By Jehan Perera –
Even as late as last week the visit of Pope Francis scheduled for January 13-15 was in question. There were doubts whether the post-election period would be conducive to a papal visit. The situation in the country in the run-up to the presidential election was an unpredictable one. Both main presidential candidates promised to ensure a peaceful election and peaceful transition to facilitate the visit. But on the other hand there was widespread violence. This was almost entirely directed against the opposition campaigners. In one instance, the opposition candidate had to flee the stage due to a stone attack. Civil society groups canvassing for the opposition were not spared either. Some artistes and human rights activists had to be hospitalized after another attack.
Although Election Day was peaceful these elections it failed to meet the test of free and fair elections. In addition to the violence, there was a denial of places for the opposition to hold their meetings. The government used the state machinery to the maximum. This was against the election law. Although the media was expected to give equal coverage to all candidates, the state media gave virtually full coverage to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government’s campaign. When it covered the opposition it did so only to show its weaknesses. The government has also used the state welfare system to give benefits to the voters and linked this to the benevolence of the President. In addition, the government used the military to distribute and exhibit government election propaganda.
At stake at these elections was whether Sri Lanka continued on the path set by the Rajapaksa government or on a different path. The most important features of the Rajapaksa path was the concentration of power in the Presidency, the breakdown of the system of checks and balances which saw the Chief Justice being sacked by the government, even though the Supreme Court and Appeal Court both disagreed with the government, the increasing role of the military in civilian affairs both in the Tamil areas and in the rest of the country, and the growing economic and political dependency on some countries, especially China, where the government took huge loans from the international community for projects of uncertain economic value.
The governance of President Rajapaksa was also marked by non-adherence to systems of governance and by a willingness to obtain results without adequate consideration being given to the costs. His political downfall at these elections was due to excesses that cost him key constituencies. The use of Sinhalese nationalism to an excessive degree alienated the ethnic and religious minorities, especially the Muslims who had voted for the former President at previous elections. But they became subject to physical attacks by extremist Buddhists, who were backed by sections of the government. The level of corruption was also excessive which alienated the Sinhalese intelligentsia, who were concerned about the growing indebtedness of the country.
The stakes at this election were very high and continue to remain so for members of the former government. Charges of being involved in corruption on a large scale figured during the election campaign. Facts and figures purporting to show corrupt practices on a massive scale were bandied about. Some of these alleged illegal commissions and gratifications were of the order of several hundred percent, and not the ten percent that was considered as normal in the past. The loss of governmental power would mean that such wrongdoings are harder to hide. But an even greater fear would be the steadily increasing international pressure on the government’s leadership for having failed to deal properly with the controversial issue of war crimes committed in the last phase of the war.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa made the “Electric Chair” his symbol of defiance against the international human rights groups that were determined to ensure that there would be accountability for what happened during the war. He said that a defeat of his government would mean that the country’s political and military leaders would face international persecution. The inquiry panel appointed by the UN Human Rights Commissioner is on the verge of delivering a comprehensive report on what happened during the war. A sitting President who enjoys the protection of sovereign immunity would be much better positioned to meet this challenge than one who has been voted out of office. In these circumstances there was a reasonable apprehension that the government would consider these elections to be one that they could not afford to lose.
But contrary to expectations the day on which the Presidential Elections were held was extremely peaceful. This was probably the most peaceful Election Day in recent times even though the election campaign that came before was plagued with incidents. There was a peaceful transition of power from President Rajapaksa to the opponent who had bested him at the polls. Sri Lanka’s peaceful transition is being hailed internationally as a triumph of democracy. The voter turnout was over 81 percent. It demonstrated the keen interest and commitment to voter participation of the Sri Lankan people. But the safeguarding of democracy was also due to the system of checks and balances. This had been in a state of dormancy if not collapse during the Rajapaksa presidency. But it revived no sooner than there was the prospect of a change of government.
There are reports that on the night of the vote count, even as defeat stared in the eyes of the former President, there was a discussion about halting the democratic process. But the key public officials vested with the responsibility to ensure that the electoral process would be true to democracy withstood the pressures that were put upon them. The persons mentioned are the Inspector General of Police, the Army Commander and the Attorney General. To these few names must be added the Elections Commissioner who seemed to move flexibly through the competing pressures on him, but with the ultimate result that the democratic process of elections was not subverted. A handful of public officials with integrity made the difference between a democratic transition and political chaos.
The first challenge to the President Maithripala Sirisena will be to restore institutions of governance that were undermined during the Rajapaksa period. The system of checks and balances has been eroded. The judiciary and public service became politicized. This has got to be changed. The reliance on individuals is too much to ask of them. The system itself must be strong. Strengthening the system of checks and balances should not be difficult, as all parties that supported President Sirisena are in agreement on this. The harder problem will be to find a solution to the ethnic conflict that is endorsed by all communities. On this issue the differences between the parties are very great. There is hope that having engaged in a common struggle to regain democracy, they will have developed enough trust and understanding between themselves to reach out to each other and compromise on their differences.
The election campaign exacerbated the fears and divisions amongst the people. In particular there were huge amounts of war and conflict-related propaganda shown on the state and private media. This inflammatory propaganda seems to have swayed a significant segment of the Sinhalese people to vote for the ruling party candidate despite transgressions exposed by the joint opposition. So the first need of the new government is to dampen Sinhalese fears while seeking to rectify the grievances of the Tamil and Muslim people. In the months ahead there will be a need for educational programmes to heal the minds of the people and to emphasise the need for national reconciliation. A permanent solution will take time and care. Positive steps need to be taken to understand the issues of communities and integrate them ensuring their rights and dignity is assured wherever they choose to live.
The main post-war failure of the Rajapaksa government in terms of resolving the ethnic conflict was its use of a strong military presence to keep the Tamil people in check rather than to find a mutually acceptable solution that would enable the military to be withdrawn from the Tamil majority areas and restore civilian rule. This failure continued to fuel Sinhalese nationalism that then spilled over into anti- Muslim actions that appeared to have government cover. Sri Lanka now has a government in which all parties and all communities are represented. The process of decision making will be slow and difficult, but the new government will represent the diversity of Sri Lanka’s multi ethnic and multi religious population. This will be good for peace and reconciliation.
If the opposition alliance continues to act as a collective as it did during election, the Tamil policy will be collectively determined. As a politician President Maithripala Sirisena does not have an articulated policy on the Tamil issue. However, his victory presents an opening for discussion among political parties of different ideological orientations in the background of a joint achievement – the victory of their common candidate and the joining together of political parties of different persuasions in a common purpose. They are now all on the same side, and this would be the best opportunity to work out a mutually acceptable solution.