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Poles apart. And a widening gap.

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That Sri Lanka’s Presidential elections are even taking place this year is due to the agitation by main opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. It was his United National Party’s mass protests earlier this year demanding President Chandrika Kumaratunga vacate her office this year, as opposed to 2006, that paved the way for legal challenges and the subsequent Supreme Court ruling.

But it his rival, Mahinda Rajapakse of Kumaratunga’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), who having set about campaigning with uncharacteristic zeal, appears to be pulling ahead. In the past few weeks Rajapakse has forged potent alliances with the next two Sinhala ultra-nationalist parties, the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP), the third force in Sinhala politics, and the hardline monks of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU).

In doing so he has taken a clear cut, albeit unabashedly hardline Sinhala nationalist, position on Sri Lanka’s ethnic question. Through his strong opposition to economic liberalisation, Rajapakse has also secured the support of most of the Sinhala left wing, despite his Sinhala chauvinist allies.

This week Rajapakse launched his campaign with a spectacular rally, addressing thousands of enthusiastic supporters with delighted JVP leaders at his side. Even before nominations were called, he had taken the stage at large Sinhala nationalist meetings, vowing to defend the motherland and end the exploitation of the poor.

By way of contrast, Wickremesinghe’s campaign has been all but invisible. He is yet to secure the unambiguous backing of any of Sri Lanka’s minority parties – despite his rival’s Sinhala nationalist tub thumping. The UNP machine which mobilized its supporters to demand the elections through marches and rallies has been almost idle. And apart from abstract references to peace and economic prosperity, few Sri Lankans are aware of his specific policies. Admittedly neither candidate has published his manifesto. But Rajapakse has nevertheless nailed his colours – a deep shade of saffron – to his mast.

For the past week Rajapakse has been wrestling with an internal rift within his party with SLFP leader and incumbent President Chandrika Kumaratunga attacking him for signing the agreements with the JVP and JHU. The disagreement actually something deeper, whether the Bandaranaike clan which has run the SLFP since its founding should step aside for others to lead it. Wickremesinghe’s supporters have taken heart at the rift. The Colombo stock market, for example, has been surging since the news broke, believing the SLFP infighting will aid the pro-market UNP and its leader.

But not all political analysts are convinced. And in any case, despite the intensity of their personal antagonism, speculation Kumaratunga might replace Rajapakse with another candidate is fading fast. If anything, her office is now playing down the rift. Which means Wickremesinghe will face a united SLFP – which, as the party in power, also has control of Sri Lanka’s all pervasive state media. The JVP’s powerful cadre-based machinery is already humming and the JHU have promised a ‘1,000 temple’ campaign.

Wickremesinghe’s supporters are visibly alarmed. What ought to be a full frontal attack is at best a rear-guard action responding to Rajapakse’s initiatives. The Political Column in the Sunday Times newspaper – part of a an independent group owned by relations of Wickremesinghe asked “whether the UNP has forgotten that the elections are in 2005, and not 2006.”

And it is not just a question of policy. The two men are poles apart in every way. Whilst Wickremsinghe is seen as an urbanite backer of business entrepreneurs, Rajapakse is seen as a ‘son of the soil’ and a friend of the peasant. And in a country where political office is often won on the soapbox, Wickremesinghe, not an effective orator, is at a singular disadvantage to Rajapakse.

The SLFP man has over the years gained an image of ‘a man of the people’ – something he is exploiting to the hilt. He told his inaugural rally he had been in politics for 35 years and had not changed from his “simple and humble ways close to the people of this country.” Even the office of President would not change him he said.

With his traditional garb, complete with trademark red shawl, Rajapakse cuts a different figure amongst rural Sinhalese, compared to the besuited Wickremesinghe – whose core constituency is the middle class.

Rajapakse has broadgrass roots support among the Sinhalese and traditional party ties to labour unions. Moreover, his supporters are convinced Wickremesinghe is out of touch with the middle class and poor, who voted his government out of power in April 2004. Indeed, some argue the Buddhist revivalist JHU, which came out of nowhere to take eleven seats in that election, won its support from the UNP’s middle-class ranks in Colombo.

But even on their stated policies, the two men appear poles apart, even though both are campaigning on the same themes: establishing peace and economic prosperity. Whilst Rajapakse has nestling closer to the Sinhala ultra-nationalists, Wickremesinghe is trying to find a middle road between them and the minorities. As a consequence, what he points out as his successes are being easily portrayed by his opponents as failures – failures moreover, that are dangerous for Sri Lanka.

Soon after his UNP-led coalition won power in late 2001, Wickremesinghe rightfully points out he ended seven years of conflict, established a ceasefire and engaged in a peace process which resulted in several rounds of talks with the Tigers.

But whilst he argues he curtailed Tamil independence demands to a quest for federal autonomy, his enemies are successfully portraying him as at best a weakling and at worst a traitor because he has countenanced the “division of the country.” Moreover, they have portrayed him as lacking in resolve in dealing with the Liberation Tigers, arguing he has allowed the LTTE to expand its military and jeopardized Sri Lanka’s national security.

Although Wickremesinghe’s neo-liberal economic policies, including cutting subsidies and privatization of state-owned industries, are unpopular, it is his peace efforts that have done him the most damage. His UNP was toppled in April 2004 by a SLFP-JVP combine campaigning on a platform of restoring weakened national security.

Ironically, Wickremesinghe has not developed new policies since that defeat. Neither has he repackaged his policies into a more palatable form.

The words of Athula Wijesekera, a 42-year-old irrigation engineer at Rajapakse''s rally, summarise the UNP leader’s problems.

“Ranil was giving too much to the Tamil Tigers,” Wijesekera told Reuters. “He lives in Colombo. He only cares about the rich. The prime minister is from the South, like me. He is like us. He knows what we want.”

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