With President Chandrika Kumaratunga's decision to utilise her presidential powers to dissolve Parliament on
February 8, 2004, Sri Lanka will face its third general election in less than four years. What is especially
remarkable is that the President reneged on her previous promises, including a written promise to the Speaker
of Parliament, that she would not dissolve Parliament so long as the government continued to enjoy majority
To all appearances the present political crisis and general election are a result of power play, and not the pursuit of the best interests of the country. The present government had been in office for a little less than two years when the President used her presidential powers to take over the three key Ministries of Defence, Interior and Media. For nearly two years she had stayed on the sidelines and been ignored by the government. On November 4, 2003, she struck, citing national security interests to justify the takeover that brought her back to the centre of the polity. But her actions after the takeover failed to demonstrate anything fundamentally different from those of the government Ministers she replaced. The government was crippled and its credibility eroded.
If public opinion polls and the views of business and religious leaders and other civil society groups are any indicator, this is not an election that the people want. Even the left coalition allies of the President, consisting of the Communist Party and the Trotskyite Lanka Sama Samaj Party (LSSP), urged her not to go for elections. With no exception, all of these groups urged the President and her arch rival, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, to work together, if only for a year, to get the country's systems of basic governance in order. They recognised that, under the Constitution, the President and Prime Minister enjoyed concurrent mandates, both obtained from the people, and also constitutional power that had to be shared for effective governance.
The United National Front (UNF) government headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe showed repeatedly that it had the backing of a clear majority in Parliament. But it failed to govern effectively after the President's take over of the three Ministries. The political deadlock made governance of the country a next-to-impossible prospect. As a result, strikes in the governmental sector dragged on without a resolution, with new ones in the offing. Extremist attacks on Christian places of worship have been taking place with the police unwilling to prevent them and not a single arrest and conviction so far, although more than thirty churches were attacked last month alone.
There was much that the President and government could have done
together. The independent Election Commission, established over two years ago, is still not functioning, due
to the President's refusal to approve the nomination of the Constitutional Council, an independent body that
she herself was instrumental in appointing. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's (LTTE's)
proposal for an interim self-governing unit for the North East, made on October 31, 2003, has met with no
official response from the government, which refused to engage in peace talks unless the Defence Ministry was
restored to it by the President.
In the past week, however, there seemed to be a narrowing of the gap that separated the President and Prime Minister on the issue of power sharing. The Prime Minister, who had earlier been adamant about getting back the three ministries taken over by the President, seemed to be relenting under public and international pressure. The stock market, which had fallen by about 30 percent since the President's take over on November 4, 2003, registered a rise on information that the committee of high officials appointed by the two sides had reached agreement on the main issues.
The President's rationale in dissolving Parliament at this juncture is
difficult to understand. Either the President did not believe that the Prime Minister's change of heart was
genuine, or she was finally pushed to take the decision to dissolve Parliament by members of her party and
those of her new alliance partner, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Both surmises have some validity.
Leaders of government and the Opposition have seldom cooperated with each other, even when the national
interest has been threatened. The President and Prime Minister have not been part of those earlier periods of
governance when there was such cooperation. But the determining factor would surely have been pressure from
Whatever the overall result of the general election, the JVP is guaranteed an increase in the number of their seats in Parliament due to the electoral agreement they have reached with the President's party, the much larger Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). But the JVP had one major concern. This was that the general elections should come prior to the provincial elections. The provincial elections would have provided both sides with a picture of their real strengths. It would have given the SLFP an opportunity to back out of the alliance if the results of the provincial polls were not positive to the new United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA).
Second, the JVP did not wish to become too committed to its partnership with the SLFP. They are mindful that previous alliances between left parties and the SLFP have led to the absorption of the small left parties by the mainstream SLFP. The JVP did not wish their identity as a 'revolutionary party' to be diluted with that of the SLFP in any long-term campaign for the people's vote. For the JVP having a general election soon after the formation of the UPFA was the main consideration. They have had their way.
With its new alliance with the JVP, the SLFP can believe that they too will do well at a general election. The new alliance would be combining the votes of two parties that contested separately at the last general election and together scored more than the ruling party. On the other hand, victory is not guaranteed for the UPFA. They are taking on a government that has two major achievements to its credit during its two years in office. The first was bringing an end to the civil war that had developed a momentum of its own, and that seemed unstoppable, with powerful vested interests at play. The restoration of conditions of relative peace, despite all its shortcomings, is the greatest good that the country enjoys. Except for a few diehard nationalists, no one advocates a return to war to improve the situation in the country.
The second achievement of the government was to resuscitate the collapsing economy and offer hope to the people that rapid economic development with international assistance was a real possibility. While the economic peace dividend did not reach the majority of Sri Lanka's poor, there still remained the hope that it would. Economic growth last year exceeded five percent, which was a marked improvement from the year 2001 when the government took office, and the growth rate was minus one percent. A handsome sum of USD 4.5 billion had been earmarked by international donors for Sri Lanka over the next three years, conditional only upon progress in the peace process.
It is unlikely that the UPFA, with its vague economic policies that seek to combine the SLFP's acceptance of open market principles with the JVP's Marxist philosophy of self-reliance and inward looking development, can inspire popular confidence. This may also account for the strongly expressed desire of people and civic groups for the President and Prime Minister to work together for at least a year rather than go to the polls.
It also creates the danger that the new alliance will resort to narrow Sinhalese nationalist rhetoric in trying to convince the voters to elect them. The President and her party used this method with success at the Presidential election of November 1999 and the General Election of December 2000. Already, such a campaign appears to be underway, with SLFP spokespersons saying that the President dissolved Parliament to save the country from being divided and becoming a colony of foreign powers.
However, an effort by the UPFA to utilise the apprehensions of people regarding the peace process is likely to be a double-edged sword. An election campaign that targets the peace process for condemnation, and degenerates into racist sloganeering, is certain to alienate the ethnic and religious minorities who account for about 30 per cent of the population. Already the new alliance is viewed with suspicion by the Christian minority, with the JVP in particular suspected of providing support to extremist elements that are attacking and torching Christian churches. JVP affiliated organisations, such as the National Bhikku Front, have put up expensive posters throughout the country linking NGOs and Christians to an anti-Buddhist conspiracy that 'threatens the unity of the country'.
The most likely scenario, consequently, is a tightly contested race in which neither the UNF nor the UPFA is able to form a government by itself. Both sides are likely to require parliamentary support from outside their respective alliances to form a viable government. The largest party outside of the two main blocs is certain to be the grouping of Tamil parties of the Tamil National Alliance. They are expected to do particularly strongly in the North East, as they will have the full backing of the LTTE. There is no doubt that, along with the JVP, the other great gainer out of these elections will be the LTTE. The premature elections thus come as a golden opportunity for the LTTE to gain in legitimacy as an organisation that has the fullest backing of the elected Tamil representative of the North East.
The LTTE's position with respect to the conflict between the President and Prime Minister has been that it is prepared to negotiate with whoever is able to form a stable government. In recent weeks, LTTE political leaders have been saying, both publicly and privately, that they are prepared to negotiate with President Chandrika Kumaratunga. These statements, made in different forms in London, Kilinochchi and Colombo by top LTTE leaders, constitute a shift in the stance of the LTTE away from a policy of restricting their dealings to the government alone. After the President's party suffered a defeat at the General Elections of 2001, the LTTE made no secret of its antipathy to the President, an antipathy that she reciprocated in full measure.
However, it now appears that the LTTE has seen the disadvantages of limiting their negotiations to the government headed by the Prime Minister. Undoubtedly, it was this government that achieved the crucial breakthrough with them, which led to the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement in February 2002. This was a document that required great political courage to sign and implement. The entry of LTTE cadres into government-controlled areas and the opening of the A9 Highway to Jaffna were radical affirmations of trust in the peace process, and of the willingness to take risks for peace.
But two years after the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement, the LTTE has reasons for discontent. The LTTE's primary justification for pulling out of the peace talks in April 2003 was the lack of implementation of promises made during the six rounds of negotiations that took place between September 2002 and March 2003. The LTTE has felt acutely frustrated by their inability to gain access to international funding that would make them benefactors of the Tamil people. The new institutions of governance that were agreed to be set up for the interim period in the North East have yet to be implemented. The political crisis that pitted the President against the government stalled any further possibility of establishing those institutions on the ground. After the general elections, the LTTE is likely to press the new government to deliver on these institutions.
It has been reported that India cautioned the President against going in for a general election at this time. The enhanced legitimacy such elections would confer on the LTTE would make the Indian strategy of containing the LTTE's international influence, especially on the Indian State of Tamil Nadu, a more difficult one. The international community, which has stopped supporting militant organisations following the war against terrorism, would feel a greater empathy for an organisation that has performed well at elections, even if they are not quite free and fair. The fear of the LTTE looms large in the minds of all Tamil politicians who are aware of its policy of assassinating 'traitors' who take a stand different from that of the LTTE and thereby undermine its status as the 'sole representative' of the Tamil people.
In the event of a victory by the UPFA, the peace process with the LTTE is likely to come under increasing strain. Both the SLFP and JVP have been critics of the Norwegian-facilitated peace process, with the JVP taking a much stronger negative stand on the issue. Even peace talks with the LTTE are likely to be difficult, as the SLFP and JVP have taken divergent stands on the issue of self-determination for the Tamil people in the North East. While the SLFP has accepted the devolution of political power to the regions, the JVP's position is that only administrative decentralisation is permissible. On the other hand, the LTTE's own proposals for an interim self-governing authority exceed that of a normal federal system, making negotiations between the two sides a daunting prospect.
The situation is not much brighter with respect to prospects in the event of a victory for the UNF. Even if they score a convincing victory, the UNF will have to contend with the President's entrenched constitutional and legal powers, backed, to all appearances, by a sympathetic Supreme Court. There will be nothing that the UNF will be able to do to prevent the President from arrogating to herself the right to take over several government Ministries, including the critical one of Defence. The Supreme Court has, in fact, ruled that the powers over defence are inherent in the Presidency. Therefore, a UNF victory will only take the country back to the same place it was at, prior to the dissolution of Parliament.
The best hope for the country is that, after all the fighting is done, and the two sides have battered each other into stalemate, the two leaders realise that they cannot govern without the support of the other. That is, if they live to lead the country. The elections threaten to be violent, and election campaigns offer much scope for political assassinations. Civil society and the international community will need to do their utmost to ensure that the elections are fair and free of violence.
Jehan Perera is Media Director, National Peace Council of Sri Lanka Coutesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal
For in-depth, objective and more importantly balanced journalism, Click here to subscribe to Outlook Magazine