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Sri Lanka: Elections Again?

Buddhika Kottahachchi

Today, the people of Sri Lanka go to the polls for the third time in four years. While little can be said against democracy, the frequency with which voting has been called into play is ridiculous by any standard. The first of these elections was a regularly scheduled one resulting from the conclusion of the first term in power of the People’s Alliance Party (PA). The PA was returned to power in that election, although there were allegations of rigging. The second was called as a result of significant defections from the PA to the opposition United National Front (UNF). This second election resulted in the UNF coming to power. Now, just two years later, a third has been called. Why?

According to the President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga, it is because Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and his government haven’t performed their duties satisfactorily. While the president isn’t known for making concrete statements or allegations, two themes seem to emerge among her many arguments justifying her actions. First, she accuses the prime minister of granting too many concessions to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) -- a rebel organization fighting for a separate homeland -- and thereby compromising the nation’s security. What these “concessions” specifically are she doesn’t care to elaborate. Secondly, she claims that the economy is being mismanaged.

But are her concerns justified? The last two years under the UNF government have seen the longest lull in fighting since hostilities began in the early 1980s. A ceasefire brokered by the Norwegians (who are facilitating the Sri Lankan peace process) holds to this day, and negotiations were progressing, albeit slowly, up to the point of the current crisis. The president claims her actions were partly triggered by the LTTE’s release of a document stating its demands for an Independent Self Governing Authority (ISGA), which she termed unconstitutional.

Critics of the current peace process fail to appreciate is that this is the first time the LTTE has put its demands in writing, a significant step in the group’s transition from a revolutionary outfit to a legitimate political entity. Furthermore, within the context of the negotiations in which the document was created, the demand for more is understandable given the need to be able to compromise. In fact, it is interesting that the LTTE has been running a parallel administration in areas under its control for well over a decade now. The Tigers have set up their own judicial system with a set of courts supported by its own police and penal code. A parallel banking system supports their economy. The ground reality is that a de facto state, separate from that governed by the Sri Lankan government, exists today. Acknowledging its existence and negotiating a settlement based on this and other realities is the way to reach a lasting peace. Comfortingly, this has been the approach taken by the UNF government and the Norwegians.

With respect to the economy, after the UNF took power, the subsequent ceasefire led to investor confidence that resulted in growth rates of around 5 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been sufficient time for this growth to propagate to all parts of Sri Lankan society. Furthermore, the international donor community has pledged $4.5 billion toward reconstructing the country, but has also tied the funds to progress in the peace process, letting the money barely trickle through. This has been compounded by widespread corruption, with allegations directed at high-ranking government officials. The marriage of politics and corruption, though not unique to Sri Lanka or its current government, is worsened by the fact that you have two parties striving to stay in power and direct the country toward progress, but must rely on the support of powerful yet unscrupulous politicians just to make up the majority required to control Parliament. And the problem will linger regardless of the regime in power.

Under the circumstances, I believe that the UNF government has performed satisfactorily. So why the need for an election at this time? Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga is in her second and final term. When it ends, so will benefits such as immunity from legal prosecution which may or may not be of concern to her, as allegations of corruption against the president do exist.

Also, the president and her party have recently allied themselves with the People’s Liberation Front (JVP), a Marxist group. While the JVP was previously feared as a revolutionary group, it has emerged as a force in the south of the country by appealing to the fears of the majority Sinhala Buddhists and taking a hardline against the LTTE. Furthermore, by praising socialism as a means to ending poverty, it has gained strong appeal among the thousands of unemployed graduates the country’s failing education system has produced in the last decade or so. Therefore, this PA/JVP alliance has the potential to garner sufficient seats to control the legislature.

Consider, also, that any government which successfully negotiates a peace settlement with the LTTE will gain credibility both locally and internationally. Given that in the past a large part of the nation’s GDP was directed toward waging war on the LTTE, resources would be freed for use in development leading to prosperity reaching a larger part of Sri Lankan society. A government that achieved these heights would be difficult to oust.

It is possible that a PA/JVP government could come to power -- although a hung Parliament is more likely. However, this would be at the expense of alienating the minority Tamil and Muslim parties to an extent that would make reconciliation difficult. Thus, such a government would lack the two-thirds majority in Parliament required to make any significant decisions affecting the country. A new stalemate would occur, but one in which the president has a friendly legislature to aid her. However, more disturbing is the potential squandering of an opportunity at the peaceful closure of a conflict that has cost more than 60,000 lives (a nearly universal estimate verified by the BBC, among others).

Given these observations, this election suspiciously begins to look more like a power play by the president and her party. The prospect of this suspicion being true deeply troubles me. The implications are horrific. Is it even possible to imagine that a head of state would go so far as to direct her country and its people to further turmoil solely for the purpose of retaining power?

My countrymen vote today in an election that is likely to be a crucial juncture in Sri Lanka’s history. All I can hope for is that peace will continue to have a chance -- regardless of who is elected.

Buddhika Kottahachchi is a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.