Sri Lankans go to the polls Thursday to pick a replacement for outgoing President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Irrespective of which of the leading contenders, Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP) or Mahinda Rajapakse of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), wins, it is clear that a major change in the country’s political dynamics will follow. As this newspaper has pointed out before, despite Kumaratunga’s assertion she is leaving without mud or blood on her hands, she is wrong on both counts. It remains to be seen what role, if any, she will now play in the island’s fractious politics, but it will undoubtedly depend on who wins – and the irony is Kumaratunga would rather it was her former archrival, Wickremesinghe.
With the island’s most powerful office up for grabs, the contest will go all the way down to the wire. In true Sri Lankan tradition, the outcome will be decided not only by the popularity of policy, charisma of candidate or efficiency of party machinery, but also by the practicability of electoral fraud. In this regard, the opposition UNP has a distinct disadvantage. The ruling party’s control of the security forces and, by extension, the Army-backed paramilitaries, will give Rajapakse an edge – should he need it, of course. On Wednesday cadres of the ‘moderate’ Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) were reported to be seizing voters’ identity cards in parts of Army-controlled Jaffna. The UNP had even earlier cried foul, alleging Army deserters have been flown into the northern peninsula to assist the rigging.
Rajapakse may need the scales to be tipped. The loose class and urban/rural divides inherent in the UNP and SLFP’s support bases, along with the various alliances these parties have struck have created profound uncertainty as to who will triumph. The yo-yoing Colombo stock market is just one indicator the contest is too close to call. Rajapakse’s unabashed embracing of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism has alarmed Sinhala Catholics as well as the island’s ethnic minorities. On the other hand, the JVP’s formidable cadre based machine is at work, alongside whatever effort the disunited SLFP can summon. Most importantly for Rajapakse, President Kumaratunga has called a truce in the party’s internal squabbles, freeing him to concentrate on campaigning.
The election is being interpreted by many as a referendum on the peace process. The voters are deemed to have a choice between a ‘pro-peace’ Wickremesinghe and a ‘hardline’ Rajapakse. Whilst understandable a few months ago, this view is not shared by the Tamils and the Liberation Tigers today. The LTTE’s scepticism has been amply justified by the events of the past two weeks. When it became clear that the Tamils were backing away from him, Wickremesinghe’s response was not to appeal to their interests, as he had with the hill country Tamils and Muslim communities, but to stumble back towards the Sinhala nationalists. In a particularly crude display of patriotism, Wickremesinghe, the darling of local and international liberals, is reported to have held a Lion flag aloft and vowed to unite the island under it. The pledge will no doubt be put to a practical test should he win.
The LTTE’s undisguised disgust with both candidates and its less than subtle call for a Tamil boycott have infuriated many observers, including some international ones. But the irony of the Tamils being called on to boost the chances of a candidate whose lieutenants only last week were boasting about how their government trapped and split the Tamil struggle through the peace process is not lost on us. Of course, there is more than just the peace process riding on the Thursday’s election - the international neoliberal project, for example. A phalanx of non-state actors anxious about life under Rajapakse have lambasted the LTTE for ‘interfering’ in the election and dispensed much advice about what the international community is and isn’t like and what the Tamils might or might not want. We suggest the LTTE’s finely honed intelligence machine might give the movement a much better idea as to sentiments prevailing in the Northeast – to say nothing of the Diaspora.
There has been some incredulity at the suggestion the Tamils are waiting for a signal from the LTTE in deciding who to vote for. Some have reduced this to a matter of fear, an analysis reinforced by the observers’ own prejudices against the Tigers. The simple fact is that the now highly politicised Tamil electorate are looking for a course of action which could meaningfully contribute to the advancement of their political struggle. The best insight in this regard, from a Tamil perspective, must come from the LTTE - as unpalatable as this is to those in the Sri Lankan peace caravan who cling to expectations of a Wickremesinghe-delivered federal solution. True, Wickremesinghe may be better for some aspects of the peace process. But the catchall of ‘federalism’ demands close inspection and not merely blind faith. In this regard, as far as the Tamils are concerned, Wickremesinghe and Rajapakse have laid out the facts of the matter clearly over the past few weeks. Both are products of the same Sinhala-dominated political system. Both have now wrapped themselves in the Lion flag. And both are equally committed to denying a Tamil political identity and, thence, political rights. There is no real choice between them.
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