Originally Published 2004-04-06 05:46:57 Published on Apr 06, 2004
The just-concluded parliamentary polls in Sri Lanka may have a lesson or two for political parties in India, which too is facing elections in the coming weeks. If past parallels are any indicator of a sub-continental voter-behaviour, the average Sri Lankan has gone with bread-and-butter issues, highlighted by the United People¿s Freedom Alliance (UPFA)
Sri Lanka: Poll Results and the Peace Process
The just-concluded parliamentary polls in Sri Lanka may have a lesson or two for political parties in India, which too is facing elections in the coming weeks. If past parallels are any indicator of a sub-continental voter-behaviour, the average Sri Lankan has gone with bread-and-butter issues, highlighted by the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), a coalition of President Chandrika Kumaratunga's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), and the domesticated Sinhala militant Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

There are three broad aspects to the Sri Lankan mandate. One, it has taken outgoing Prime Minister Ranil Wikremesinghe's 'peace dividend' beyond the 'promised land' onto individual homes and hearths. Two, it has ended the cohabitation between rival political leaders at the highest levels, which was variously offered as a hurdle to the peace process, economic development or national unity, based on from which side you looked at it. Now, President Chandrika cannot offer excuses on any front.

Thirdly, the vote is seen as an acknowledgement of Chandrika's approach to the stalled peace process with the LTTE. Here again, she cannot falter or delay. She may have time till the presidential polls of 2006, when the voter will weigh her performance against the vague promises of the past weeks and months. Incidentally, that is also when her mandatory upper-limit of two terms in office would come to an end. That is at least the constitutional position at present, and she needs a two-thirds majority that the UPFA now lacks, for effecting any change. Whether she would put the cart before the horse, her political future before the peace process, remains to be seen.

Chandrika and the UPFA have an immediate choice to make, and that would also be reflective of their approach to the peace process, which needs to be revived without much delay. Requiring eight votes to take its tally of 105 past the cut-off figure in the 225-member Parliament, the UPFA would try to woo the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC), with five members each. Both are now partners in Ranil's UNP-led United National Front (UNF). While both parties have a Tamil background - the CWC represents the forgottten 'Plantation Tamils', which the LTTE has also been wooing in its own way - the SLMC has been reminding the Sinhala political leaderships of the promised seat for the Muslim community at the talks table. If the SLMC did not go beyond that, it was only because the peace talks are stalled for a year now, after the LTTE pulled out.

The LTTE's early reaction to the poll results has been a mixed bag. Projecting the TNA tally of 22 seats - it is also third largest group in Parliament after the UPFA and the UNP-UNF - as a 'clear message' on the concept of "Tamil homeland, Tamil nationalism and the right of self-rule for Tamils", the LTTE wants them "accepted as the basic aspirations of the Tamil people". While this is seen as a veiled threat by the LTTE to go back to war, given in particular the past suspicions vis a vis the Chandrika leadership, it is heartening to note that the organisation still wants the "Tamil national problem should be politically resolved". While the LTTE has restated the obvious, it remains to be seen if any endorsement of the same by the UPFA would imply direct or indirect TNA support for the new government.

In the absence of extending such a support, the LTTE would find the TNA bloc wasted as a political leverage. For, it would be the second time in a row that the LTTE had dreamt of using the TNA support to a Sinhala-led Government as a bargaining chip to get political mileage on the peace front. The last time round, the UNP-UNF under Ranil Wickremesinghe managed to muster a parliamentary majority without the TNA backing, even though it did not have one when the election results were announced. That way, Wickremesinghe's current predictions of 'instability' sound hollow, particularly when his arguments revolve around a 'hung Parliament' and the like.

For the LTTE, the 'Karuna rebellion' is fresh in the minds of its supporters and opponents alike. While the Chandrika leadership cannot continue with the strategic silence of the past four weeks since the rebellion commenced, and would have to take a stand on the 'Karuna issue' sooner than latter, the LTTE too would be hamstrung by the ground realities, which is far from its own claims. The 'Karuna issue' has opened for Chandrika and the SLMC, for instance, the broad-basing of the peace negotiations, which has been a two-way street thus far. Reports have already identified four or five TNA members of Parliament with the 'Karuna faction'. For the first time, there are also credible and open charges of the LTTE 'faking' the poll process in the 'Tamil areas', hinting that the election results need not be taken at face-value, as claimed by the organisation.

The LTTE may be under as much pressure as the Chandrika leadership to deliver, politically. 'International pressure' may only be one of them, and the way and waywardness of global facilitators of varying involvement and various interest remain to be seen. For her part, Chandrika has to accommodate the political compulsions and 'nationalist aspirations' of the once-militant JVP ally, apart from prospective backers like the SLMC, none of which can be wished away even otherwise. Representing the moderate 'Sinhala sentiments', which is otherwise strong, the JVP has won 36 of the 39 seats contested, which is a tall order by any standard.

In a way, the Sinhala side of the peace process may have come a full circle, considering that it was the 'Chandrika package' of 1995 that was the first serious effort at a negotiated settlement to Sri Lanka's ethnic crisis. To the extent, the Ranil camp has taken the peace process decisively forward over the last two years in particular, they should have no major complaint if and when the new Government try revive the negotiations. The early questions and differences would be over the modus and methods, not the content, given the Chandrika camp's known stand on broad-basing the negotiations, and the LTTE's insistence on being the 'sole representative' of the Tamils. Both sides also need to blunt mutual suspicions of the past, which the Ranil leadership had managed vis a vis the LTTE through the Norwegian facilitators.

Incidentally, the Chandrika leadership would have to re-work relations first with the Norwegians, after the publicly-stated criticism when Rail was Prime Minister. It was Chandrika who had invited the Norwegians to facilitate the peace process in the first place, but things were not as smooth as they should have been since they brokered the Ceasefire Agreement of February 2002, and also the subsequent rounds of negotiations, which are stalled now. The alternative is to find a new facilitator, but making the LTTE trust one would be more than difficult, particularly under the changed circumstances in their backyard.

That will only be the early problems of Chandrika and the UPFA. Including the four 'national seats' under the 'proportional representation part' of the electoral process, the JVP adds up to 40 seats in the UPFA score of 105. It now faces a new political threat from the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a Sinhala extremist electoral infant headed by the Buddhist clergy, incidentally opposed to the 'westernisation' of Sri Lanka's polity and policies. The Urumaya bagged nine seats and polled 5.97 per cent of the popular vote in its first electoral outing, and has thus served notice on the JVP with a near-similar but watered-down political agenda since its militant and Leftist days of the Seventies. The JVP is all for 'decentralisation' to the last level of governance against the 'devolution' demand of the LTTE that stops at the provincial level, instead.

(With inputs from Dr Kalpana Chittaranjan and Mr Joseph Pradeep Raj)

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

Read More +