Originally Published 2010-01-19 00:00:00 Published on Jan 19, 2010
The struggle is not between majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils, but a Sinhala struggle for Tamil votes
Battle for Tamil, Muslim votes will determine the poll war
Mahinda Rajapaksa, the incumbent President goes into battle with an unexpected challenger, his former Chief of Army Staff, Sarath Fonseka for the Presidential polls on January 26. Rajapakse had advanced the date for elections hoping to capitalise on the victory over the LTTE won at huge human and financial costs, but it seems now that the race is going to be closer than he had anticipated. The recent surge in pre-poll violence probably indicates nervousness in the Rajapaksa camp.

Main highlights of the Sri Lanka’s Presidential Elections 2010

• It is a first major democratic exercise after the fall of organized terrorism in Sri Lanka

• It showcases a struggle between two powerful personalities without their ideological orientations

• The first elections of its kind witnessing a contest between politics and military which worked well in the past under civilian control, except two aborted military coups in early 1960s

• For the first time, the struggle is not between majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils. Ironically, it is now a Sinhala struggle for Tamil votes.  As the top two contenders are Sinhalese, the Sinhalese votes are likely to split between them. This has shifted the focus on the Tamil voters whose votes now assume greater weightage.

• On the other hand, Tamil and Muslim voters are also divided in their preferences for Rajapaksa and Fonseka. It is highly unlikely that the entire Tamil Minority would vote for the TNA-backed Fonseka’s alliance as there are many other Tamil parties like TMVP of Pillaiyan, Douglas Devananda, Thondaman and Sidharthan who are supporting the ruling coalition of Mahinda Rajapaksa

• For the first time, the presidential candidates have been able to campaign in Jaffna in the North, the home of LTTE for decades.

Early Elections and General Fonseka’s Candidature

Although President Rajapaksa had called for early presidential elections is based on his hoping to encash the victory over the LTTE, he may have miscalculated his chances in not  acknowledging the contribution of the Sri Lankan Army and sidelining their General Sarath Fonseka by assigning him to a sinecure as the Chief of the Defense Staff. A heavy handed and overbearing civilian (dynastic) control over his activities forced Gen. Fonseka to ultimately resign in November 2009 and join Sri Lanka politics as the presidential candidate. In his resignation letter, Fonseka cited 17 reasons for his disillusionment with the present dispensation including one which highlighted the callousness and the non-serious attitude of the Rajapaksa government in dealing with the question of the ethnic conflict.

The General’s unhappiness at the shabby treatment given to him by the Rajapaksa government and the Rajapaksa decision to announce early polls led the opposition UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe to opt for the General as the candidate most likely to defeat the charismatic President Rajapaksa. Opposition parties, particularly the former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe’s United National Party (UNP) which was looking for a candidate that could match the vast rural appeal of the incumbent president, found in the former General the golden opportunity that could salvage their reputation from the spate of electoral defeats experienced by them in the previous elections. General Fonseka then emerged as the consensus candidate of the entire opposition including the Marxist Janata Vimukti Peramuna, which has come together with the sole aim of defeating the Rajapaksa regime.

The Opposition received a boost to its chances when the conglomerate of four main Tamil parties - All Ceylon Tamil Congress, Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front, Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization and Tamil United Liberation Front comprising the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), - decided to support General Fonseka. The agreement signed between the General and the TNA has not yet been made public despite the ruling party’s repeated calls to do so. It is, however, generally believed that it commits Fonseka to lift the Emergency at the earliest, release all persons who are in detention without any evidence within one month of coming to power, and grant general amnesty to those who were engaged in war activities and help in their rehabilitation. It is still not clear despite incessant speculation that Fonseka has also agreed to the longstanding demand of the TNA to remerge the Tamil-majority North and East provinces..

Amidst this entire pre-poll drama, one question that needs an urgent answer is how trustworthy is a loyalty of a person to the post of a President who is a US Green Card holder - a pre-requisite for obtaining a permanent US citizenship? General Fonseka is not only a Green Card holder but also has strong links with the US administration. If not for the timely governmental intervention, General Fonseka would have divulged highly sensitive official secrets to the US Department of Home Security in November 2009 in keeping with his legal obligations to the US government. A petition to that effect is pending in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. However, Sri Lanka’s constitution permits dual citizenship and there are no conditions that bar Sri Lankan citizens who are also a foreign nationals from contesting national elections.

General Fonseka’s Manifesto (“Vishvasaneeya Venasak” or Believable Change)

On 7 January 2010, former General Sarath Fonseka released his manifesto. The major points highlighted in his manifesto that needs further elaboration in view of their practicality, are mentioned below -

• Abolition of the Executive Presidency – The idea obviously is to move from a presidential form to a parliamentary form of government. It makes good political sense to include this in the charter to satisfy various interests. There are, however, some doubts whether General Fonseka’s heart would be in a system that would devalue his position and leave him at the receiving end of the whims of a multi-party civilian political conglomerate that may not speak in one voice. He himself has made his intentions clear when he had earlier announced that eventually he would like to have his own party that could help him take decisions on important matters. But all this is early days.

• Restoration of civil administration and normalcy all the way from the office of Grama Sevaks upwards free from Military, police and political interference

• Dismantling of the High Security Zones in keeping with the relocation of the security forces to be stationed at strategic locations only. This could once again give rise to the disruptive forces as many LTTE sympathizers are believed to be still functioning in the country. In the absence of a proper resolution of the ethnic conflict, the possibility of the LTTE like regrouping of some other separatist group cannot be ruled out

• Free movement of all persons to be guaranteed without being impeded by security and police personnel. – Absence of the check points in the sensitive areas could pose difficulty to the security forces in identifying and arresting the anti-social elements on time

• Prohibition of para-military cadres and self-styled armed groups

• Resettlement and rehabilitation of the 300,000 internally displaced persons. Demining of the areas to be speedily concluded.

• Restoration of possession of private lands and buildings, now occupied by security forces/police/government agencies to those who are their rightful owners

• Indiscriminate alienation of the state lands to be terminated. Allocations thus far made to be reviewed and cancelled where such allocation has not been transparent or lacked equal opportunity to all concerned or are unwarranted, or has been on a corrupt basis. This provision is indirectly aimed at all the  dealings concluded by President Rajapaksa and his family

• Full restoration of fishing rights to all

• All barriers in respect to transport of passengers, goods, agricultural and fisheries produce to be eliminated forthwith

• Special relief packages  for dependents of all persons and disabled
• Release of all persons in detention within a period of one month after coming to power against whom there is no evidence

• The State of Emergency, in force since 2005 and the Regulations made there under to be terminated since these affect the liberties and fundamental rights of all people. 

General Fonseka’s manifesto “Vishvasaneeya Venasak” (Believable Change) spells out his vision for Sri Lanka in general terms and avoids any direct reference to the approach towards the resolution of the ethnic conflict acceptable to all stake-holders.

Rajapaksa’s Manifesto – Mahinda Chintana Part II

This is President Rajapaksa’s second attempt at Sri Lanka’s presidency. He had earlier presumed that this would be an easy walk to the Temple Trees following the defeat of the LTTE. Opinion polls at that time had not have factored in Sarath Fonseka as he had not decided to enter the political fray. General Fonseka’s sudden presidential ambitions in the latter part of 2009 surprised President Rajapaksa and the General launched a fervent campaign to woo his voters, mainly Tamils. The zeal was similar to that he had shown on the battlefield not too long ago.  To counter this campaign, Mahinda Rajapaksa released his election manifesto - Mahinda Chintana Part II -- which is really an updated version of the manifesto he presented in the 2005 election with special emphasis on post-war infrastructure development, high growth and eliminating poverty.

While remaining vague on the question of settling the ethnic issue, Rajapaksa announced some definite measures in an attempt to woo the minorities. One of the measures aimed at setting up the power-sharing arrangement with the Tamils. For this purpose, he offered to create a second chamber in the parliament to provide greater representation of Tamils in the legislative proceedings. He showed a readiness for a referendum and a constitutional amendment needed to incorporate these changes in the constitution of the country. However, given the Sinhalese sensitivities in dealing with a structure which even remotely resembles federalism, this proposition would most likely to lose appeal once Rajapaksa comes to power. Nevertheless, he appeared to be sincere in his attempts to bring about a permanent resolution of the ethnic conflict through political means, especially now when the war with the LTTE is over. The government, which did not reduce prices of essential goods and petrol in the past, slashed their prices last month in a run-up to the presidential polls as a pre-poll gimmick. Abolition of the Executive Presidency is also on the cards but there is no reference to the mechanism that would be required to move towards a parliamentary set up.
The question of Minority Allegiance

With the decision of the TNA to rally behind the retired General, the spirit of understanding among the representatives of Sri Lankan Tamil and Muslims parties including the pro-LTTE TNA that met for the first time at Zurich in the fourth week of November in an attempt to evolve a common approach towards the presidential election and protect the interests of Sri Lanka’s minorities, has dissipated. It is interesting to see how Tamils, who form 12 per cent of the electorate out of a population of 20 million, would react to this marriage of convenience between the militant turned political group TNA and Sarath Fonseka’s 17 party United National Front (UNF) headed by the former PM Ranil Wickremasinghe. Besides, Gen Fonseka is the same person behind the continuation of the High Security Zones and paved the way for the collapse of the peace talks between the LTTE and the then government of Sri Lanka headed by Ranil Wickremasinghe. He is one of the two main persons instrumental in the ultimate demise of the LTTE and its chief Prabhakaran, the other being the President himself.

Moreover, nothing can be said about the longevity and the viability of the UNF because it is a collection of the parties having different ideologies and disparate interests. It consists of ultra-Marxist JVP and Tamil nationalist TNA. The support of TNA is crucial but in a changed scenario, it can not claim to represent the view of the entire Tamil minority because for many Fonseka is still the chief architect of their sufferings and shattered nationalist aspirations. Again, capitalist UNP and Marxist JVP form strange bedfellows. They have all come together with the sole aim of defeating Rajapaksa led alliance.

Muslims in Sri Lanka (7 per cent of the electorate) considered themselves as the community exploited by both, the Tamils and the Sinhalese. There are thousands of Muslim refugees, 90,000 to be precise, still languishing in the refugee camps of Puttalam after so many years when they were forcefully evicted from their houses at only two hours notice by the LTTE in the North in 1990. The only Muslim party of some credence Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) is siding with the UNF while another Muslim grouping All Ceylon Muslim Congress is lending their support to the Rajapaksa-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Here also, the votes are split.

International Rumblings in Sri Lanka’s Power Game and India

The presence of a large Tamil Diaspora in the West has added to a renewed western interest in Sri Lanka’s presidential elections although its geo-strategic location in Indian Ocean is also an added factor. For the first time, pro-West United National Party (UNP) and pro-China Janata Vimukti Peramuna are on one side of the electoral spectrum. As mentioned earlier, General Fonseka is a US Green Card holder having close links with the US administration. In addition, the rampant human rights violation during the time of the current dispensation may result in international support for the former General.

As for President Rajapaksa, his ability to play one power against the other may earn him some extra points in this election. He has invited the Chinese to assist in the post-war aid and reconstruction and has also signed the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement with the US. In the Eelam War IV, he demonstrated his ability to balance India and Pakistan. His image of a democratic leader as opposed to that of a military dictator might also work in his favour.     

Mahinda v/s Sarath – A Comparison

• Possibly, the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa is in a much better position to deliver as compared to Sarath Fonseka because the alliance which is supporting Fonseka is comprised of opposing ideologies which may not be able to work together in the long run. On the other hand, Rajapaksa is being supported by a robust alliance United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) which has proved itself to be effective and powerful in the past. Given another chance they might turn around the things in favour of Sri Lanka freed, as they are now, from the disruptive forces like the LTTE.

• Rajapaksa is ready to implement 13th amendment plus 1. He appeared to be much clearer in his policies and programmes as compared to General Fonseka whose programme is vague and mainly focused against Rajapaksa family

• TNA may not be able to influence the views of the entire Tamil minority which appears to be divided on the question of Sarath Fonseka as being chiefly responsible for their present deplorable state in the island

• Economically too, Fonseka’s promise to provide financial benefits worth around SL Rs 300 billion rupees ($2.62 billion) for salary hikes and transfer payments may be difficult to implement after his elections given Sri Lanka’s commitment to the IMF to reduce expenditures and mounting budget deficit.


The Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election 2010 is important for all the stakeholders as its outcome will define the future of the post-Prabhakaran country in a way that would pave the way for its ultimate development. However, it is also for the first time when making an accurate prediction about the winnability of a particular candidate appears difficult. An important factor will be the mood of the rural Sri Lanka voters, both Sinhalese and Tamils, whose say may have a decisive influence on the outcome of the presidential elections. Whether they will once again prefer an earthy appeal of Mahinda over the urban sophistication of General Fonseka is a moot question. On the contrary, a preference for a change may also play its part in the forthcoming elections.

(Anjali Sharma is an Associate Fellow in Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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