) and its blatant appeal to the Sinhalese vote further alienated the Tamil vote, while bringing it limited returns among the Sinhalese.
However, it was events in recent months that perhaps sealed the PA's fate. In June, the PA government was reduced to a minority after the exit of members of a key ally. That set off a chain of moves by Kumaratunga to save her government from collapse. The electorate perceived the steps she took as desperate measures to cling to power, unmindful of the deep uncertainty into which it was plunging the country.
The cumulative effect of all this was the victory of the UNP. The ouster of the PA has been the one-point agenda of the UNP in opposition for the past seven years. Its performance in the election might put it in power finally, but the years ahead are unlikely to be smooth sailing.
An important factor that will determine the course of events in Sri Lanka is the fact that the all-powerful executive presidency remains with the PA. Despite her party's defeat in the parliamentary elections, Kumaratunga will continue to be president until her term ends five years from now.
Relations between the UNP and the PA have been deeply confrontational in recent years, reaching an all-time low in June. Bitter animosity marks the relationship between Kumaratunga and UNP leader and former prime minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, and the deeply divisive election campaign will have its impact on the coming months
The first hurdle that the UNP could encounter is ensuring that the president does appoint Wickremasinghe as the new prime minister. While the constitution states that the party that commands the majority in parliament shall be called upon to form the government, it also says that the president has the power to choose her prime minister and the cabinet. This ambiguity could see Kumaratunga complicating things for Wickremasinghe.
During the poll campaign, the PA had warned that if the UNP won, there would be a deadlock as all power rested with the president. But even as election results pouring in pointing to a PA setback, Kumaratunga did call on her party to accept the verdict, indicating that she might perhaps be willing to do business with the UNP.
The two issues that the UNP has said it will tackle immediately are measures to revive the economy and to initiate talks with the LTTE. Sri Lanka's economy, battered by the civil war and a worsening external environment, means the country's exports are headed for near zero growth this year for the first time in decades. Inflation is rising sharply. Economists say that any revival next year to 3-5 percent growth could not be considered an achievement because the economy would be growing from a very low base.
It is with regard to the LTTE, however, that the UNP government could find itself being squeezed between the president and the Tamil parties/LTTE.
The LTTE is demanding that the ban on the organization be lifted for talks to commence. This was a demand that the PA had rejected. There is little reason that the president should now concede to the LTTE demand, a move that could smooth the way for the UNP to negotiate with the militant organization.
As chief commander of the armed forces, the president is in control of the military offensive in the Tamil areas. Analysts are pointing out that even if the UNP were able to revive the dialogue with the LTTE, the possibility of the president persisting with the military operations, if only to throw a spanner in the UNP's works, cannot be ruled out.
The ball lies, therefore, in Kumaratunga's court. The future depends on whether she will be able to forgive and forget the obstructionist and confrontationist tactics that the UNP adopted all these years, preventing her from finding a solution to the ethnic problem. It is a fact that it was the UNP's approach that contributed to her inability to live up to her electoral promises made in the past.
Sri Lanka's bloodiest election ever might point to a gloomy outlook. But the enthusiasm with which voters participated in the election provides cause for optimism. More than 70 percent of the electorate came out to exercise their franchise. The turnout would have been higher if about 70,000 Tamils living in LTTE-controlled areas had been allowed by the army to move to government-controlled areas to cast their vote.
Despite the poor performance of the country's parliamentarians over the past few years, voter fatigue (this was the second parliamentary election in 14 months), and the threat of election-day violence, the Sri Lankan voter hasn't yet given up on the power of the ballot box. Sixty people, including 16 on polling day alone, were killed in the 40-day poll campaign, while more than 2,000 other election-related incidents were reported to the police.
Sri Lankans, clearly, still have faith that parliament can bring about positive change. That is the one ray of hope in an otherwise bleak scenario.
source: atimes.com, December 8, 2001