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Hardly a vote for peace

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In the aftermath of the local government elections, which saw an overwhelming vote for the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA), many media and commentators reported the results as a boost for the government’s approach to the peace process. They saw the voting pattern as a rejection of the anti-peace stance of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which only managed to retain the council they won at the last polls, and the hardline monks, who were not able to win control of a single body.

“No doubt this augurs well for the future and the peace process,” the state-run Daily News said in an editorial. “It is quite obvious that those political parties seen as espousing the interests of specific cultural groups have been rejected.”

“Sri Lankan voters have shown they do not support hardline or extremist parties,” Jayadeva Uyangoda, head of political studies at Colombo University, told Reuters. “This is good news for President Rajapakse.” Uyangoda said he expected the government now to take a more conciliatory line with the Liberation Tigers.

However, this reading of the poll result conveniently manages to ignore some of the realities of the vote. Firstly, this reading assumes people voted on the peace process, which has not been proven. Secondly, the reported routing of the JVP ignores the gains the party made in the number of votes it polled. And thirdly, it assumes that the Marxists and monks were the constraint on President Mahinda Rajapakse and that a lessening of their control will see a shift in approach towards a more conciliatory approach – the basis of which assumption is not self-evident.

While many saw Thursday’s vote as a litmus test of the popularity of the JVP, and a statement on the stance taken by each of the parties towards the peace process, many other observers saw it as a vote purely on local matters. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem was one of many who argued that the election could not be seen as a mandate for anything other than improving utilities at the local level.

In fact, most of the observers agreed it was a vote for the President’s ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ platform, which was a vision for power sharing from the local village level. Similarly many observers agreed that Sri Lankan voters generally favour the party in power at local elections in the hope of getting more government money. On that basis, the vote was not on the peace process at all, and analysts say a true reading on the peoples’ stance towards the Norwegian-facilitated process can only be assessed at a national parliamentary or Presidential election.

Secondly the reading of the poll results as being a routing of the hardliners ignores the raw numbers polled. The JVP for instance managed to expand its voter base, increasing its number of councillors by more than 50%. The party itself saw the results as a ‘considerable victory’. The party’s general secretary Tilvin Silva said there was a 10 percent increase in the total number of votes polled by the party. “We managed to win 817,000 votes and there is an increase from 210 councillors to 366,” he said. The rise in number of votes for the JVP suggests this vote has not been a denouncement of the policies of the party. On the contrary, the party managed to gain more support for its policies and politics.

The only reason the count was seen as a blow to the hardline anti-peace process stance was due to an expectation that the JVP would have done better, with some suggestion before the election that they would sweep the polls. In reality, while the increase in support for the JVP may be read as a statement on their policies about governance at a local level – the party had a very clear policy on local government. Only the tiny support for the hardline Buddhist monks of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) can be seen as support for an anti-peace stance as the party was formed and operates purely on this basis.

The other crucial assumption in the optimistic reading of the polls results is that President Mahinda Rajapakse is not a hardliner and that his ability to negotiate with the Liberation Tigers was constrained by his hardline allies. This conveniently ignores the issue of why the President would choose to have allies with whose philosophies he fundamentally differs from. That Rajapakse chose to align himself with the JVP and the JHU – much to the chagrin of some SLFPers, including party leader Chandrika Kumaratunga, and the horror of his liberal minded supporters - in the lead up to the Presidential polls suggests that the views expressed by the two parties were not entirely at odds to those of the President himself.

The reading of President Rajapakse as having his own hardline views gains credibility, moreover, when the acceptance speeches delivered by Mr. Rajapakse after he was sworn in as President and his subsequent actions are reviewed – Sinhala hardliners were sworn in to many positions including that of Foreign Minister and head of the Army. Many other hardliners have earned trusted positions in the President’s immediate circle.

Some are arguing that this view of the President as a Sinhala hardliner is incorrect and claim Mr. Rajapakse was merely being pragmatic in his choice of bedfellows, seeking allies who would help in securing his Presidential victory. But, even if this were the case, Rajapakse cannot afford to disregard the results of last week’s poll which as many, including the President himself, have hailed as a vote for his manifesto, ‘Mahinda Chinthana’.

Given that Mahinda Chinthana is resolutely and unambiguously based on a unitary Sri Lanka, the results immediately constrains the government when it comes to negotiating power sharing arrangements with the LTTE. The possibility of the government taking a more conciliatory approach to the next round of peace talks thus seem as remote as ever. The JVP, moreover, as co-authors of Mahinda Chinthana, will act as a potent watchdog in this regard, ready to seize on the first inkling of retreat.

These poll results have undoubtedly strengthened the President’s hand, but this does not necessarily lead automatically towards a positive development for the peace process. Indeed, a stronger President may now be less willing to enter into a national government with the main parliamentary opposition United National Party (UNP), thereby making more remote the chances of having negotiators at the peace table who represent a consensus view from Sri Lanka’s southern politics. Taking all these factors together, if the local government polls are to be read as having any impact on the peace process at all, it is more likely to be a negative one.

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