Last Thursday’s Presidential elections have shaken the kaleidoscope of Sri Lankan politics and the pieces will undoubtedly take a while to settle. Nevertheless, there are many lessons to be drawn from the results, as underlined by the intense soul-searching and horse-trading in Colombo. Despite numerous controversies, including the near total Tamil boycott, Mahinda Rajapakse of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has convincingly defeated Ranil Wickremesinghe of the main opposition United National Party (UNP). Many, not least those supportive of Wickremesinghe, point to the narrow margin: Rajapakse took 50.3% against Wickremesinghe’s 48.4%.
But the inferences they suggest may be drawn from figures are misleading. Whilst Wickremesinghe’s tally is compiled from a number of vote banks, including those of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Upcountry parties - including the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) – as well as the UNP’s loyalists, Rajapakse clearly won over the overwhelming majority of the Sinhalese. What can be inferred of Ranil’s ‘support’, furthermore, when the possibility that the SLMC and CWC might switch and join Rajapakse’s SLFP in government is being floated in Colombo? What is clear, therefore, is that the Sinhalese have overwhelmingly backed Rajapakse and his hardline stance on the peace process with the Tamils while Wickremesinghe’s minority allies’ supported him not on his peace platform per se, but his pledges of post-victory political largess. The notion that last week’s election was a referendum on the peace process is thus only partly true; patronage clearly played its part.
The main controversy of the elections was undoubtedly the Tamil boycott. Less than 1% of Jaffna’s voters participated – and only 1 person from Kilinochchi’s 90 odd thousand people. Colombo’s Tamils also stayed away and in the multi-ethnic eastern province, few Tamils participated. That Tamils were undecided as how to vote has been clear for some time. The months of criticism in the Tamil press and popular disgruntlement over the lack of normalcy in the Northeast after four years of ceasefire should have alerted everyone, not least the UNP, that the Tamil vote could not be taken for granted. Instead, there is now vehement condemnation of the Liberation Tigers for inspiring the boycott. In the east some crossing points were blocked by LTTE supporters and, reportedly, cadres. These incidents have been rendered emblematic of the entire Tamil boycott and, amid sensational press coverage, is obscuring a stark ethnic polarisation amongst Sri Lankans.
The UNP and its leader must take the blame for his failure to bring the Tamils out in its favour. It may be easier – and certainly more comforting - to write off the Tamil boycott as a consequence of LTTE coercion, as many, including some members of the international community, have. But to assume that Tamils saw the ‘obvious’ benefit for peace of having Wickremesinghe as President is to misunderstand both Tamil sentiments and, we suggest, the man and his party. The UNP is gripped this week by internal post-poll wrangling: but the debate is not about the Tamils and the peace process, but how to recover the Sinhala heartland. Supports of the liberal peace in Sri Lanka undoubtedly would have preferred a Wickremesinghe win. But to fixate on the LTTE and any role it may or may not have had is to ignore the overarching dynamic: the Sinhalese have swarmed to support Rajapakse and his ultra-nationalist platform.
This – and the Tamil boycott - should not be a surprise to close observers of Sri Lanka’s politics. Resentments and antagonism have long been part of the vernacular streets, both Tamil and Sinhalese. Before the elections Wickremsinghe did not utter a word on sharing tsunami aid with LTTE areas or setting up an interim administration for the Northeast – remember the ISGA? But these factors have simply been ignored amid misguided confidence that the hardline platform trod by Rajapakse and his allies, the ultra nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) and hardline monks party, the Jeyatha Hela Urumaya (JHU), would make Wickremesinghe the Tamils’ de facto choice. The UNP leader did absolutely nothing to build bridges with the Tamils. Moreover, he – as many are equally erroneously doing now – assumed that the Tamil constituency can be separated from the LTTE.
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