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Rajapakse's dilemma: balancing rival demands

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As the SLFP’s Presidential candidate, Mr. Mahinda Rajapakse will face two immediate challenges of significant magnitude. The first is the putting together of a winning coalition of forces. The second is formulating a reform program that will be his election manifesto as well as the policy agenda. At the moment, Mr. Rajapakse does not seem to have either. In case the Supreme Court decides that the Presidential election should be held this year, Mr. Rajapakse might run short of time to work on any of these critical areas.

Forging a ‘winning coalition’ is extremely important to win a Presidential election in Sri Lanka. The way in which the office of the President is conceptualised in Sri Lanka’s present constitution makes it imperative for a winning candidate to be able to command the support of a broad coalition of political, social, ethnic, and regional forces.

The idea of a ‘coalition’ here has three connotations. First, it is a coalition of political forces who will agree on a basic policy framework. It does not have to be a formal alliance, like the UPFA formed in 2004. Secondly, it has to be a coalition of diverse social forces. A candidate backed by a range of social forces in class, caste and regional terms will have a better opportunity to win.

Thirdly, the coalition needs to be inter-ethnic in character. No candidate can win a Presidential election mainly or solely on the support of the Sinhalese electorate. Ethnic and religious minority support is critical in this regard. The support of Tamils, Muslims, Up Country Tamils, Christians and Hindus is crucial in securing a majority.

If he is serious about winning, Mr. Rajapakse can only ill-afford to run an election campaign with hostility towards the Tigers.

In establishing such a winning coalition, Prime Minister Rajapakse will have to negotiate carefully with many competing interest groups. The most crucial challenge comes from the need to balance the support he might get from Sinhalese nationalist forces with the anxieties of ethnic minority communities. If he is strongly backed by the JVP or JHU, he might not get the support of Tamil and Christian voters as much as he would like.

There is another similar challenge. Mr. Rajapakse’s image as a pro-labour, pro-peasant politician with a provincial support base would be seen by the corporate community Colombo with some scepticism. Similarly, as former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe clearly proved, a pro-corporate leader is most likely to lose the support of vast sections of the rural masses.

The need of a winning coalition is closely linked to the need of a winning program. This is where Mr. Rajapakse will have to do some quick thinking since he is not yet known to have any policy perspectives as such. There are three areas in which he will have to develop clear policy thinking.

The first obviously entails the ethnic conflict, the peace process and prospects for a settlement. Unlike at the 2004 parliamentary election, the SLFP and its allies may not be able to gain much votes this time on an anti-LTTE, anti-CFA, pro-national security campaign. After April 2004, President Kumaratunga in fact erased the distinctions that she herself established between the UNP and SLFP in relation to dealing with the LTTE. It would be quite difficult for Mr. Rajapakse to resurrect the 2004 election campaign as his presidential platform, although some of his allies might want him to do so.

The realities of state power make it necessary for a serious Presidential candidate to deal with the Tigers as the key partner in the peace and negotiation process. If he is serious about winning, Mr. Rajapakse can only ill-afford to run an election campaign with hostility towards the Tigers, as suggested by some of his potential allies. The crucial importance of Tamil votes in a winning formula is one key consideration in this regard.

The other is the need for a future president to continue the political engagement with the LTTE with the backing of the electorate. Unless Mr. Rajapakse makes a clear commitment during the election campaign to continuing the engagement with the Tigers, and obtain the approval of the electorate for such a policy, in power he might not find it easy to take the process forward.

The second issue is about the post-tsunami reconstruction process. Despite the rhetoric, and as the Prime Minister might know quite well, the vast majority of people affected by the tsunami have not received much state support. The Muslim community in the Eastern province is quite angry with the government for what they consider as the official insensitivity to their immense suffering. The exclusion of the Muslim leaders from negotiations on P-TOMS has further widened the gulf. The post-tsunami process will also have to involve working with the LTTE as well as the Muslim community in the Eastern province.

The third is about rapid economic development and social justice. Although Mr. Rajapakse is not known to be associated with any particular framework of economic policy perspective, now he has to emerge as an economic policy maker as well. In terms of economic development, Sri Lanka today faces a twin challenge. The country needs to achieve rapid economic growth, while protecting vast sections of the populace who will not enjoy the benefits of market-led growth strategies.

Mr. Rajapakse may have overcome a major hurdle in his political career when the Bandaranaike family had to grudgingly accommodate his claim to presidential candidacy. He needs to realise that his charming smile, the down-to-earth relations with the people and the image of a moderate Sinhalese politician would not be enough to win the Presidential election and then run a state caught up in complex challenges of transition from civil war to peace.


Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda is Head of the Department of Political Science and Public Policy, University of Colombo and Founder-Director of the Centre for Policy Research and Analysis

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