Sri Lankan presidential election: A complicated race
THE presidential election in the South Asian island state of Sri Lanka, scheduled for January 26, is expected to witness tough contest between the two top candidates. Both can legitimately claim credit for the government victory over the Tamil militants, thus bringing an end to the long running civil war.
Incumbent President Mahinda Rajapakse, who is seeking another term, basking in the glory of crushing the three-decade-old insurgency demanding a separate independent Tamil state, is pitted against the former army chief who led the war to a successful finale in the battle field.
Certainly, President Rajapakse oversaw the war, and his adroit handling in the political, diplomatic and military areas relating to the civil war has been commended, which has put him at a place of honour in the country. But his challenger is the person who led the military side as the only four-star general in the army, and his credit is seen by many as far larger than the president's since the victory came in the battlefields, where the army chief played the key role in military strategy.
Besides, the war cost the lives of many officers and men in the army, and it is the armed forces that are given more kudos for the hard earned victory than the political or diplomatic strategies of the government. Anyway, both are "heroes" of the splendid victory over the determined Tamil rebels. But the million dollar question is, who will the people pick as president when they go to the ballots on January 26 ? The choice seems tough and hence a close race is on the cards.
However, the lead-up to the polls could be violent for a variety of reasons. Both the candidates are strong and have their support base within the existing power structure, even though one is no more with the government. Consequently, the acrimony and bitterness may increase as the election gets nearer. As such, clashes among their supporters are not unlikely and some indications in that direction are already discernible.
More importantly, the Tamil rebels have been defeated in the war, along with the killing of their top leader Velupillai Prabakharan and his key associates. But it will be height of folly to assume that all the rebels, known for their commitment and ruthlessness, have either been killed or caught. If not many, at least a good number of them may have mingled among the general masses or managed to escape the country. Some may have succeeded in still living in the country in various guises despite the government's claim that all avenues for regrouping or any activity by the remnants of the rebels have been sealed off.
This claim notwithstanding, former militants may act in utter desperation to avenge their defeat by resorting to stray incidents, including attempts to assassinate the two top candidates. The wrath of the rebels against both are understandable and, given the tough background of the rebels like the suicide attacks, the Lankan presidential elections will remain a high security affair till the end of the event -- and probably even beyond.
Gen. Sarath Fonseka expressed his fear when he said that attempts would certainly be made on his life by the Tamil rebels, who are now believed to be only a few in number, during the polls. He said that 1,000 Tamil tigers might have survived the onslaught of the war and could be active whenever they found minimum opportunity. He is no longer in the government and is now at loggerheads with President Rajapakse, who had shifted him to a less important post of defence chief of staff.
Gen. Fonseka was angered when he lost the command position and charged the president with deliberately trying to give an impression that he (the army chief) was planning a military coup after the war was over. When differences between the two important persons bubbled to the surface, most opposition parties seized the opportunity by courting the former army chief to contest the presidential elections as their nominee.
Election for the presidency -- as far as its schedule is concerned -- remained shrouded in uncertainty for sometime when the president gave hints that he could continue at least for a year according to the provisions of the constitution. But this position drew sharp reactions from the political parties and, eventually, the government announced the election schedule.
Sarath Fonseka agreed to the opposition parties' request to challenge Mahina Rajapakse, and battles lines are being drawn. The total picture about the rivalry is likely to be clear by the end of the December, when filing of nominations and withdrawals will be completed. However, a contest between Rajapakse and Fonseka appears certain, barring any unexpected change in the scenario.
Most opposition parties picked the ex-army chief as they are convinced that the country's overwhelmingly Sinhalese population are happy with the victory over the Tamils, and will support the candidate who accomplished it. Obviously, the president can claim the success and is expected to romp home easily in the polls. In a clever move, the opposition parties are fielding someone who can equally, or even in a greater degree, stake his claim to this success. There is no other person than the former army chief to challenge the president in this regard.
Gen. Fonseka has already swung into electioneering, and is aiming his guns at President Rajapakse. He charged that the government had reduced his security drastically even though he was a target of the Tamil rebel, and also accused the president of not honouring his role as the army chief in the war. His supporters insist that the victory came militarily and not because of political leadership and that Gen. Fonseka should be elected as president. However, in the international eye, both Rajapakse and Fonseka are guilty of excesses committed against the Tamils, particularly the Tamil civilians, during the last phase of the war.
It is also said in some quarters that Prabakharan was not killed in fighting, but was captured and then shot -- a crime as it violates the war conventions. However, the government has denied the allegations, saying that the Tamil rebel supremo was killed as he was trying to flee. How the country's around 18 percent Hindu Tamil people, mostly living in the north-east, see the presidential polls and whether they will be able to cast their votes, or at all exercise right of franchise, is also something to for watch with interest.
Sri Lankan presidential elections have a notorious record of assassination or attempts on the candidates. In 1994,Tamil Tigers were accused of killing a top contender while in 1999 incumbent president Chandrika Kumaratunga narrowly escaped an attempt, but not without injuries.
In Sri Lanka, the president is very powerful and political parties, regardless of their differences, have in the past called for curbing of such enormous powers for the country's chief executives. But when in the seat, the sitting presidents turned a blind eye to this demand. Sarath Fonseka has said that he would do it if elected. Only time will say whether he too will fail in this count if elected. In any case, the Lankan election is generating heat, and this heat covers on one hand the contest between two "heroes" of the civil war and, on the other, lingering fears about impending violence in many forms.