It is the silence that is disconcerting.
Given the ear splitting diatribes of UNP and the UPFA in the lead up to the Presidential Elections, the lack of any serious elections related violence is on the one hand extremely heartening. Perhaps the harbinger of a more democratic and tolerant political culture in Sri Lanka, due credit for the lack of scenes that we have witnessed in earlier elections must go to the authorities concerned who ensured that law and order prevailed in most parts of the country to support the elections process.
Polity and society in the South is an almost evenly split in their preference for the two leading candidates, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa. With only around 187,000 votes dividing the victor from the rest of the Presidential hopefuls, the final result is indicative of a societal cleavage that some contend mirrors the divergence of opinion on the future contours of the peace process.
The new President has the gargantuan task of rekindling public confidence in the peace process. The death of the P-TOMS, the continuing imbroglio with tsunami relief, the lack of any progress whatsoever on restarting peace talks, the general apathy towards rising communal violence in the East, the assassination of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister a little over 3 months ago and the exponential rise in the LTTE’s military strength need to be taken into account, amongst other pertinent factors, as the new socio-political realities that will underpin a return to a peace process founded upon the CFA of February 2002. It is imperative that one of the first tasks of the new President is to call for a non-partisan perspective to the transformation of Sri Lanka’s long-drawn ethnic conflict. Serious measures need to be taken to address the growing hubris of the LTTE and its thirst for eliminating political difference, whilst at the same time extending to them, on the basis of a principled and rights based approach to negotiations, a warm invitation to join the search for sustainable and non-violent options to fully address aspirations of all communities in the North-East of Sri Lanka.
The public remains rightfully sceptical of elections promises made by both the leading candidates. Mr. Rajapaksa, tainted by allegations of the abuse of tsunami relief funds and coloured by twin nationalist forces was in the running with Mr. Wickremesinghe, whose intransigence on human rights in the peace process, gross inability to engage with the grassroots opinion and the general appeasement of the LTTE without reciprocal pressure to help it transform into a democratic entity, led to an election that some saw as a pyrrhic choice between two incompetents.
Both candidates were less than desirable for the job. One, however, is now in power. While the fate of the incumbent leader of the opposition hangs in the balance, the birthday gift for Mahinda Rajapaksa was the electoral investiture of Presidential powers that place him at the helm of this country’s affairs for the next six years. Whatever the reservations about his abilities and political affiliations, doubts about his brinkmanship of the peace process must be weighed against his seniority and experience as a politician, qualities that will hopefully under-gird renewed attempts at constructing a peace process that avoids the pitfalls of the past. We must also encourage him to eschew the more fanciful arguments of the JVP and JHU and instead use a reasoned and reasonable approach to negotiations – knowing full well that the LTTE will now use any excuse within their grasp to cry foul in the face of what they will claim is an intransigent government in the South.
While it is the usual practice in Sri Lanka to concentrate on savouring electoral victory for an extended period of time, it behoves the new President to call for a multi-faceted approach to peacebuilding as soon as possible. This includes the formulation of impartial expert advisory mechanisms that is he is able to call upon in support of his desire to strengthen the CFA by addressing what he perceives as flaws in the existing document. This would involve reaching out to political opponents and transforming a zero sum political culture into one that supports in principled measures taken to bring about sustainable peace in Sri Lanka. Using the good offices of the Buddhist clergy and his broad acceptance within the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency, the Mr. Rajapaksa can transform the very same forces in the South that brought him to power into constituencies broadly supportive political constructs such as federalism that will form the core of a sustainable peace process.
Of course, given Sri Lanka’s pathological inability to capture historical opportunities in support of peace, the larger concern is whether Mr. Rajapaksa will succumb to the ultra-nationalist forces that were part of his campaign. Even if we leave aside the LTTE for a moment, the Sinhala-Buddhist thrust of Mr. Rajapaksa’s campaign gives rise to serious doubts about the future of Sri Lanka’s multi-cultural and plural social fabric, especially in light of pronouncements by various luminaries of the JVP and JHU that are inimical to the sustenance of peaceful coexistence in this country.
On the other hand, we need to hold the LTTE accountable for its actions on elections day. As the recent statements of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum and the Election Day Communiqué of the Centre for Monitoring Elections Violence also highlight, the actions of the LTTE to disenfranchise communities in the North-East, despite the assurances given by Mr. Thamilchelvan to the contrary, is a damning indictment on its ability to promote itself as an organisation that fully supports the democratic process in Sri Lanka. The abysmal voter turnout, attributed by elections monitoring agencies to visible threats by the LTTE, is an inexcusable and flagrant violation of political power. The LTTE’s continued intimidation of the very peoples they claim to be the sole representatives of, ridicule the basic tenets of democracy and efforts to take them seriously as partners in a peace process.
In sum, Sri Lanka’s tango with peace takes a new twist with Mr. Rajapaksa’s victory. To be fully resonant with the aspirations of all communities, Mr. Rajapaksa’s victory needs to be writ against the enforced silence of communities in the North-East. In this sense, it is possible to question the legitimacy of his electoral victory. While the forced silence of communities in the North-East is alone not reason enough for an annulment of the final result, it does beg the question as to whether Sri Lanka’s frayed democratic fibre can bear the strain of a President elected largely by the South to champion a peace process that responds to the silent aspirations of communities who would possibly not have voted for him, even if they had the chance to do so. Ergo, If only in the name of democracy, it would be important to seriously consider a call for a re-poll in the North-East, to ensure that the political aspirations of all communities are given due recognition in the vote for Sri Lanka’s highest political office.
Mr. Rajapaksa faces a Herculean task – unproven in the high office of President, he will have to work hard to address not just the partisan aspirations of satellite henchmen, but the very real concerns of communities who realise that following this victory comes a time of great hope and of great fear.
Hope, because the new President offers a breath of fresh air to the rotting peace process.
Fear, because the collapse of democracy and peace in Sri Lanka is a fate too terrible to contemplate.