Electoral stakes and reconciliation non-starters

Thursday, 17 July 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • With presidential elections in the offing and the incumbent setting his eyes on an unprecedented third term in office, the prospect of reconciliation and a final political solution to resolve Sri Lanka’s ethnic question looks as remote as ever
Ten months ago, the Tamil people of the Northern Province who were liberated from the clutches of the LTTE by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his security forces went to the polls to elect a provincial government for the first time in 25 years. During a heated election season, the Government pledged to continue its ambitious development drive in the region, repeatedly recollected life under the LTTE yoke and issued subtle threats of a resumption of war in the event of a TNA victory. The TNA invoked virulently Tamil nationalistic rhetoric during the polls campaign. It spoke of justice for Tamil people killed in Mullivaikal in the last days of the fighting in 2009. It spoke about post-war surveillance and heavy militarisation in the Tamil-dominated north. It spoke of political autonomy and the return of a civilian administration in the former war zone. On 21 September 2013, when the people of the Northern Province made their choice, their message to Colombo was resoundingly clear – 70% of the north’s registered voters swept the TNA into power with a two-thirds majority, delivering the UPFA coalition its worst-ever electoral defeat. Last week, with the NPC nearly one year into its five-year term in office, the Rajapaksa Government sent back a message of its own. It told TNA politicians and the people who voted them into office with a thumping mandate that Colombo is simply not listening. Reappointed Northern Province Governor G.A. Chandrasiri was reappointed by President Rajapaksa last Friday after his five-year term neared completion on 12 July 2014. Chandrasiri is a retired Major General who also served as Security Forces Commander of Jaffna during the war. The TNA has been relentless in its appeals for his removal as Governor and for the longest time, his replacement was the single concession the Rajapaksa Government had seemed willing to make to the TNA-led provincial administration in the north. In his first meeting with Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran on only the second day of this year, President Rajapaksa promised to replace Chandrasiri as Governor as soon as his term ended in July. Chandrasiri himself had expressed interest in joining the rest of his family in Australia once his term ended in July, the Northern Province Chief Minister told reporters after his surprise reappointment. Several names had been in circulation for his potential replacement that was, for all intents and purposes, due this month. The TNA had its own list of preferences, many of them high calibre retired public servants, with the capacity to navigate the international dimensions of northern politics and negotiating power with the Government in Colombo. For its part, the Government was unwilling to appoint a civilian per se as requested by the TNA, but it was said to be contemplating naming a senior retired police officer as Northern Governor, in order to be able to do away with the military tenor of the position. Uneasy cohabitation continues But as fate and President Rajapaksa would have it, the uneasy cohabitation between the Wigneswaran administration and Governor Chandrasiri is now destined to continue. For the TNA, Chandrasiri’s position at the helm of provincial affairs had already come to be a symbol of militarisation in the north. The party had made his removal from office a hot button campaign issue, but Chandrasiri’s role was to become even more problematic after the TNA was elected to office in September last year. Since the fighting ended in the north in 2009, Governor Chandrasiri has been the region’s top Presidential representative. In the absence of an elected provincial council in the region, for four years Governor Chandrasiri had the run of the province. An entrenched provincial bureaucracy grew accustomed to answering only to the holder of this executive office. By the time the TNA Council was constituted and commenced the affairs of governance, allegiances of civil servants working in the province were well entrenched. That there would be simmering tensions between the elected provincial council in the north and the Central Government in Colombo was a foregone conclusion, even before the polls ended. By the time Northern Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran assumed office, the bureaucracy had already picked a side. It sided with the central Government and its Executive representative in the Northern Province, believing, perhaps quite rightly, that the assurance of sustainability and longevity lay there. The Northern Provincial Council, like every other provincial legislature, exists entirely at the pleasure of the Centre and may be dissolved at any moment of the Government’s choosing. In the case of the NPC, this danger is exacerbated because it is the only provincial council in the country to be run by an opposition party, and one that is particularly mistrusted by the ruling coalition. From the perspective of the public servant, to pledge loyalty to elected provincial representatives over the central government authority in a highly-politicised administrative service therefore, would prove a profoundly short-sighted act. The relationship between the TNA-led council and the public servants working in the Province has been unprecedentedly bad. Sour relations Since the day the Northern PC sat for the very first time on 25 October 2013, battle lines between the new Chief Minister and the Province’s Chief Secretary have been drawn. Earlier this year, the senior public servant filed a fundamental rights petition against Chief Minister Wigneswaran, in which she is being defended by top lawyers usually appearing for the UPFA’s ultra-nationalist coalition ally, the JHU. Wigneswaran has accused Chandrasiri of running a parallel administration, blocking his budgets and challenging his authority, all with the assistance of the Chief Secretary and hampering the work of the elected Council. The post-war security paranoia has ensured that both war-torn provinces of the north and east have had ex-military officers as Provincial Governors since hostilities ended in the respective regions. The two officers are unpopular with the elected provincial administrations in both provinces. But in the Eastern Province, tensions are less public between Provincial Governor and Rear Admiral of the Sri Lanka Navy Mohan Wijewickrama and the UPFA-led provincial council, largely because it is a home-and-home affair. The north is a vastly different story. For nearly one year now, Chief Minister Wigneswaran has told every visiting foreign dignitary about how Chandrasiri was getting in his way and thwarting the aspirations of the Tamil people who elected him to office. The incessant appeals from the TNA on this score led to the inclusion of a provision in the UN Human Rights Council resolution in Geneva this year, requesting the Sri Lankan Government to grant provincial councils the space to operate. The optical advantage of removing Chandrasiri, from the perspective of the Government’s foreign relations therefore, would have been immeasurable. But President Rajapaksa, who is seriously mulling his political fortunes in early 2015, has other, more important considerations to factor in.   Shaky coalition For one thing, he has an eclectic coalition to hold together. President Rajapaksa, who once proudly told the Al Jazeera network that his cabinet was full of right wing and religious extremists, must now strive to keep these competing interests from causing his Government to implode, at least until he is safely re-elected President next year. The Jathika Hela Urumaya and the Wimal Weerawansa-led National Freedom Front, once the firm ideologues of the Rajapaksa regime, have been showing signs of incumbency fatigue in recent months. JHU Parliamentarian Athuraliye Rathana Thero has been openly engaging with opposition parties and civil society groups that are mobilising against the continuation of the executive presidential system. The movement to abolish the presidency poses a direct threat to the Rajapaksa regime, which has sought to strengthen an already-powerful presidency during its tenure, with the draconian 18th Amendment to the Constitution that permits an incumbent to contest unlimited terms in office. While Minister Champika Ranawaka remains firmly within the UPFA fold, the staunchly Sinhala nationalist JHU Member has been disillusioned with the Government positions on casinos and Indian collaboration on the Sampur coal power project. Weerawansa has also been vocal in his criticism of Government policy, particularly with regard to corruption and questions relating to political devolution to the Tamil people and the ethnic issue. Crucial support Any apparent concession to TNA demands could drive both these vital allies away from the ruling coalition in these crucial pre-election months. The desire to keep Weerawansa and the JHU happy may have compelled the Government to play down the South African initiative to restart talks between the Government and the TNA domestically, despite the high-level visit from Pretoria last week. The same concerns may have prompted President Rajapaksa’s cautious remarks to Acting South African President Cyril Ramaphosa that he would have to “think about” a proposal to restart bilateral talks with the TNA while the PSC process continues on the side. The Governor Chandrasiri reappointment has similar implications, quite apart from the defence establishment’s role in ensuring a military figure remains at the top of northern political affairs. The Rajapaksa regime’s lethargy to rein in Buddhist hardline groups or express genuine remorse or condolence about the brutal violence unleashed against Muslim settlements in Aluthgama and Beruwala last month may also have strong electoral compulsions. Having alienated Tamils, Muslims and even Sinhalese Catholics and Christians with its abysmal minority policies and creeping hegemonic agendas, the Rajapaksa regime will have to rely heavily on the support of nearly all Sinhala Buddhists in the country to return to power. The JHU and Wimal Weerawansa are essential cogs in that wheel. The Bodu Bala Sena may also have a role to play in the presidential election end game, by keeping Sinhala Buddhist insecurity whipped up to a frenzy, and willing to support the incumbent when opposition and minority forces band together and attempt to defeat him. It is a dangerous gamble, but it appears one President Rajapaksa is willing to hedge, in the belief the majority community will sweep him back to power in a 2015 election. Preoccupied with victory The international pressure building against his Government is nothing to what President Rajapaksa is feeling internally, to ensure victory at the next presidential election. The next round of provincial elections in the Uva Province will be the acid test for the ruling coalition as to whether incumbency fatigue has truly set in. It has already shown itself jittery about the Badulla District, where plantation Tamils and a large Muslim community threaten to derail its electoral fortunes. Opposition parties claim the decision to reallocate seats in the Province, to increase the number in Monaragala and reduce the number of representatives elected from Badulla, is a demonstration of this ruling party fear. The UNP decision to field its popular Parliamentarian Harin Fernando as its Chief Ministerial candidate in the Province has raised the stakes in Uva, as both camps use the end August poll as a precursor to imminent national elections. For the moment, the ruling administration appears willing to look unyielding and hawkish to the international community, if it means the same positions can ensure its political fortunes remain unchanged at home. This calculation, strangely, has a shelf-life and the Government needs to exploit it while it still can. Domestic repercussions If the Rajapaksa administration continues the way it does with blatant disregard for human rights, democratic norms and civil liberties, it will not be long before the international problem begins to have profoundly domestic consequences. Continued international censure and recognition as a country moving towards authoritarian governance will ultimately translate into domestic chaos, when Sri Lanka strives to stay afloat economically by attracting tourism and foreign investment while its image and reputation take a beating overseas. While the Government can rule out action against Sri Lanka at the UN Security Council because of the veto enjoyed by Russia and China, bilateral action against an increasingly autocratic and obdurate regime in Colombo also remains a very real possibility and one with potentially-devastating consequences for the Sri Lankan economy. But an early 2015 presidential election will ensure President Rajapaksa is re-seated long before its international fortunes begin to affect the domestic sphere. In early 2015, the Government will bank on international action against Sri Lanka working in the incumbent’s favour. Elections that were initially expected to be held very early 2015 may be pushed back to facilitate a visit by Pope Francis to Sri Lanka in January, since the Pontiff will not visit countries in which elections have been declared. Under the circumstances, and this remains highly speculative still, presidential elections may be held in March 2015. This timing will coincide with the latest round of international action on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. In its March 2015 session, the 47-member Council will be presented the final report from a team of investigators tasked with probing alleged atrocities by both sides to the conflict in the last seven years of the war in Sri Lanka. Evidence gathered by investigators and conclusions reached in the report will go some distance to dictate future international action against Sri Lanka on the tricky question of human rights. At home, the regime will use these international moves to drive the ‘defenders of the nation’ argument on its election platforms, as it has done with fair success in previous elections. Elections to drive policy Chairing a District Development Council meeting in Ratnapura on Tuesday, President Rajapaksa was seen strictly lecturing Government officials about the fact that all governance decisions cannot be made based on electoral considerations alone. Those were strangely ironic sentiments in light of the regime’s present preoccupations with electoral politics and how they have already begun to drive policy on key issues of the day. To the TNA, the reappointment of Governor Chandrasiri signals the Government’s unwillingness to meaningfully share power or lift the oppressive military rule in the north. Justice Wigneswaran, following Chandrasiri’s reappointment, noted that the President’s move demonstrated his Government’s intent to pursue a ‘military-led’ relationship with the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Disillusioned by President Rajapaksa’s broken promise to the TNA, the Northern Province Chief Minister remains convinced Chandrasiri’s retention will keep relations strained between Jaffna and Colombo. The move is widely considered to be a major blow to reconciliation, coming on the heels of the Ramaphosa visit and the attempt to restart a conversation on a political solution to the longstanding ethnic conflict in the island. It erodes confidence further in the Government’s will to deliver a power sharing deal with the Tamils that it has repeatedly committed to internationally over the years. All of these are minor considerations in light of impending elections and President Rajapaksa’s desire to secure a third term in office. Consolidating power has been the Rajapaksa administration’s primary preoccupation since it assumed office. Nine years down the line, the triumph over the LTTE has lost its original sparkle and the regime has made enemies of entire fraternities of the populace – students, lawyers, the media and civil society. As opposition forces gather in momentum and the electorate shows itself less willing to be dazzled by glittering development projects and promises of prosperity, for President Rajapaksa the stakes have never been higher. Until this election season is complete and the Rajapaksa Government is safely ensconced in the seats of power once more, conversations about genuine reconciliation and sharing power with the Tamil people will remain non-starters.

Recent columns