As the two main candidates for Sri Lanka’s forthcoming elections launched their campaigns in earnest, the customary horsetrading with other political parties also got into full swing.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajakapakse, the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s (SLFP) candidate is facing the leader of the opposition United National Party (UNP), Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe.
But with neither candidate able to command a clear lead, both need to woo the Sinhala electorate whilst not alienating the island’s minorities – the Tamil, Muslim and Indian (or Estate) Tamil communities.
But with Sinhala ultra-nationalists powerful enough to swing sentiment amongst large numbers of southern voters, their positions are even more delicate. The Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP), the third force in Sinhala politics, has put forward strong conditions for its support, including a harder line on efforts to resolve the ethnic question.
The possibility of crucial minority votes either being withheld or garnered is expected to focus the main candidates'' minds.
Last Sunday, Mr. Rajapakse appealing for patriotic unity ‘in defence of the motherland’ urged the JVP to join him in defeating the UNP’s candidate. This week, the JVP has been engaging in a series of talks to thrash out an agreement.
“We are happy with Prime Minister’s responses and we need to continue this healthy discussion,” a negotiator from the ultra-right party told Lankapage. The JVP’s delegation includes its top flight leaders.
Until recently, the JVP and the SLFP had been partners in Sri Lanka’s ruling coalition, having toppled a UNP-led government in April 2004. Despite common hostility to the UNP and the Norwegian peace process, tensions between the SLFP and JVP remained.
The JVP finally quit the coalition in June this year, protesting at President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s acquiescence to international pressure to sign an agreement to share tsunami-related aid with the Liberation Tigers.
The support of the JVP is crucial for Mr. Rajapakse. Whilst a JVP candidate unlikely to win the Presidential polls, the move could split the Sinhala left and ultra-right votes, which the SLFP is angling for, thereby allowing the UNP – a centre right party – to squeeze through.
On the other hand, with its sophisticated cadre-based party machinery, the JVP’s support would a considerable boost for Mr. Rajapakse.
A smaller Sinhala right wing vote – notably from affluent urbanites, as opposed to the rural poor who support the JVP – rests with the hardline monks party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU).
The JHU is also demanding anti-Tamil, anti-LTTE policy stances from the two contenders and has not ruled out a candidate of its own whilst pursing talks with both.
“We are not against the peace process. But we are against the LTTE being given a free hand to reorganize itself under present circumstances,” JHU official Ven. Ellawala Madhananda Thera said.
There should be a strategy to disarm the Tigers according to a specific time frame when entering into dialogue with the LTTE, he added.
There were conflicting reports about the JHU’s meeting with Wickremesinghe. The JHU said “discussions were cordial but [we are] unlikely to form an alliance with right-wing UNP” while the UNP said JHU leaders had praised Mr. Wickremesinghe for making his policies clear and assured they would continue the dialogue with him.
The Tamil National Alliance, a coalition of Sri Lanka’s four main Tamil parties, was expected to meet this week to decide on its stand at the upcoming presidential elections. The party has been careful to sit on the fence, despite speculation it would side with the Mr. Wickremesinge.
Parliamentary group leader Joseph Pararajasingham said they would decide whether to support Mr. Rajapakse or Mr. Wickremesinghe, after careful consideration, the Daily Mirror reported.
Interestingly, TNA parliamentarian Mavai Senathirajah said the party was also strongly considering putting forward its own candidate by joining forces with other Tamil parties and progressive forces.
Mr. Senathiraja noted it was important that the candidate they support takes up the Tamil concerns as a priority.
“We are having intense discussions on how to face the elections and at this moment nothing has been ruled out. We will also go before the international community to gather support for our cause”, he said.
Just like the JVP, JHU or other parties, a TNA candidate - particularly a pro-LTTE Tamil in Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lanka - is unlikely to win. But the possibility of crucial minority votes either being withheld or garnered is expected to focus the main candidates minds.
Meanwhile, discussions with the main Muslim and Estate Tamil parties are underway, with concessions being articulated both publicly and behind the scenes.
Mr. Rauf Hakeem, leader of the remaining rump of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), once the island’s biggest Muslim party, who is generally expected to back Mr. Wickremesinge – rebels with the SLMC and a splinter party, the National United Allaince (NUA) are already in Mr. Rajapakse’s camp.
With fewer Muslim votes thus available for Mr. Wickremesinghe to court, Mr. Hakeem knows his support is crucial and this week sought an assurance – nominally from either candidate - that his community will be given an autonomous Muslim majority administrative unit in the East.
The SLMC claims to have 300,000 to 600,000 votes in its grasp. “We could be the deciding factor and should keep its options open for now,” SLMC national organiser K A Baiz told Lankapage.