15 December, 2019

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Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election: Healing The Wounds Is The New Task

By Jayadeva Uyangoda

Prof. Jayadeve Uyangoda

Sri Lanka’s eighth presidential election held last Sunday has produced an outcome that has surprised the winners, the losers as well as the observers. The most obvious, and arguably disquieting, and utterly unanticipated trend that became immediately visible is the re-sharpening of majority-minority divide in the citizens’ electoral choices across the country.

 Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the winner, has received overwhelming backing of the voters of the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community. Yet he has been almost totally rejected by the minority Tamil and Muslim voters who are regionally concentrated in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces and the central province’s plantation country and some urban areas of the Western and Southern provinces. 

Sajith Premadasa, Rajapaksa’s main challenger, received support of a vast majority of Tamil and Muslim voters. Yet he has been soundly rejected by the Sinhalese voters, in some electorates receiving only one-third of the votes.

The final percentages of vote share obtained by the two main candidates – 52.55 by Rajapaksa and 41. 99 by Premadasa – show that the new Present has received a clear mandate that has also rocked his opponent’s political coalition, New Democratic Front. The winner’s majority exceeds 1.36 million votes, which is quite high in Sri Lankan standards. 

Ethnic Polarization

The vote distribution between the two main candidates shows that the presidential election has re-affirmed the continuity, and not the weakening, of ethnic polarization in shaping the political destinies of Sri Lankan society. This is a factor that the new President and his government should not fail to address in a manner that will heal the wounds of the past.  

The outcome is also a severe blow to candidates who sought to emerge to form a ‘third force’, with the hope of breaking the monopoly of country’s two main political coalitions in the near future. These ‘alternative’ candidates could not secure even four percent of the total votes.  

There is one major reason that seems to have contributed to this polarizing electoral outcome. It is the political impact of the series of bomb attacks carried out by Muslim terrorists on April 21, the Easter Sunday, this year. Its far reaching consequences run parallel to the way in which 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US changed beyond recognition the contemporary politics of America and Western Europe.

Easter Sunday Attacks

The suicide blasts took place in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa killed hundreds of worshippers and other civilians and sent shock waves throughout the country at a time when people had been learning to cope with the trauma of a three-decades of civil war between the State and Tamil insurgents. The attacks and the massive devastation they caused also exposed the utter failure of the government leadership as well as the defence establishment to prevent them, despite prior warnings. 

The political impact of Easter explosions was multiple. It created a deep sense of insecurity among the citizens along with a huge loss of faith in the capacity of the government and its leadership to provide citizens security and safety. Amidst public outrage, the government immediately began to face an unprecedented crisis of public confidence. 

It also set in motion a new wave of Islamophobia, spearheaded by the social media, and it spread rapidly particularly among the Sinhalese-Buddhist citizens. 

Strong Ruler –Strong Government

This new phase of Sinhalese nationalism gave rise to a fresh political consensus as well. Its core thesis was that the ‘weak and ineffective’ government should be replaced with ‘a strong government’ headed by ‘a strong leader’ with capacity and resolve to protect the citizens from a new generation of terrorists, with international connections and modern technological capabilities.

By this time, Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s former Defence Secretary who was in charge of the war against the LTTE, had already begun his campaign to be a candidate for the forthcoming presidential election. He and the party led by his two brothers, Sri Lanka People’s Party (Sri Lana Podu Jana Party –SLPP), had also developed a political campaign focusing primarily on the promise of establishing a national security regime led by a strong leader free from the shackles of liberal democracy. That was the alternative they offered to replace the deeply divided, inept and crisis – ridden government jointly headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. 

Thus, the sudden crisis caused by the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks provided a new context for a choice between a weak democratic regime and a strong national security regime.  

How did the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim societies respond to the two opposing political alternatives presented by the two principal candidates?

Election Campaign

Sajith Premadasa is the candidate of the New Democratic Front, which was a broad coalition formed a few weeks before the election. Its key partner is United National Party, headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. It is also a multi-ethnic coalition supported by the main Tamil and Muslim parties.

Premadasa, deputy leader of the UNP, was given party candidacy only in late September, due to internal party differences between two factions led by him and Wickremesinghe. Having entered the fray rather late, Premadasa developed a welfare state narrative that countered his own government’s neo-liberal economic and social reform policy agenda as well as his opponent’s – Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s — national security narrative. During the election campaign, Premadasa also projected his image as the presidential candidate of the poor and marginalized.

Election results indicate that Premadasa’s central promise of bringing the welfare state back, with an ideology of paternalistic populism, failed to make any significant impact on the Sinhalese-Buddhist electorate. The fact that he was the candidate of a ruling party that had lost public trust and the resultant anti-incumbency disadvantage has obviously added to his woes. 

In the deep South, Premadasa’s election campaign may have refreshed among many Sinhalese families those horrific memories of violence associated with the government headed by his own father during the late 1980s.

However, the most important reason why he was rejected by the Sinhalese section of the electorate by a substantial margin is the perception that he was not nationalist enough to be Sri Lanka’s President in the post-Easter Sunday context.

Community Insecurities

It is also Premadasa’s weak Sinhalese nationalist credentials that ensured him overwhelming support – in many electorates over 80% of the valid votes – among Tamil and Muslim voters.

The Tamil and Muslim citizens seem to have had an insecurity problem different from their Sinhalese counterparts. The source of this minority insecurity is the political elite of the Sinhalese nationalist coalition led by the Rajapaksa family. The latter’s past track record, from the point of view of the minority communities, has had a distinctly Sinhalese-nationalist orientation.  

Rajapaksa’s campaign strategists were also keen to prove the point that they could win a presidential election without the support of ethnic minority voters. They seem to have been inspired by the electoral strategy of benefitting from deep ethnic divisions and the majority’s security anxieties, as successfully practiced by India’s Bharatiya Janatha Party.    

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s developmentalist agenda for Tamil and Muslim-majority provinces could hardly resolve the insecurity dilemma of the ethnic minorities. Thus, in the districts where the Tamil and Muslim communities are dominant numerically, Sajith Premadasa has polled more than one million votes over Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They have contributed to Premadasa’s national total as well as the national average quite significantly. In many electorates in the North and East, Rajapaksa’s share of votes is as low as 20 percent.

Meanwhile, if the 9/11 altered the politics of Western democracies in a trajectory away from liberal democracy, multiculturalism, and political pluralism, and fostered deep insecurities among the majority ethnic communities, a similar process of change has been taking place in South Asia too. It also fueled new tensions among ethnic communities in multi-ethnic societies.

Sri Lanka proved an exception in 2015, but in 2019, it has clearly joined the global trend. The dismal failure of Sri Lanka’s democratic reform experiment of 2015 too has provided the context for a shift in the popular support for a possible retreat from traditional forms of democracy. 

Meanwhile, the pressures of big electoral victories are such that the new president and his family members, who will constitute the core of the new regime, might find it difficult to resist the temptation of giving into the wishes of their Sinhalese nationalist constituency. This is particularly so in view of the ethnic polarization of the electoral verdict. 

Reconciliation

However, to fulfill his promise of taking the country out of its present state of deep economic and governance crisis and stagnation as well as ushering in an era of economic prosperity and political stability, Sri Lanka’s new President will need to re-build the trust between the majority and minority communities. 

The best, incurring possibly the lowest political cost, to achieving that goal lays through essentially democratic, inclusive, dialogical, and accommodative means.

Thus, the outcome of the presidential election highlights once again how inter-ethnic reconciliation continues to be centrally relevant to any recovery and reform agenda for post-war Sri Lanka. 

Reconciliation is needed for healing, and not aggravating, the wounds in a country that is struggling to come out from a recent past of conflict, violence and democratic setbacks. 

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Latest comments

  • 3
    0

    Dr J.Uyangoda,

    According to your article the Easter Sunday Bombing was the catalyst for the victory of GR, if so what will happen in case a another vested party orchestrate a similar campaign now, will the majority turn their back on GR.

    • 1
      0

      If what we hear is true about the order not to sing national anthem in Tamil, then a dagger has been plunged into the wound to make it sore. If one who cannot do a simple gesture like that, how do you expect him to heal the wound of more than 70 years.

    • 0
      0

      concerned citizen,

      Have you heard about same side goal in soccer? Check it out on Google.

  • 9
    2

    I cannot wait for the day HE Nandasena will declare our Kudu Raja Dumi Silva walk as a free man from Welikada (Prison Hospital)

    H.E Nandasena, that will be one of your firstmost duties to fulfill. Please do ASAP.

  • 12
    1

    Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election: Healing The Wounds Is The New Task

    How can a CRIMNAL heal the Wounds of his Vicim.
    Yes he is elected President by a Racist Majority. But the absence of Congrataualtory calls from Countries that matter must worry Gotha .As I said no Western Country will engage with a CRIMINAL & LIAR. The only Country of importance who called to convey a message was India . But if any one listened to conversation with Mr.Modi it will be obvious it was not a Congratulatory call but rather a Stern Warning and an Order to make his way to Delhi for discussion about inviting Cheenavedi. Gotha himself has said it was all about Indias Security Concerns.
    Gotha you will not be allowed keep this promise. Wake up. Empty Rhetoric during the election will haunt you for the next five years. Rambuka the Chim please whisper into Gothas ears.

    • 1
      0

      In New Delhi he will be read the riot act. He will listen to it like a timid mouse and come back. He knows BJP means business and cannot be taken for ride like Congress party. For all those patriots, please remember that the sovereignty of Sri Lanka depends on security concerns of India, which is now threatened by the presence of China. This is the same situation as pre-parippu drop in 1987. There is no option for him other than to comply with the order. Otherwise history may repeat itself to bring ignominy.

    • 1
      0

      In a nut shell,
      I would like say, so called mis-trust
      Superiority complex , dis-like(hatred),
      All emanate from one thing,
      Comes from not understanding
      the two communities have a huge
      language or communication
      barrier,
      This is the root cause of the problem
      whether we like it not, unless
      we clear this barrier , we will
      continue to be divided for ever
      not being able to live under
      One umbrella??
      So what can we do??
      Majority Sinhala must start learning
      Tamil language(Tamil must be compulsory for OL Sinhala students
      as a second language) vise versa

      (Sinhala must be compulsary for OL Tamil students as a second language).
      For some,this may look stupid!!
      But,If this point is not addressed soon
      We all may enjoy anarchy! to
      Come for ever.
      I hope the newly appointed Hon.President GR will understand & solve this important & national issue.
      A  few months back,I was in Jaffna
      for 4 days visiting various places,
      and at times I felt, I was in India.
      I had to communicate in broken
      Tamil and they looked me down.  Had I known Tamil I would have
      definitely understood their feelings.

    • 0
      0

      I hope GR will address this
      Point and pay high price for buying plastic waste collection
      To encourage recycling

  • 6
    0

    KASmaalam K A Sumanasekere

    Now that single handed Major General Kamal Gunaratne is being appointed the new Defense Secretary are we going to see policemen/military police are being deployed in every corner of streets and junctions armed with canes administering corporal punishment on those who appear to dislike Gota and his clan. Do you think they also would be provided with benches so that the civilians could stant on the benches while being beaten on their bum?

    Given Kamal’s experience at Royal Institute International School and his experience at the war front Gota would agree to this unconventional methods of making things worse.

  • 2
    0

    Independent plastic recycling companies small and medium size have been doing a great service to.the whole nation and most citizens are not even aware of it.
    They have been doing it without any funding from The Government using their own personal funds.

    These people need urgent support and funding from the government.

    The past government did not educate the people about the huge environmental crisis plastic causes.

    I wonder how many people are aware that plastic takes 10 to 1000 years in landfills to decompose and plastic bottles approx 450 years .
    So recycling companies and individuals should be supported fully.
    And this is urgent and needs to be done over night .

  • 3
    0

    Looking back at the sequence of events starting from the October coup of 2018, curtain events seem too convenient and appear to be surreal to call it coincidence.
    The most crucial one being the easter sunday massacre.
    I would like to ask myself this, who were the ultimate beneficiaries of that event. Was it the Muslim community?
    Obviously not. Was it the government in power? No not at all. Was it the Sinhalese people? Not really. Then who benefitted?
    For a crime to be committed, there must be a motive. A motive is what gives the criminal, a direction. Direction towards achieving something in the end.
    In our case neither the muslims nor the people who were in power nor the average Sinhalese people benefitted in anyway.
    However, it has brought a man who has lots of black scars on him to the helm of power.
    Moreover since that event all actions of the Mara group had progressed like clockwork. I find it hard to believe, everything fell into place coincidentally.
    To me, it looks like a certain script was being played out and it worked.
    Now we have to wait and see how the next sequence of events will unfold. Winning the presidency is a means to an end. Let’s see in what direction our country will move. Time will tell.
    If it goes from bad to good I will be the happiest person.
    It would mean that two wrongs could indeed end with a right for a change, then maybe I will believe in coincidence!!!
    Till then my train of thought is grounded firmly on rational reflection and logic, with the principle of cause and effect as a guide.

  • 0
    0

    Reconciliation is an automatic process.
    Government should encourage it.
    Not like MY3/Ranil government who tried reconciliation like a “”” Implanted Device”””

  • 1
    0

    The choice before the voter on 16th. Nov: was between Proven Evil against Promise:
    The result proves that what matters is not Evil but Sinhala Buddhist Supremacy: The minorities are of no consequence they say.
    In that sense they have elected a man who they perceive to deliver the Sinhala Buddhist State.
    Riding to Power based on Language and Religion could be counter-productive.
    It would be a matter of time before even Gota will be caught between Scylla and Charybdis [Greek Mythology ]!

  • 3
    0

    Gotha has said that he has accepted Mr,Modi”s invitation. I know he cant talk and highly temporamental but he is confused with the meaning of Accepting and Obeying. Gotha the word you are looing for is ” I have Obeyed Mr.Modis Orders to visit Delhi.

  • 0
    0

    Eighth or seventh Presidential election?

  • 0
    0

    Just wondering..
    /
    If this is true, how come Tamils vote for SF in 2010. It doesn’t make sense.
    Just after the war.

  • 1
    4

    ‘Para’ Malabar Wellala Demala politicians do not want the wound to be healed. They like to use the so called ‘Tamil Problem’ as what Sinhalayo call ‘Higannage thuwalaya’. They scratched the wound before the election by presenting 13 demands of which some were extremely racist. Gotabhaya Rajapakse rejected those demands outright. It looks like racist Wellala politicians managed to convince Demala people that Sajith accepted those demands. Even if Sajith did not accept, Ranil might have told ‘OK’ when he met Demala politicians in Vavunia.

  • 4
    1

    Indias Foreign Minister rushes to Sri Lank with a special message to Gotha. We know what the meassge . Gotha promised a lot things and certainly knows it is tough aat the top. He said no one will interfere with Sri Lankas Sovereignty. Gotha listen if you intefere with Indias Security by bringing Cheenavedi in you will be bumped off within days of Ordering Peoples Army in.
    Dont say you were not warned.

  • 0
    0

    Kali, You label Sinhalese as racists. Hope the voting pattern proved to you that the Tamils are even more racist than the Sinhalese and that you personally are the most racist by your everyday comments. Do not preach what you cannot practice.

  • 0
    0

    In a nut shell,
    I would like say, so called mis-trust
    Superiority complex , dis-like(hatred),
    All emanate from one thing,
    Comes from not understanding
    the two communities have a huge
    language or communication
    barrier,
    This is the root cause of the problem
    whether we like it not, unless
    we clear this barrier , we will
    continue to be divided for ever
    not being able to live under
    One umbrella??
    So what can we do??
    Majority Sinhala must start learning
    Tamil language(Tamil must be compulsory for OL Sinhala students
    as a second language) vise versa

    (Sinhala must be compulsary for OL Tamil students as a second language).
    If this point is not addressed soon
    We all may enjoy anarchy! to
    Come for ever.
    I hope the newly appointed Hon.President GR will understand & solve this important & national issue.
    A  few months back,I was in Jaffna
    for 4 days visiting various places,
    and at times I felt, I was in India.
    I had to communicate in broken
    Tamil and they looked me down.  Had I known Tamil I would have
    definitely understood their feelings.

  • 0
    0

    1.”Strong Leader” was a factor or the main factor to the election result. Let’s say it is 50%.

    The rest is:
    2. Next one is the greed of Ranil’s partners. This I would like to go longer than others but as the election is over I cut short. “Pukazhpurindha Illiloarkku Illai Ikazhvaarmun Erupoal Peedu Nadai” UNP faced enemy within the house. New King cut the branch he was sitting during the LG election. UNP didn’t recover from that, though a little bit during Oct 2018. Ranil let Oct 2018 opportunity to slip through. Ranil appeared to be willing to hand over the PM position to Old King. Reason are many. He did not want to let Old Royals hurt by the locals (Tamils) or IC. This was taking a heavy toll on economy, internal racial harmony, and International relation. He didn’t want to comply with resolution UNHRC 30/1. So he preferred Old Royals to look after their fate. He didn’t want to be a traitor of Sinhala War Heroes. During this time he played out all Western Diplomats who rushed help him. So America gave up on him and sided with Old Brother Prince. TNA had a long fight with Ranil on trying to defend him at CoA and SC. At first he resisted. But TNA lawyers at the last minute reversed the coup. Even at that time he had not taken TNA as his true friends. Voting on Account came and went; Budget came. All Small parties were holding Ranil on throat and extracting benefits. But TNA wanted in writing only the Devolution package. JVP wanted to cut it short and tried make it as 20A. Anyway Ranil did not give to TNA in writing. He just wrote note on a scrape paper promising it. That time by supporting Ranil, TNA lost large chunk of its support in North East. Ranil seems to have felt he was cheating TNA and made his mind to honor that piece of paper.

  • 0
    0

    TNA has promised to Tamils that it would not take any minister positions in any government. Ranil’s only sincere friends in the parliament were sitting on the opposition bench. He cannot give any perks, jobs for voters, commission for contracts… so…. so… to TNA. Then as first remedy, he took the North East development Minister in his hand. For the first time in 70 years, some money moved to North from Colombo. This is where JAF was also renovated. He promised to Sam & Sum to give a try to the devolution package, sitting on the table and collecting dust. This alerted the smaller parties on whom he has been counting for 2/3 majority. To destroy Ranil, New King had put the dream of PM Job in the head Ranil’s most close assistant, Vaalaiththodam Jr. This is where Vaalaiththodam started to dream to become the President. (I don’t want to go into the talks of evident for that.) The smaller Parties leaders (Mano, Hakeem, Rishard), who oppose Federal Solution took the side of Vaalaiththodam Jr and promoted him. Hakeem and Rishard needed Ranil’s help on escaping from 4/21. So they kept low profile. Mano Ganesan did have that constraint. But at the last minute Mangala and Ranil managed to have the Secret Solution in the manifesto of the Vaalaiththodam Jr. This is why the smaller parties insisting of Ranil to resign even from PM Job. Further they want Mangala too stay out. They cite some lousy reasons, but have not left UNP yet. They say Ranil remaining is affecting their prospect though Vaalaiththodam Jr was the one lost so badly. Hakeem is saying resigning respecting the winner of EP is a gentleman deed. Though he is certainly going to switch over to Old Royal very soon, but now he wants to jank out Ranil to stop Ranil trying to fulfil any of the promise he gave to Tamils, even at the last minute. Will that not improve their chance next time to get some more votes?

  • 0
    0

    Remember how Hakeem fooled Sampanthar aligning with Old King for CM of Eastern Province? Hakeem said Tamils shows beggar wound and beg, indicating war casualties. After LG election & Coup, New King wanted Old King as his PM. But these guys opposed Ranil resigning because it was a different election.. Now Old Royal wants election, not the PM position. But these notorious nice gentlemen don’t want election but insisting Ranil hand over PM position. Old King is worried about taking PM position so he wants to go for interim government. New King did know he cannot win. So he did not go for to stand in SLFP. Ranil did know UNP neither can win. So he wanted to make deal with Old Brother Prince. But it was the small parties made Vaalaiththodam Jr to climb on the Papaya tree and fall. Ranil opposed this hara-kiri with his full energy. Now they are blaming Ranil that if is not leaving UNP they are going to lose. These notorious crooks are now preaching hypocrisy niceties.
    The point is UNP did not have true friends in election. The Tamils who delivered even 95% of their support, is in the opposition to UNP. Looking for friends, Ranil waited until last minute to given in to the small parties’ demands. The small parties’ internal throat cutting was the 2nd main reason for the loss, as much as 40%.
    The remaining 10%:
    3. Sinhala Buddhists do vote for the Opposition Party. Remember Chandrika? When she advocated peace with LTTE, she got 62%. Nobody has matched that record. She almost lost all of them in the next election. Old King won his 2nd election only because of war. So the Yahapalanaya faced it this time.
    4. Yahapalanaya promised beautiful Nangi in the election. But when marriage came it gave to the voters only the ugly Akka. So the voters felt pissed off. This was the result in LG election too. It is Yahapalanaya’s performance record.

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