Sri Lankans voted on Tuesday in what is believed to be the most closely contested Presidential Elections in the island nation`s history. With the LTTE now gone and a spurt in political violence, the stakes are high for ‘war heroes’ incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Army chief Sarath Fonseka; a fight that is being closely watched by the international community.
In an exclusive with Kamna Arora of Zeenews.com, Dr Smruti S Pattanaik, an expert on Sri Lanka, discusses the challenges faced by Rajapaksa and Fonseka, and the political violence that has marred the image of Sri Lanka.
Dr Smruti S Pattanaik is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi.
Kamna: What does the January 26 Presidential Election, first since the end of brutal civil war and defeat of LTTE, means for Sri Lanka?
Smruti: This election after the decimation of LTTE is important for two reasons. First, this will give fresh mandate to the president to initiate any political resolution of ethnic issue. Second, the process of election itself has generated a discussion on the war itself - right and wrongs - and the debate has hovered around the future of the Tamils. This debate and discussion in the course of elections has given enough indication about the thinking that is going on.
Kamna: The humanitarian crisis faced by Tamils in Lanka will have a significant effect on the polls. Comment.
Smruti:The present humanitarian crisis, the conditions in the camps, the precondition to return and delay in resettlement would impinge on the Presidential Election. Already there is outrage on the issue of killing some of the unarmed LTTE leaders even when they wanted to surrender. Most of the Tamils see this action as directed by the political leadership. An indication of this impact is the Tamil National Alliance`s decision to support General Fonseka.
Kamna: Despite the advantages of incumbency, Mahinda Rajapaksa faces tough challenge from the main challenger, Sarath Fonseka. Comment.
Smruti:Mahinda Rajpaksa has a distinct advantage as it was under his political leadership the LTTE was defeated. Therefore, incumbency factor will not work against him. Moreover, various statements of General Sarath Fonseka regarding the war have undermined his image as it also exposed the brutality of the government`s conduct of war. This would dent his popular support.
Kamna: Out of the two key candidates – Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka – who is expected to play the ‘war hero’ card correct?
Smruti:Both of them had different roles to play in the war. Fonseka was the chief of the Army staff under whose commandership the Army achieved military victory. However, the vision of the political leadership is important. It successfully utilised the international opinion against terrorism and launched military operation that saw the end of the LTTE. It used all international forums to mobilise opinion in favour of its war effort. These two contenders for presidential position are heroes of two different variety and both of them are trying to play the two different angles of the war.
Kamna: What does the ongoing political violence signify of the political situation in the post-war Sri Lanka?
Smruti:The political situation remains volatile. Due to the war situation and press censorship the government was able to keep its entire war effort under wraps. After the end of the war, situation is different. However, the government still uses its official machinery to silence its critics. Government’s intolerance to any kind of criticism is apparent from various violent incidents that have taken place in the recent past. In fact this has drawn international criticism. Post-war Sri Lanka has given rise to a chauvinistic attitude and assertion of a Sinhali identity, which will not augur well for the political future of the country.
Kamna: What will be the key challenges of the winner?
Smruti:The winner will have to face the greatest challenge of his political career - to resolve the Tamil issue, especially their political future against an increasing assertion of Sinhali nationalism. The decimation of LTTE has given rise to a different kind of fear among the Tamil population, and this is whether the majority community will recognise their long standing genuine political grievances and take steps to address them. The ethnic polarisation is too deep and the major challenge would be to initiate a process of political reconciliation that will bring the two communities closer.