Sri Lanka elections: a vote for peace but will it be enough?

-- Sundaram from Colombo

ONCE AGAIN another general election in the troubled island of Sri Lanka has produced an overwhelming vote for peace from both the majority Sinhala and the minority Tamil communities. While after a total domination of power by President Chandrika Bandaranaike’s People’s Alliance (PA) for the past seven years, the opposition UNP was expected to win on the strength of an anti-incumbency wave, few expected the extent of their victory.

As the final tally came in after the December 5 polls the UNP and its electoral allies had garnered 114 seats in the 225-seat parliament. Members of the United National Front (UNF) alliance included renegades from the People’s Alliance, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and two plantation-based organisations, the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) and Upcountry People’s Front (UPF).

The new government of Prime Minister Ranil Wikeremesinghe can also count on the support of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a coalition of four Tamil parties, which won 15 seats. Significantly in the run up to the elections the TNA openly supported the LTTE as the ‘only true representative of the Tamil people’, and in turn, received explicit backing from the LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran.

The vote is being widely seen as a rejection by the Sri Lankan public of the PA’s deeply unpopular economic policies as also its total inability to end the country’s two-decade-old civil war over the demands for a separate Tamil homeland. The PA’s total proportion of votes dwindled from 49 per cent in 1994, when it first came to power, to 45 per cent in the 2000 elections, and just 39 per cent in the latest poll. It won a majority in just one district – down from 13 districts last time.

Ironically, in 1994, people had voted to end the UNP’s 17-year rule for the same reasons – the party began the brutal war in 1983 and initiated the free market policies that led to cutbacks to jobs and living standards. Both then and now the Sri Lankan voters have also rejected attempts by the UNP and PA to play the sectarian racial card while attempting to hold onto power.

The 1994 PA government, after raising high hopes of solving the ethnic conflict however only ended up intensifying the civil war. Peace has eluded this island nation so far mainly due to the very rigid stand taken by the LTTE on the issue of independence for the Tamil minority and the unwillingness of successive governments to consider even limited autonomy for the Tamils. The LTTE, which initially welcomed the Chandrika government, turned its wrath upon her by restarting the war with government forces and even attempting to assassinate the President.

Much of Sri Lanka’s electoral politics since independence from colonial rule has been dominated by a few feudal clans like the Bandaranaike family who have been jostling with other clan-based politicians for power. All the parties in this circus, in a typical feudal fashion, follow a very top down approach to everything – expecting the masses to ‘take or leave’ whatever they have to offer or use naked force to have their way – a stratagem which has miserably failed in the case of the Tamil separatist movement.

The new government of Prime Minister Ranil Wikremasinghe is expected to take a more ‘pragmatic’ approach to the civil conflict. Ranil is believed by many observers to be open to the idea of the Tamils achieving some kind of self-government in the north and east of the country without necessarily breaking off from Sri Lanka. The Tamil forces, significantly including the LTTE, also seem to be willing to dilute their demand for Eelam and a separate homeland for the time being – provided they are given a constitutional assurance of their ‘right to self-determination’ at a future stage. In the post-September 11 scenario, with major Western powers cracking the whip on ‘terrorist’ groups around the globe, the LTTE is in danger of losing whatever little overseas support it has both within expatriate Tamil communities as well as other sympathisers.

“Both sides hope to compromise on the issue of separatism without publicly giving an impression of a sellout” says an analyst here. Both the government and the LTTE, having staged a bloody war and staked so much all these years, need a face saving formula to get out of the impasse they are at, point out some observers.

Raising hopes of such a pragmatic solution to the two-decade-long conflict is a unilateral one-month ceasefire declared recently by the LTTE over the Christmas and New Year period. The new government is expected to reciprocate with a ceasefire of its own and also by lifting the embargo on movement of goods and people in and out of the Tamil areas in northern Sri Lanka, thereby setting the stage for a resumption of negotiations with the LTTE.

Another important factor weighing upon the two sides to go in for a negotiated settlement is, of course, the tremendous pressure brought upon them by both domestic and international business groups who feel that the civil war has gone on too long and hurt their economic interests badly. Ceylon Chamber of Commerce chairman Chandra Jayaratna has called on Chandrika Kumaratunga, Ranil Wickremesinghe and other party leaders to “get together and deliver political stability in the medium to long run through network partnership and a government of unity.” Both he and the IMF representative in Colombo, Nadeem Ul Haq, have in the same breath, asked the next government to implement the IMF’s economic restructuring package, including privatisations, cuts to government spending, and “labour market reform”. This is the flip side of the situation that might lead to further deterioration of the economic conditions of the people and fuel a fresh wave of chauvinism all over again. As an editorial writer in The Island newspaper says, ““For those who believe we are sovereign, just consider this: our agricultural policy is written by USAID, our budget designed by the IMF, our development strategy drawn from World Bank blueprints, we are policed by the WTO and regionally bullied by India.”

In the quagmire of Sri Lanka’s deeply chauvinist politics and given the history of greed of the country’s Tamil and Sinhalese elites for power, however, there are no guarantees that the change of government will lead to peace of any kind. In the long run the only lasting solution to the civil conflict may be for the people to take power into their own hands along class-lines instead of oscillating between the dreams of peace sold by one set of political elites or the other.