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SLFP under stress ahead of election

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Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which is ruling the country as the head of a coalition, is under stress ahead of the crucial presidential election. A firm sense of purpose, a firm agenda and decisive action are the least that the electorate would expect from a party in power. But the SLFP is conspicuously wanting in these matters.

The SLFP-led coalition’s candidate for President is the current Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa. But the person who matters is the incumbent President, Chandrika Kumaratunga. She is the de-facto head of the government, the coalition, and the party, and it is her moves that will primarily shape the fortunes of the candidate, though Rajapaksa’s capabilities and drawbacks will also play a very important role.

Before the controversy over her term of office became a leading issue to unsettle her, President Kumaratunga had shown a great sense of purpose in at least one key national issue - the peace process. But this resolve is not seen now. The swing is between confusion and inaction, which tends to weaken the peace process, not carry it forward.

Kumaratunga defied coalition partner Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and signed an agreement with the LTTE to set up a Joint Mechanism for doing post-tsunami reconstruction work in the troubled North East Province. She did not flinch even when the JVP rocked the boat severely by quitting the coalition and reducing the government to a minority in parliament.

The JVP wants Rajapakse to adopt its hardline anti-LTTE, anti-federalism and radical leftist policies. The monks' party want him to see Sri Lanka as being primarily the Land of the Sinhalas

She risked losing the support of her Sinhala majoritarian constituency by openly saying that she was going to use the Joint Mechanism to build bridges with the LTTE and take the country forward along the road to peace, development and international acceptance.

It is another matter that her efforts were in vain. The Joint Mechanism was killed in the womb by the JVP, which got a court stay on some of its critical provisions. And once this happened, the LTTE also lost interest in the mechanism, and began to lobby for direct foreign aid.

Once the JVP quit, survival became the main concern of the ruling SLFP as well as President Kumaratunga. Kumaratunga had to think of ways and means of ensuring the passage of the annual budget through parliament in November this year. She either had to patch up with the JVP or get the support of the opposition United National Party (UNP). Having burnt her boats with the JVP, she sent word to the UNP for an alliance. In this extraordinary offer, she said that she was ready to make the UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Prime Minister in a new coalition government, in return for support for the budget and also her bid to be in office as President till November 2006.

Kumaratunga was keen that the two "systemic" parties of Sri Lanka should come together to avoid oppressive and self-destructive dependence on a "non-systemic" party like the JVP, which was communal and Marxist. The JVP and other non-systemic parties were holding up a negotiated solution to the ethnic conflict and preventing the liberalization and modernization of the economy, goals to which both the SLFP and UNP were committed.

But the UNP leader spurned this offer and said that such an alliance could be considered only after the Presidential election, which he insisted, must be held in November 2005. The UNP staged a long march from Dondra, in the extreme South, to Colombo, demanding a Presidential election this year. The route chosen was appropriate - it was the tsunami hit coastline, where the people were complaining that government had done little to provide them permanent shelter, a crying need.

The campaign triggered pressure inside the SLFP to clear the political air in regard to the date of the Presidential election and Kumaratunga’s term of office. Though party chief Kumaratunga kept saying that the Presidential election was still more than a year away, within the SLFP, two Presidential candidates had emerged, namely, Prime Minister Rajapaksa and Cabinet Minister and the President’s younger brother, Anura Bandaranaike. The conflict threatened to split the party.

The President did not want Rajapaksa, with whom she had had deep differences for long, and preferred Bandaranaike, who would keep the SLFP and the government within the Bandaranaike family - the founders of the party.

Rajapaksa is a quintessential representative of the Sinhalas, especially Sinhala Buddhists, but he also needs the votes of the Tamils and Muslims to win

But Kumaratunga’s bid to sideline Rajapaksa was not liked by the majority of her party people, who saw him as the better candidate, a candidate who could appeal to the Sinhala Buddhist majority, rebuild bridges with the estranged JVP, and even strike an alliance with the Buddhist monks’ party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). The party men’s calculation was the consolidation of the Sinhala nationalist and left wing votes was necessary to beat the UNP, which was the single largest party in the country.

Kumaratunga who obliquely upbraided Rajapaksa for corruption and declared him unfit to be the SLFP’s candidate, finally had to accept him as the candidate. Though he finally agreed to President’s plea to have the election in November 2006 as part of the compromise formula, Rajapaksa immediately started his election campaign, obviously expecting the election in November 2005. His posters and other publicity material mushroomed in the streets of Sri Lanka’s towns. He began visiting Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim shrines to win the support of these communities.

Though Rajapaksa has jumped into the fray, his alliances are yet to be fixed. Media reports say that the JVP is planning to put up its candidate. The name of its dashing Propaganda Secretary, Wimal Weerawansa, is mentioned in this connection. The JVP is perhaps trying to be pricy. But it certainly wants a firm commitment from Rajapaksa that as President, he would follow its hardline anti-LTTE, anti-federalism and radical leftist policies. The JVP had left the government on these issues only on June 16, and it would be too difficult to deviate from them so soon.

The monks’ party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), has said that its support cannot be taken for granted, and has laid down five principles to which a candidate must swear commitment. One of them is to see Sri Lanka as being primarily the Land of the Sinhalas. Rajapaksa is a quintessential representative of the Sinhalas, especially Sinhala Buddhists, but in an all-island Presidential election, he needs the votes of the Tamils and Muslims. He cannot hope to win with a brazenly communal agenda.

In the south, there is a growing demand to contain the LTTE and refrain from giving any further concessions to it - or the Tamils as a group

There is also a lack of clarity on economic policies. The leftist JVP and the rightist UNP have clarity. But the SLFP does not. Rajapaksa is a leftist but his party has to keep the interest of various economic groups in mind. Being a ruling party or a ruling party to be, the SLFP has to keep the interests of business and industry, both domestic and foreign, in mind. He has to think of Sri Lanka’s relations with the international donors, including the multilateral institutions, which demand structural changes in the economy towards capitalism and globalization.

It is only to be expected that in this uncertain and fluid political atmosphere in South Sri Lanka, the peace process will not move forward even an inch. The absence of a dialogue and non-existence institutions where the two sides could work together (the Joint Mechanism would have been one such institution), the government and the LTTE or the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE, are steadily moving away from each other.

In South Sri Lanka, there is a growing demand for containing the LTTE and refraining from giving any further concessions to it or the Tamils as a group. And in the Tamil areas, there is a determined move by the LTTE to trigger tension between the Tamil people and the state security forces. Even though guns are silent, there is a sharpening of the contradiction between Sinhala majoritarianism and Tamil separatism. Three and a half years of a no-war situation has not led to a change in the mindset of the two sides towards mutual understanding and accommodation.


PK Balachandran is Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka

Hindustan Times: Lanka ruling party under stress. [August 8, 2005]

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