WITH just over a fortnight left for a snap presidential poll she had brought upon herself, Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratungas shock gambit seems to have boomeranged on her in many nasty ways. To add to a record high on the debit side, there came a series of events that can only shore up the chances of her main rival: Ranil Wickramasinghe of the United National Party (UNP).
The latest came in the shape of a dramatic statement from LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran, calling her reign "the worst form of tyranny ever suffered by the Tamils". Forced to choose between the two evils, the Tamils were waiting for a signal from the reclusive militant leader. The President was counting on support from the minority Tamils and Muslims to give her a second term in office. But with Wickramasinghe also promising peace, Prabhakarans edict virtually seals her chances of garnering some votes in the north.
By calling snap polls for December 21, a year ahead of schedule, Chandrika only wanted to wrongfoot the UNP and make the best of a bad situation. Says Sinha Ratnatunga, editor, The Sunday Times: "After five years in power, she had nothing positive to show. As far as she was concerned, things could have only got worse." Only three ministers and two senior officials close to Chandrika knew her plans. Though people had expected an early election, say by January 2000, it still came as shock news to all.
But things started to take a turn for the worse almost immediately on three decisive fronts. First, a crushing military humiliation in the north put paid to her hopes of boosting her image in the Sinhala-majority south. Around the same time, she lost a key ally in the death of plantation leader S. Thondaman. The chief of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) was expected to deliver her most of the 5 lakh votes of Indian Tamil plantation workers. But his death created internal discord in the CWC and Chandrika is no longer assured of its support.
Not that her own party was immune to dissension, as was proved by developments closer home. Chandrikas plan was to engineer crossovers from the UNP and demoralise it in the run-up to the polls. Five MPs did cross over, but it did more damage to her image than any good. The President herself had levelled serious charges, including corruption and murder, against these figures when they were in government from 77-94. Stalwarts of her own Peoples Alliance, understandably, got upset when two of them were given cabinet portfolios.
The war in the north multiplied her woes manifold. She was counting on gains in the protracted offensive against the LTTE to win support among the majority Sinhalese. The rebels, instead, launched a major assault in the first week of November. In just three days, the separatist group recaptured a large area that had taken the army two-and-a-half years to take over. There couldnt have been a worse time for the face-loss, given that Chandrika was in the middle of a campaign promising to end the war within two months after winning a new mandate.
NO wonder, the Opposition suddenly seems to know that Chandrika is vulnerable. "What you are seeing now is anti-government voices gathering momentum," says Ratnatunga. Civil groups and the independent media had backed her in 94 on the promise that she would introduce democratic reforms, such as abolishing the unpopular executive Presidency and freeing independent media from legal constraints. However, rather than delivering on her promises, Chandrika launched a major campaign against the independent media and civil groups, accusing them of colluding with the Opposition.
For the UNP, things couldnt have looked better. Caught flatfooted by the snap election, the party was initially shaken by the defections. But it moved quickly to nominate Wickramasinghe as its candidate and launched its election campaign targeting the youth and minority voters-the two weakest links in its support-base.
Turning the tables on Chandrika, Wickramasinghe announced a series of concessions to the rebels-immediate peace talks and an interim council to govern the north and east until a permanent solution is negotiated for the ethnic crisis. To the youth, he is promising reforms in education, with computer literacy and English being given prominence. To woo the media and civil groups, he is talking reforms. An ironical twist, since the UNP has hijacked Chandrikas winning platform of 94 and projected itself as the reformist party.
The biggest news of all, of course came from Prabhakaran. On November 28, in his traditional address on the clandestine Tiger Radio to mark Martyrs Day, the rebel leader castigated the President. "The five-year rule of Chandrika has been a curse on the Tamil people. The monumental tragedy that our people encountered in the form of war violence, death, destruction, displacement, hunger and starvation was the worst form of tyranny ever suffered by the Tamils. Chandrikas oppressive rule marks an epoch consisting of blood-stained pages of our history. Her tyrannical rule left a permanent scar on the soul of the Tamil nation," Prabhakaran declared in a speech widely reported in both the local and international media.
Says Kethiswaran Loganathan, head of conflict resolution programme at the Centre for Policy Studies in Colombo: "In his speech Prabhakaran is giving a clear signal not to vote for President Kumaratunga, saying her government was the most repressive. Ranil Wickramasinghes offer of immediate peace talks with third party mediation and an interim council for the north and east is something the LTTE would be very enthusiastic about." According to him, both President Kumaratunga and Prabhakaran feel betrayed and threatened by the other.
However, no one is writing the President off as yet. Says Dr Paikiasoty Saravanamuttu, executive director at the Centre for Policy Alternatives: "The election is opening up into a much tighter competition between the two main candidates. It looks like the campaign will be decisive. One certainly cannot discount the President, who is an effective campaigner. The Presidents strategy seems to be to take a hardline position against the LTTE to win votes in the south and push the devolution package as a means of gaining minority Tamil votes."
The biggest fear, however, is that the government in an act of desperation would carry out mass rigging. Says Victor Ivan, editor of the Sinhala weekly Ravaya: "There is information that the government is planning such a move. If the people come to know that elections had been rigged, the repercussions for the country would be disastrous." The government attempted to block both local and international monitors observing the elections. It backed out in the face of loud protests by opposition political parties, civil society groups and international human rights groups. Officials who would be deputed to man polling stations fear the worst, and are asking for assurances of their security. Reiterates Ivan: "The real challenge facing the country is not who wins this election but how it is conducted." That conduct remains to be seen.