Sri Lanka is still trying to understand what it means to be a country truly at peace and parliamentary elections are unlikely to help in this endeavour. Barely three days after polls were declared, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) has indicated its intention of contesting the upcoming elections using the symbol of the cobra, in what could well be an apt choice.
The BBS will contest under an already registered political party as it is not possible to register a new one and will undoubtedly formulate a nationalist agenda to gather votes. As an organisation which openly and unremorsefully backed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa during the last round of elections, it will likely continue on its trajectory.
Since the loss of minority votes played a role in the presidential elections, the BBS may choose not to declare its support openly but if any of the organisation’s candidates are selected into parliament then it will predictably play a role in reconciliation measures already pledged by President Sirisena to the international community.
In the past few months there has been a refreshing return to secular values. Gone are the days when one religion and those following it were held to have more rights than others. A start has been made to recognise all people as citizens of one Sri Lanka and ruled by the same law. No doubt mistakes and wrongs will be made in the future, disputes will arise, but at least now there is a feeling that these issues will be given fair hearing and militarisation of religion is fading back into its dark shadows.
Few would argue that increasing power of extremist groups played a significant role in the presidential election. In fact, even former President Mahinda Rajapaksa publicly admitted that the failure by his administration to take action against such organisations contributed towards his downfall, though he prefers to see it as part of an insidious conspiracy rather than a personal fault.
Voters were very clear in the message they sent the candidate who promised to promote peace and equal rights – they can stay so long as they do the right thing. So far it seems President Sirisena and the United National Party (UNP) have received the message loud and clear. Since taking over, they have implemented the law even against religious organisations and allowed people to follow their faith in peace for the most part. They have also taken steps to promote reconciliation between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, which was ignored for many years.
Yet the parliamentary elections throw out new equations. It is still unclear what will be done by other nationalist parties such as the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). They are unlikely to back Rajapaksa but have clearly made their sentiments known against progressive proposals such as constructive engagement with diaspora communities. Whatever combination of parties is returned to parliament by the people, it will undoubtedly be a tricky mixed bag for President Sirisena to cajole and push towards reconciliation.
Such results have to be kept in view by the public as they head to the polling booths in August.
After spending Rs. 4 billion to hold this election, the people cannot return representatives who will undermine the first tentative steps taken towards real peace in decades. They must safeguard a Sri Lanka for all.