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Whither peace after the polls?

Although thirteen candidates are contesting Sri Lanka’s Presidential polls in November, the race is essentially between the two leading contenders, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse, the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s (SLFP) candidate and the main opposition United National Party (UNP) leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe. The winner’s foremost challenge will be the Tamil national question. He will inherit a stalled peace process, a simmering shadow war, and one of the world’s most entrenched ethnic divides. The question, then, is what prospects peace under one or the other.

The platforms on which Rajapakse and Wickremesinghe are campaigning are already in the public domain. Although Rajapakse, unlike Wickremesinghe, is yet to release his official manifesto, the texts of his agreements with Sinhala nationalist parties have been published. There is already a broad split. While Rajapakse has signed agreements with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) – both strongly Sinhala nationalist parties – Wickremesinghe has gained the backing of the main Muslim party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), and the main up-countryTamil parties - the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) and the Upcountry Peoples’ Front (UPF) - and the Colombo Tamil party, the Western People’s Front (WPF).

The Rajapakse coalition has a coherent and uncompromising approach to the peace process and the Tamil question. It stands by a unitary Sri Lanka, ruling out any form of powersharing with the Tamils, let alone the federal model proposed by the international community. Furthermore, the Rajapakse coalition goes further, calling for a review (i.e. redrafting) of the February 2002 ceasefire agreement underpinning the present peace process and questioning Norway’s continued involvement, saying “as it is axiomatic that Norway has shown unprecedented bias and partiality towards the LTTE in her role as a facilitator in the negotiation process … and in the monitoring mission of the Ceasefire Agreement and also as she has undoubtedly failed to act impartially in performing her obligations, it is agreed hereby to reconsider seriously whether the Norway should be allowed to engage in those activities further.”

With regards a political solution itself, the Rajapakse coalition sets out policies that reject the core elements of the Tamil demand for self-determination, insisting “no part of the Sri Lankan land shall be considered as the homeland of any racial group,” thereby rejecting the territorial principle on which powersharing could take place. In the interim, the coalition has explicitly rule out an interim administrative structure for the Northeast and vowed to nullify the Post Tsunami Operational Management Structure (PTOMS) aid sharing mechanism agreed by the Sri Lanka government and the Liberation Tigers.

Inevitably, these factors have alarmed the Tamils and Sri Lanka’s other minorities, not least they portend renewed conflict rather than resurgent peace. Some observers anxious about a Rajapakse win take comfort in the absolute power – and hence autonomy of action – the President’s office has, as Rajapakse, a relative newcomer to the levers of power, has no history on delivering to promises to allies. Indeed, recent press reports claim he has suggested to other potential allies that his agreements with the JVP and JHU are for election purposes only and will not actually be implemented.

Others even suggest that the JHU and JVP will be more pragmatic once Rajapakse wins, and less insistent their demands are followed through against international pressure. They argue that during the 2004 parliamentary campaign, the United People''s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the SLFP-JVP alliance, challenged the ceasefire agreement but did nothing to negate it once in power. Given that precedent, it is argued that once, once elected, the right wing coalition will not change the status quo.

However, not fiddling with truce agreement is no longer enough. In 2004 the ceasefire was still holding comparatively well. At the end of 2005 the truce is unravelling amid a shadow war between Army-backed paramilitaries and the LTTE’s intelligence wing and pro-active efforts to shore it up are called for. Even the most optimistic observer has no idea what course of action a Rajapakse Presidency will follow to end the cycle of violence. If anything, Rajapakse’s Prime Ministership has been characterised by an absence of statesman-like leadership needed to carry out such a task, particularly in the face of resistance by the military and Sinhala hardliners.

When it comes to the question of a political solution, another factor that promptly weighs into the equation is the Sri Lanka’s powerful Buddhist clergy. Immediately after handing in his nomination, Rajapakse, an avowed Buddhist, was pictured before the prelates of the Maha Sangha seeking their blessings. At the moment, the Sangha is prepared to wait and see. And while it is possible that it will not create a public uproar if Rajapakse changes his stance on power sharing upon becoming President, that they will privately exert considerable pressure to support public protests by Sinhala nationalists and radical monks is undoubted. By way of comparison, the Sanghas did not publicly oppose the LTTE’s Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) proposal as there was no need for them to do so – President Chandrika Kumaratunga had already assured them the proposal would not be taken up.

Of course, this assumes, as the optimists do, that a victorious Rajapakse would contemplate such a transformation. But there are rational reasons why he would not – it will only serve to alienate his core constituency. Even if he does not plan to stand for a second term as President (and the deal with the JVP includes an abrogation of the role of Executive President during his first six-year term in office) he inevitably hopes to lead Sri Lanka as Prime Minister after that.

Many peace advocates are pinning their hopes on the international community stepping into ensure Rajapakse as President takes steps to gets the peace process back on track. While the efficacy of international pressure has recently been demonstrated by the shelving of the anti-conversion bill, the change in stance was effected under Kumaratunga, who has been vocal about her opposition to the agreements between Rajapkse and the JVP and JHU. Whether international pressure will have any weight on a President who is reliant on strongly anti-Western forces (and not forgetting that the JVP was anti-Indian when it thought that state was going to take a pro-Tamil stance) is questionable.

Another factor that will impact on the peace process after the Presidential election is the state of play in the parliament. The current minority Peoples’ Alliance (PA) government may regain its majority if the JVP rejoins it in the wake of a Rajapakse win. This will result in President and parliament coming under the right-wing coalition’s control – a unity of command that has not been seen since 2001 – strengthening Sri Lanka’s ability to withstand external pressure. This assumes moreover, that international actors can maintain their own unified position on peace in the face of their own competing interests.

If on the other hand the UNP were to gain the upper hand at a parliamentary election in the immediate future, this will result in different dynamics. Given that when Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister under Kumaratunga’s Presidency such a scenario is not unprecedented. Whilst Wickremesinghe may not have the bitterly acrimonious relationship with Rajapakse that he did with Kumaratunga, their competing interests does not auger well for the peace process, not least given Wickremsinghe’s record of deference to the President’s authority (on implementation of the normalisation aspects of the ceasefire agreement for example).

The historic antagonism between the two camps and the need to maintain his personal popularity in the face of a government led by the opposition will ensure Rajapakse is unlikely to take any steps to shore up the Norwegian peace process. And it is unlikely that the UNP, especially if Wickremesinghe leads it, will be in a position to present and push through a credible alternative – this is, after all, the party that accepted the dissolution of parliament even when it had a clear majority.

Therefore, the likelihood that the coalition’s agreements are merely rhetoric, and that a Rajapakse Presidency will in practice be based on a pragmatic willingness to “walk the extra mile for peace” seem slim. The question, though, is whether having Wickremsinghe in the President’s office is any better?

The UNP leader has launched a populist campaign with a market focussed election manifesto which also addresses the detail of the peace process. Promising to ‘defeat separatism,’ the former Prime Minister promises “a permanent solution … through a political solution based on United Sri Lanka” based on the Oslo and Tokyo declarations, which “guarantees the unity, democratic character and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka”. He also guarantees “the security and protection of the eastern province, while guaranteeing Muslim representation in the peace talks”. He vows a Muslim delegation shall be included in the peace talks and “views of the Muslim population will be ascertained at all times.”

Whilst his rhetoric about ‘defeating separatism’ is unlikely to seriously worry the LTTE, Wickremesinghe’s plans to include a Muslim delegation will face opposition from the Liberation Tigers who argue that peace talks should be between the parties to the armed conflict – the LTTE and the Sri Lanka state. Then there is the question of who the Muslim representatives should be – drawn from the fragmented political leadership, community or religious leaders, or simply Wickremesinghe’s divided political ally, the SLMC.

Similarly, while the manifesto promises to “establish a mechanism that will ensure the peace and security of all people living in the Eastern Province”, Wickremesinghe has a poor record as head of a government that, by failing to implement terms of the ceasefire agreement with regards to the disarmament and removal of paramilitary groups, precipitated the lack of peace and security in the region today. Admittedly he faced resistance from Kumaratunga, but there are questions about his resolve in facing down a belligerent military.

While on the surface Wickremesinghe has a good record on the peace front – he signed the ceasefire agreement with the LTTE, thereby kickstarting the process and held several rounds of talks with the LTTE – it does not stand up to close scrutiny. Wickremesinghe has a history of making promises that were not delivered. The collapse of the Sub-committees on normalisation, rehabilitation and de-escalation, the abrogation of the agreement to solicit international aid jointly with the LTTE and the failure to implement the ceasefire agreement eventually led to the LTTE walking out of the talks.

Wickremesinghe has also promised to “speed up the post-tsunami reconstruction and rehabilitation of the East under the to-be appointed competent authority”. What this means for the P-TOMS is unknown, but with a history of marginalizing the LTTE, contrary to the views of many, tsunami-related aid is likely to a source of acrimony, rather than amity.

While the international community may have more sway over Sri Lanka in a Wickremesinghe Presidency, given his history of working with Western nations (as demonstrated by his pursuance of an ‘international safety net’ during his Prime Ministership), it remains to be seen if he can implement crucial decisions – such as disarming the paramilitaries and sharing aid with the LTTE – in the face of vehement resistance from the Sinhala right. Thus, even if the international community does pressure Wickeremesinghe, what he can deliver may be restricted. If the parliament is controlled by the UPFA with a majority – which is likely if the JVP rejoins the PA after Kumaratunga leaves – then he will need to deploy the Presidency’s considerable powers to effect changes.

But, like his rival in the November polls, Wickremesinghe has no record of statesman-like leadership. Given his previous leadership of the country was characterised by an unwillingness to take bold decisions and the constant seeking of a political consensus, which was never forthcoming, it seems unlikely that he will challenge a UPFA parliament. All hopes rest therefore, on a Wickremesinghe Presidency supported by a UNP-dominated parliament. This is by no means certain. Although Wickremesinghe is backed in his Presidential bid by a number of minority parties, the Muslim bloc is not likely in parliament, given the fracturing of Muslim political representation, and the CWC has a history of pursing unabashedly interest driven alliances. In short, a decisive majority in Parliament may not prove forthcoming.

Then there is the Sangha. Powersharing in Sri Lanka ultimately means weakening the clergy’s grip on the state. Given Wickremesinghe’s proclivity for political consensus and his lack of firm leadership, only the hopelessly optimistic can expect him to demonstrate the determination, tenacity and resolve to force the peace process through to a solution in the face of the customary intense resistance the Sinhala right wing and the Buddhist clergy will put up.

Therefore while on the face of it Wickremesinghe may look like a more positive bet for the peace process than Rajapakse, the reality is that he is faces odds and is beset by weaknesses that ultimately make him a long shot too. While Rajapakse has already taken a fiercely anti-peace stance and has little incentive and almost no inclination to change after winning, Wickremesinghe’s all things to all people agreements and cautious and conservative temperament suggest that he will be unlikely to deliver the shot in the arm the peace process needs. In short, regardless of who wins the Presidential polls, the prospects for a revival of the Norwegian initiative look slim.