By Sumanasiri Liyanage –
It is natural to interpret phenomena in the way the interpreter like it. Maithripala Sirisena’s victory at the presidential election held on January 8, 2015 has been subjected to multiple interpretations. Most pronounced one is that it was a victory for democracy. My friend Prof Jayadeva Uyangoda who has a better understanding of democracy, thinks the election result was a victory for good governance. Some have even interpreted it as a victory for women. Of course, in social science one may not definitely propose that these multiple interpretations are incorrect even though they are sometime contradictory. Let me briefly state my own reading of the election results.
In the early morning of May 19, 2009, the most revered and feared leader of the Sri Lankan Tamils, Velupillai Prabhakaran together with almost all his close associates were killed by the security forces of Sri Lanka marking the end of over 25 years of internal armed conflict that ravaged the island nation. In spite of Prabhakaran’s ruthless handling of the Tamil population, Tamils in the North and East of the island recognized him as an icon of the Tamils’s fight back against the Sinhala Buddhist dominated state in Sri Lanka. Hence a physical elimination of him was widely read by the Tamils in Sri Lanka and elsewhere as a serious blow against their pride and identity. Mahinda Rajapaksa won the election in 2005 with a thin majority primarily because of the boycott of the election imposed by the LTTE on Tamil people. The LTTE had to pay a heavy price for this decision in 2009. Hence, Tamils sought to take a revenge against Rajapaksa whenever they get a chance to do so. When the ex-Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka who conducted the war on the ground contested Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010 Presidential Election, Tamils were hesitant to vote for him although Tamil National Alliance wanted them to do so. Voter turnout was just 25 per cent in Jaffna in 2010. So voters in the Sinhala South who gathered around Rajapaksa voted for him outweighing the protest votes of the Tamils. Waiting hurts, but Tamills in Sri Lanka patiently waited, not having faith in bullets but in ballots till the right time comes. President Rajapaksa, in the face of his dwindling popularity and placing enormous faith on his astrologers’ advice, called an early election with the hope that he could remain in power for another 6 years. Opposition was in disarray so that he predicted an easy victory. Machiavellian move by the ex-President, Chandrika Bandaranaike and the leader of the opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe completely changed the game plan as they brought in Rajapaksa’s Minister of Health and the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party as the common candidate to face the incumbent president. Maithripala Sirisena won the election held on January 8, 2014 by a majority of 449,072 votes. A back of the envelope calculation shows that Maithripala Sirisena was given a majority of 654,521 by the peoples of Northern and Eastern provinces that are predominantly Tamil and Muslim areas. This huge majority was in fact reduced substantially to 450,000 because of the majority given to Mahinda Rajapaksa by the Sinhala voters in the south. The irony of this is that Mahinda Rajapaksa actually got the majority of Sinhala votes in the south notwithstanding the fact that Sinhala voters were also disappointed of the regime for different reasons.
However, it is instructive to keep in mind that the above description does not imply that minorities are inherently revenge-taking peoples. It is a reflection of the failure of the Rajapaksa regime due to multiple reasons to build a new over-arching Sri Lankan civic identity through meeting the demands and aspirations of the numerically small nations and ethnic groups in the island. Rajapaksa government appeared to have held a false idea that just extending developmental efforts in the form of railways and highways would resolve the specific issues associated with national or ethnic identity. He has even refused to keep the promise made by him to successive Indian governments that he would introduce 13+ (something more than Indian backed 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution) to satisfy the demands of Sri Lankan Tamils. Under Rajapaksa regime things had become worse as some subterranean forces with the overt or covert blessings of some elements of the government began attacked on Muslim and Christian religious places and property in the last 5 years. This began with an attack on small Muslim mosque in Dambulla and culminated in Beruwala, Aluthgama and Dharga Town. The government refused to actions against the attacks Muslims and Christians by extreme Buddhist groups.
In this backdrop, how Sirisena regime would handle the problem of national integration will be one of the critical issues facing his government. When the Tamil National Alliance and Muslim parties informed that they would support Sirisena’s candidacy, they had not particularly raised the nationality issue. Their argument was that extending the democratic space in general through establishing rule of law and good governance would also facilitate and protect minority rights. In my opinion, this view like the developmental welfarist view of the previous regime is equally flawed. Hence I submit that the new Sri Lankan government will not be able to find a sustainable long term solution to the Sri Lankan national question for three reasons. First, since it is clear that the new government would continue to operate within neoliberalist economic framework, its notion of democracy will be essentially limited. Neo-liberalist strategy needs liberalization of labor market, capital accumulation through dispossession, privatization of health and education (this was clearly stated in Sirisena’s election manifesto). This would definitely generate opposition from students, organized working class and poor peasants. In such a situation, the government may move towards oppressive and suppressive counteraction. Hence neoliberal democracy would be confined to guarantee of contract, competitive bidding, imposing rule of law and many other similar things. National question needs transcending liberal democracy to recognize the issue of identity that requires multiple legal systems, devolution of power, autonomy and veto powers.
Secondly, the forces in the Sirisens’s coalition include extreme nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya and Sirisena’s election manifesto shows many footprints of the JHU, especially on constitutional issues. JHU was the organization that led the campaign against the constitutional bill of Chandrika Bandaranaike government and the peace agreement of 2002-05. It also behind the formation of national policy of the Rajapaksa regime. Moreover, as the election results show the majority of Sinhala population stood with Rajapaksa so that Rajapaksa and his party may mobilize for its own advantage against any move to go beyond the 13th Amendment.
Finally, Sirisena himself has imposed some constraints on his 100 days program. He promised that he would never touch unitary and non-secular nature of the constitution.
Sri Lankan people wanted a change whatever it would be. The change has come. Nonetheless, whether that change would go beyond changing faces to embody a change in social, political and economic fabric of the Sri Lankan society has yet to be seen. Maithripala Sirisena was able to mobilize and unite diverse forces. Hence one may assume that he would be able to fulfill the hopes and aspiration of the masses who voted for him. The arithmetical logic of summation may explain and be important in winning election, but the direction that the government would take is determined by the parallelogram of forces.
*The writer is the co-ordinator of Marx School- e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org