(AA) – Sri Lanka’s tightly-contested presidential election campaign ended Monday night and it highlighted the numerous political, geographical and ethnic fault lines that still run through the island, more than five years after the end of a decades-long civil war.
On Jan. 8, Sri Lankans will decide who will be the country’s president for the next six years. Their frontrunner is the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is seeking a third term in office but is facing strong competition from the common candidate, supported by many of the country’s opposition parties, Maithripala Sirisena, a former health minister in the Rajapaksa administration.
Their campaigns are poles apart. Rajapaksa’s leans heavily on military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a group of seperatist rebels known popularly as Tamil Tigers, that eventually ended a three-decade civil war during his presidency in May 2009; as well as the visible infrastructure development that has taken place under his regime.
In contrast, Sirisena, a first time presidential candidate, has built his entire campaign on issues of democracy and good governance. His main slogan and electoral promise is the abolition of the system of executive presidency and to implement corrective measures within his first 100 days in office.
— Southern focus
Sirisena’s announcement of his candidature in November was the beginning of a theatrical turn for the political scene in the country’s south — where the political power is concentrated. The move sparked a series of defections, as members of the ruling coalition flocked to lend their support to Sirisena.
Sirisena has tried to broaden the scope of political debate, accusing the government of “selling the war victory for too long.”
“This country has so many unaddressed issues, many of them linked to governance and economic mismanagement. We are committed to addressing those issues,” he said. “This is why there are defections from the government to our side. People are crying for justice and good governance.”
The political parties and individual politicians who flocked to Sirisena have focused on democracy, fundamental freedoms, increased national debt, large-scale corruption and respect for ethnic minorities.
“Our campaign is for democracy. It is about handing over this island back to the people. This government has robbed people of their sovereignty. This election is about restoring decency in politics and empowering citizens,” said Dr. Harsha de Silva, a key campaigner for Sirisena and a parliamentarian of the United National Party.
A key development in the south had been the open shifting of loyalties by fringe political parties towards the common candidate. The coalition consists of strange bedfellows including hard-line nationalist parties such as the Jathika Hela Urumaya, the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the ethnically-based Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Tamil National Alliance.
“This government owes people an explanation for a number of issues: Illegal amassing of wealth by a few individuals, massive corruption, heavy indebtedness and a lack of respect for the rights of all communities,” said Anura Kumara Dissanayake, leader of the island’s popular Marxist party Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. “After 10 years, people now realize that winning the war and the construction of expressways cannot be the yardstick for measuring effective governance. This government had been exceptionally corrupt, unjust and undemocratic.”
The mass crossovers to the opposition have enraged the ruling administration, prompting Rajapaksa to repeatedly declare the dissidents “enemies of the state.”
— Focus on war victory
The ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance government has different focuses: national security and infrastructure development, two achievements which cannot be dismissed, according to political analysts.
Well known political commentator and former ambassador Dayan Jayathilaka, taking part in a television talk show, said the common presidential candidate does not have a focused agenda because of “a confusing mismatch” of the parties in the opposition coalition.
According to Susil Premajayanth, General Secretary for the ruling alliance, Rajapaksa has had no real challenge in this election.
“It is like the fireworks that light up the midnight sky for a moment. There is nothing tangible,” said Pemajayanth.
“In contrast, the UPFA presents the country with a candidate with a proven track record, who had led a war towards victory, defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, considered by predecessors as undefeatable, and brought economic progress to the island,” he said. “People know that they are secure with the incumbent president because it is only he, after 27 years of war, who guaranteed freedom of movement to the common person by securing this country.”
Slogans emphasizing strength, national security and praising the government’s past performance have been central to Rajapaksa’s campaign, which has been designed by a group associated with the unrelenting, and successful, election campaign of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year.
Rajapaksa’s campaign stressed the development achieved in the past ten years including the building of expressways and the complete reconstruction of the Colombo-Jaffna railway, ensuring rail connectivity between the island’s north and the south decades after the railway was abandoned for security reasons during the civil war.
“Our message is clear. It is about President Rajapaksa’s ability and trustworthiness. People voted him to power, mandating him to defeat the LTTE. He has done that. He has made once unsafe Sri Lanka safe. As a result, there are new investments and a tourism boom as a result,” said Minister of Disaster Management, Mahinda Amaraweera, who also hails from the president’s constituency, Hambantota.
— Minority shift
Meanwhile, several minority political parties and prominent individuals have pledged their support to the opposition candidate Sirisena. Two of them are key players; the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the northern-based Tamil National alliance.
One of the biggest charges against the incumbency had been its alleged suppression of ethnic minorities and their cultural identities. At present, the provincial administration of the Northern Province, where the former battlegrounds are found, is ruled by the Tamil National Alliance, the largest political alliance for the island’s Tamil-speaking minority.
Considered mature voters, known for their principled voting and consistency, their concern has been for whether either candidate will address concerns that still linger after the three-decade long civil war.
Both camps were careful not to discuss post-war issues at length however, as was Sirisena, who was wary of not undermining the war effort, which could jeopardize his political fortunes considerably in the south, where there is considerable appreciation for the ending of the war and the crushing of the Tamil Tigers.
Meanwhile, the London-based Global Tamil Forum, which offers up a strong voice for the Tamil diaspora, has urged Tamil people in Sri Lanka to use every vote carefully.
“Tamil people have continuously lost their rights under a flawed majoritarian electoral system. Their desire to have a degree of control in the Tamil majority areas was never granted, despite repeated democratic expressions of their wishes through all available electoral means,” the forum said in a statement. “Thus, GTF urges every Tamil speaking person, up and down the country, to fully participate in this electoral decision and to vote in this Presidential election.”
According to Mavai Senadhirajah, a Tamil National Alliance front-liner and a parliamentarian representing the northern Jaffna District, this election is crucial for Sri Lanka.
“It would determine its future identity as a people. The next president will have the chance to unify Sri Lankans and promote a plural identity or be divisive and divide communities. People must choose carefully,” Senadhirajah said. “We seek answers to our quest for sharing power, accountability and reconciliation, practical measures to ensure rights of minorities living in Sri Lanka and the facilitation of Tamil refugees who live in other countries.”
While there is expressed political support for the common candidate, Tamil National Alliance insiders are wary of the fact that post-war issues may not be addressed, even after the election.
For many in the island’s once war-ravaged north, their political concerns are deep and go well beyond individual personalities.
“Surely we must go beyond expressways and city beautification initiatives and take a hard look at this region and its unaddressed concerns. It is about our right to development, equality, normalcy and the recognition of the role of Tamil politics in the island,” said Sinnatamby Sathkunaraja, a Tamil National Alliance supporter from Jaffna town.
According to Selvam Addaikalanathan, a Tamil parliamentarian from Vanni in the island’s north, the first priority of the next election should be national reconciliation.
“There must be accountability for the war dead and the missing,” said Addaikalanathan, adding that development programmes could ease the economic disparity. “Above all, there should be facilitation for a process of healing. The next government must make it a political priority.”
The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, considered the premier Muslim political party on the island, hardly disagrees with the sentiments expressed by Tamil National Alliance legislators.
Hassan Ali, the party’s General Secretary said: “The Muslim community has experienced violence, suppression and vandalism of their privately owned properties. It had been systematic and oppressive. We sincerely hope for a mature political response by the people on 8 January.”