The Harder Challenge Facing The Sirisena Government
By Jehan Perera
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 relationship with 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 government used this election to revive the memory of the war. The government claimed that the LTTE was still alive in the Tamil Diaspora, which is supported by Western governments who wished to see Sri Lanka divided. Due to one-sided propaganda, many Sinhalese people were worried that this danger was a real one.
This swayed a large number of less urban Sinhalese voters to want the President to remain in power. It was notable that the former President was able to have the edge in almost all areas in which the Sinhalese were the predominant community. However, the JHU and JVP being part of the opposition alliance helped to mitigate this government propaganda to some extent. They said that they joined with the government to defeat the LTTE, and now the LTTE was no longer the problem, but massive corruption and abuse of power by the government was the real problem.
The Tamil vote against Rajapaksa did not come as a surprise. The Tamils have always voted against the Rajapaksa government which did not concede any substantial political rights to the Tamils after the war. Even though it established the Northern Provincial Council and held elections to it, the government refused to devolve power to it and frustrated the Tamil polity. It also did not address their urgent need to rebuild their lives in their own land or to know what happened to their missing loved ones during the war.
Instead the government continued to rule the Tamil areas through the military, which did not return much of the land taken over for military purposes during the war. However, the Tamil vote was not the only key reason behind Rajapaksa’s defeat. Also key was the Muslim vote. The Muslims voted almost totally against Rajapaksa. This was solely due to the unprovoked attacks on Muslims by extremist Buddhist groups that appeared to have government patronage and therefore enjoyed impunity.
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 politicised. This has got to be changed. This 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 main Tamil party, the TNA, allied itself with the opposition despite the opposition to it from sections of the influential Tamil Diaspora and their local partners. If the opposition alliance continues to act as a collective as it did during election, the Tamil policy will be collectively determined.
The TNA is likely to be part of the national government that the new President has pledged to set up. 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 Maithripala Sirisena. They are now all on the same side, and this would be the best opportunity to work out a mutually acceptable solution.
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.