Will Sri Lanka Stick To Its "Known Devil"?

Published: January 03, 2015 16:45 IST
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(The writer is a political columnist, a lapsed historian and a committed conservative.)

There is a section of the ubiquitous "international community" that has thrived on the misfortunes of Sri Lanka. At the risk of sounding heartless, I would suggest that a tribe of human rights activists, aid workers and an ever-swelling diaspora have developed a vested interest in keeping the bitter conflict that devastated the island for 30 long years alive. If not the civil war, they sense an advantage in keeping the memories and post-war recriminations alive.

You only have to peruse the social media or surf through the web pages of the Colombo media to realise that there is suddenly an extra bounce in their steps. They have convinced themselves that after the voting on January 8, the regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa will be history. If, for some reason, their expectations are dashed, they have a convenient exit route: electoral malpractice and rigging.

It is difficult to know how far this anticipation of imminent change is real or a part of campaign hype. As a rule, foreign journalists are ill-equipped to understand the sensitivities of voters in the interior, preferring to follow the prevailing consensus of the chattering classes.

In the case of Sri Lanka, the two main hunting grounds of the paratroopers-Colombo and the Tamil-dominated Northern Province-constitute the hub of the anti-Rajapaksa movement. Therefore, judging by taxi driver anecdotes, it would seem that the election of the common opposition candidate (and Rajapaksa's Cabinet colleague till two months ago), Maithripala Sirisena, is a dead certainty unless there is either hanky panky on a big scale or there is an army coup to derail the people's mandate.

Since the last occasion I travelled to Sri Lanka was some six months ((ago)), I may well be under-estimating the sudden onrush of anti-incumbency, particularly after all the disparate elements opposing the Rajapaksa brothers found a candidate with impeccable Sinhala Buddhist credentials in Sirisena, a politician who had spent his political life in the same political party (SLFP) as the President.

In theory, unless there is a spectacular measure of Sinhala Buddhist consolidation behind Rajapaksa, the combination of the traditional opposition (UNP) and the Muslim and Tamil minorities could give Sirisena the edge. If the voter turnout in the Northern and Eastern Provinces is in line with the national average, political change in Sri Lanka is a distinct possibility.

The opposition to Rajapakse is centred on three planks. First, there is some discernible hostility to his family rule, the prevalence of cronyism and his alleged authoritarian tendencies.

Secondly, there is opposition to the Executive Presidency from within the political class that has lost some of its powers of patronage that Sirisena hopes to exploit.

Finally, and this is the problem area, there is a facile belief that the removal of Rajapaksa will somehow aid the process of post-war reconciliation.

It is interesting that the opposition hasn't focussed attention on larger development issues, except by way of suggesting that the cost of building and maintaining the President's showpiece infrastructure projects is exorbitant.

Rajapaksa has complemented his parading as the war victor with his claim to be a development icon. Many of his campaign techniques and iconography seems generously borrowed from Narendra Modi's 2014 campaign.

In a campaign speech in Jaffna town, Rajapaksa sold himself as a "known devil" that has the material interests of all Sri Lankans in mind. The allusion was to the 'unknown devil' Sirisena who has raised expectations of undoing the triumphalist legacy of the President.

It is possible to anticipate what a Rajapaksa victory will mean for Sri Lanka. Far more uncertain are the consequences of a Sirisena triumph in Thursday's poll.

The uncertainty stems the social and political alliances  that the united opposition has struck. Sirisena's electoral coalition embraces a section of the Buddhist clergy, the Far Left, the liberals and both the Muslim and Tamil minorities. These are conflicting and contradictory forces.

If Sirisena is, for example, elected on the strength of a large Tamil turnout in the Northern Province, will he face a demand for more powers to the Tamil National Alliance-controlled Provincial Council?

And how will this square with the support he has drawn from the Buddhist clergy and the ultra-nationalist JVP? Moreover, since Sirisena doesn't belong any longer to any established party, will it be the proxy rule of the UNP (the main opposition party) or will it be grounded by policy incoherence and resulting chaos?

The choice of Sri Lanka's voters will be quite crucial in determining whether it has genuinely overcome the civil war or whether it is going to regress.


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