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There are three southern poles now

At any other time it would have been routine and not worthy of more than a couple of column inches. But Ranil Wickremesinghe’s visit to Oslo last week seemed to confirm what close observers of Sri Lanka’s politics had been speculating for some time: that powerful members of the international community are keen to actively bring about a scenario where the peace process could no longer be a target for political ‘outbidding’ in the south.

In short, they want a national government between Sri Lanka’s main parties, President Mahinda Rajapakse’s ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Wickremesinghe’s main opposition United National Party (UNP). Inevitably, this necessitates Rajapakse dumping his present ultra-nationalist allies – the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) and the Jeyathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) – and ending their present hold on the peace process.

The national government story ‘broke’ in The Sunday Leader this week – though most political actors, not least the shrewd leadership of the JVP, had figured out what was going on the moment Wickremesinghe left the island (even though, UNP officials insist, the trip was scheduled a long time ago). Yet, the Leader, known for its close links with the UNP, claimed the idea of a national government originated from President Rajapakse himself and noted only that the international community was ‘in favour’ of the idea.

For President Rajapakse, a tie-up would not only guarantee the parliamentary stability of his minority government, but would end some of his other difficulties, not least the reluctance of foreign investors and the incessant pressure from international actors to push on with the peace process.

For the UNP, a tie-up would stem the relentless flow of defectors from its divided ranks to the SLFP - Rajapakse, assured of a stable majority in parliament, would desist from his highly effective campaign of wooing them over. Wickremesinghe, whose position as UNP leader has been under severe pressure, would be also relieved. As for the UNP rebels, a tie-up might undermine their pressure to make Wickremesinghe step down, but they too would welcome an end to the debilitating defections. The UNP, as a whole, would welcome a rift between Rajapakse and his JVP/JHU allies.

The only loser in this scenario, it appears, is the JVP and, understandably, the Marxists are beside themselves with rage. Having backed Rajapakse’s Presidential campaign – more effectively than even his own divided SLFP – the JVP has had a grip on the levers of power (whilst not being responsible for the Rajapakse’s mistakes) and had taken a commanding position on the flank of the peace process and other key matters of state. Now that grip is being prised away.

One of the immediate consequences of the Wickremesinghe visit, therefore, has been the vehement campaign unleashed last week by Sinhala nationalist forces against Norway. Both the JVP and its support organisations such as the Patriotic National Movement (PNM) have come out in full fury against Oslo. The charges are not new – that Norway is biased against the Liberation Tigers, that there is a Norwegian conspiracy against Sri Lanka, and so on.

But the JVP knows full well that Norway is merely the visible tip of a powerful international iceberg. And it also knows that it cannot take a strident line against those actors without significant consequences, not least it if expects (as it undoubtedly does) to govern Sri Lanka one day. Thus Oslo serves as the only viable target.

In any case, the matter of a national government can only be decided after the outcome of March 30 elections is known. But some questions about its salience to a peace process are already showing through.

The logic behind a tie up between Sri Lanka’s two main parties is hardly novel. It was raised most famously in the late nineties by visiting British officials Liam Fox and, later, Minister Derek Fatchet. But that initiative failed as neither the UNP nor the SLFP-led People’s Alliance (PA) saw much mileage in it for themselves. Also, with every expectation that President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s ‘war for peace’ was going to wipe the LTTE out once and for all, the international community was not inclined to use pressure to ensure the tie-up came through.

What is different between then and now is the JVP. The party has grown in parliament (indeed, it is now challenging the disintegrating SLFP for the number two slot), in grassroots reach, in other capacities. But it has also become a political phenomenon. A powerful standard bearer of Sinhala nationalism, the JVP has positioned itself as cure for the myriad of ills afflicting Sri Lanka. As a result, the bipolar politics of yore have been replaced by a system that is almost tripolar. And there is nothing to suggest this process is going to be arrested. If anything, a national government presiding over the same corrupt, inefficient state is likely to enhance the JVP’s argument on the street that it is the one and only answer to Sri Lanka’s ills.

This is the first reason why the notion of a national government being a panacea for the competitive outbidding that has undermined past peace efforts becomes questionable.

In the recent past it is the JVP, not the main opposition, that has spearheaded strong resistance to any effort to advance the peace process. Be it the sharing of tsunami aid (P-TOMS) with the Tigers, or even of holding talks with them, the JVP has been the most vocal and the most effective opponent.

True, the UNP-led government that signed the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) and then held six rounds of talks with the LTTE struggled against Kumaratunga’s resistance to its efforts. And the UNP, once ejected from power in April 2004, has subsequently been less than helpful, not least in defending the peace process. But true resistance to peace efforts have come from the JVP and JHU and their supportive organisations.

Ironically, it is the ferocity of their opposition that has led to recent calls for greater inclusivity in the peace process (and the logic that such political actors are better brought into the process, rather than left to mobilise against it from outside). The demonstrable weaknesses of that approach (note the circumstances of the last Geneva round) have no doubt helped build the case for a more forceful stab at the national government approach.

But, secondly, a close look at the compulsions of both President Rajapakse and the UNP suggest that whilst a national government serves their present needs, it does not suit their longer term interests.

Rajapakse wants to be re-elected. The UNP wants to win the next Parliamentary election and its leader – Wickremesinghe or whoever else – also wants to be the next President. How would a national government help either?

A quick skim through Sri Lanka’s history makes it obvious that the main political parties have (since 1956) consistently put their own electoral interests above a solution to the ethnic question. Wickremesinghe’s UNP resisted the PA’s devolution package of 1995 till it was gutted to be utterly meaningless (no one, quite rightly, took the UNP’s own devolution proposals seriously). Last year, President Rajapakse was elected on – even by Sri Lankan standards – an unashamedly anti-peace process ticket.

And therein lies the rub. Rajapakse was elected. Of course, there is the question of what might or might not have been if the LTTE hadn’t called a boycott. But Rajapakse, even without the Muslim or Estate Tamil vote, won over the majority of the Sinhala voters (despite a divided SLFP with a resentful outgoing President as its leader) to a sufficient degree to come home by a clear margin.

Both Rajapakse and Wickremsinghe, moreover, offered generous subsidies to the Sinhala voter (even though Wickremesinghe had to share his promised largess amongst his minority backers).

It was undeniably the JVP with its peerless party machine and its strident, compelling platform, which delivered Rajapakse to office (the JHU meanwhile provided an invaluable moral legitimisation). The point is unlikely to be far from his mind, particularly if he mulls his chances at the next Presidential. (Moreover, for Rajapakse, despite the self-reassuring claims of some his erstwhile liberal backers, this is not simply a question of rational calculation, there are core beliefs too.)

The JVP has grown through war and peace, through economic growth and decline, whilst in government and in opposition, and through a myriad of international positions on how to solve Sri Lanka’s national question.

The push for a national government is thus, a sign of the lack of a suitable international response to the JVP and its powerful political message amongst the Sinhalese.

Indeed, the JVP’s growth has arguably been helped by the international community’s failure to confront – rather than manoeuvre around - the complex processes by which Sinhala nationalism has, since prior to independence from Britain, worked its way into the very fabric of the state and Sri Lankan society.

Whilst nominally a welcome contribution to the peace process, a national government will merely defer this dilemma: how can Sinhala nationalism (which reproduces itself through the guidance of the Sangha, the practice of the military, the curriculum of schools, academic research, and so on) be contained and marginalized?

Undoubtedly only international pressure that can forge a national government in Sri Lanka today. More importantly, it is only continuing international pressure that will keep it together. But for how long? Particularly with the JVP continuing its project on the outside?