Lanka Polls: A tight-rope walk between bullet and ballot

Sri Lanka goes to the polls at a time when the state of affairs is still fluid. Civil war in place, increased spurt of political violence, escalating prices – these are trying times indeed. Akrita Reyar examines the dynamics of Sri Lankan democracy amidst all the turmoil.

Akrita Reyar

Sinhalas, Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Moors et al will queue up on October 10 to chose the government that will run the country. In the fray are a record 5,048 candidates for the 196 of the 225 seats. Other than 99 independents, they represent 32 political parties. But the clash will really be between the two main heavyweights, Chandrika Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance (PA) and Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP). PA’s basket In the last elections, PA sent 105 MPs and UNP 94 MPs to the House. PA’s clinching slogan had been peace. Unfortunately, peace proved elusive. An assassination bid and a failed ceasefire agreement later, Chandrika Kumaratunga is still crying peace, albeit this time around, she is not wearing kid gloves. She has declared that peace be achieved by an all out war. In more hoarse bantering, Kumaratunga has accused the opposition of sabotaging any overtures towards conciliation and even alleged that the UNP leader was aware of the attempt on her life but had failed to caution her. Her prime minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayke, goes a step further. He released a “ secret document” containing a supposed understanding between the UNP and the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In the document UNP promises to confine the security forces to the barracks within a month of its coming to power and set up a fake security zone in the North and the East within a period of three months. This apart, the governing party is also going all out to woo the minorities. Kumaratunga has offered to review the Constitution to check its inbuilt imbalances, making it more representative of the aspirations of the minorities. Expressing confidence that the people would take a firm and correct decision, Kumaratunga said, “The government has identified the need to find a solution to the burning issues concerning the masses, especially minorities.” But the People’s Alliance is conscious that alienating the Buddhist monks and the majority would prove suicidal. It also doesn’t want to fritter away gains by adopting a hard line against the Tamil Tigers. So PM Wickramanayke has gone around town saying that the new constitution would not be changed without first consulting the Buddhist Mahasangha on “every para and every line”. Caught in this tug of war between the opposing sections of society, PA politicians know that they will have to take recourse to local loyalties and alliances to bring in votes. The UNP rebuttal The Opposition, meanwhile, are counting on the anti-incumbency factor. The UNP has been harping on the steep rise in prices. As a counter populist measure, the party is promising to rein in inflation and give a Rs 2000 pay hike to all government employees if it comes to power. The UNP also says that it would bring changes to the Constitution only after building a nationwide consensus. According to its manifesto, the party says it will hold negotiations with the LTTE, political parties, members of the clergy and civil society to solve the long-standing problem of civil war. To emphasise the government’s bungling, the UNP has said that on the battlefield it would reduce war activity according to proper plans and goals. Reality check Had Chandrika Kumaratunga called elections in December ’99, her party would have swept the polls. After the attack on her life, she had the benefit of the sympathy vote. The intervening 10 months between then and now has however eroded much of the goodwill. The ground realities have changed fundamentally and the government’s popularity has dipped to its lowest, since it coming to power in 1994. The war with LTTE has escalated without the army making any major gains. There has been immense political pandemonium over the Constitution and galloping prices. Thought the Prime Minister has tried to defend the high cost of living by saying that so long as the war is on, the government can never bring down cost of living, the people are not willing to take that for an answer. Another potent factor that will influence elections will be the LTTE. The Tigers, who don’t want the new Constitution to become a reality, realise the elections are far too important to ignore. Other than its intimidating ways of influencing voters through violence, the Tigers are likely to field proxy candidates, at least in the 31 seats of Jaffna. Probable Outcomes The destiny of the island nation will depend on the way the wave turns. If the PA gets a majority, some pathbreaking decisions can be expected. Kumaratunga seems sincere when she speaks about redressing the grievances of the minorities and would push for a new constitution. She will also usher in the end of the executive presidency system of governance. But if the UNP comes to power, in all probability, Ranil Wickremesinghe will be the Prime Minister under President Kumaratunga. This could bring things to a grinding halt. Not only are the two parties ideologically different, there is a case of genuine personality clash. What will happen is that the majority party will impeach every move of the President by blocking funds and stalling legislation. Unless Kumaratunga decides to overrule them and run government through the vast powers vested to her post, Sri Lanka could be in a greater lurch than it is today.

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