All politics is local

Also published on Moju.

The recent elections in both Sri Lanka and Israel are edifying.

Kadima won, as expected, in Israel. This victory is comes despite Ariel Sharon’s hospitalization and the Damoclean spectre of Hamas rising to power in the Palestine Authority. One immediate lesson is that it is possible for moderates to carve out a political space even in the face of great uncertainty regarding the future of fragile relations between Israel and the PA.

How long Kadima lasts, the impact of its proposed unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, what fissures such action will create amongst Israeli’s themselves and finally, how resilient the party is to violent protests of those opposed to its policies remains to be seen. There are no easy answers solutions, but one hopes the victory of Kadima seeds new hope for peace and co-existence in the region..

The local government elections result in Sri Lanka is similarly edifying. Seen as a referendum of sorts on the President’s approach to peace talks, the elections were hotly contested and the first in which the JVP stood on its own and openly challenged the approach of the President to the peace talks by calling for a removal of Norway as the mediator.

It was widely opined that President Rajapaksa needs to strengthen the SLFP ranks in order to marginalise the electoral reliance on the JVP. The coalition with the JVP was a marriage of convenience, intended for a single purpose – to bring Mr. Rajapaksa into power. This risky deal seems to have paid off – the elections results prove Mr. Rajapaksa’s control of the peace process is independent of the shackles of the JVP. Though the JHU has accepted the verdict of the elections, they will no doubt be severely disappointed in the outright electoral rejection of their ideas. Though both the JVP and JHU will, for while, try to gain whatever political mileage they can from the little support they received, it’s evident that while the JVP is a very distant third force in politics in Sri Lanka, the JHU’s political erasure was sealed with the elections results.

The result is both a curse and blessing for Mr. Rajapaksa. On the one hand, he, along with the SLFP, is now firmly in control of the peace process. His approach to peace talks, the continued engagement with Norway and his vision for the larger peace process are now cemented in the minds of the electorate. The short-term memory of the electorate however demands that Mr. Rajapaksa shows visible progress in the peace talks and peace process in order to maintain the public support he now commands. David Rampton and Asanga Welikala writing in mid-2005 note in The Politics of the South, part of the Sri Lanka Strategic Conflict Assessment 2005 available from the Asia Foundation, that “there are no current schemes for alleviating the kinds of inequality and poverty that feed into the JVP’s support base. The mainstream parties, especially the SLFP, will face diminishing electoral returns as long as they continue to fail to improve democratic and fiscal accountability or expand development priorities beyond the Colombo centric and elitist networks that exist at present.” Ergo, this electoral victory and the shoring up of the SLFP vote base can also be seen in light of the pro-village and pro-poor line of Mr. Rajapaksa himself and the Mahinda Chintanaya.

On the other hand, Mr. Rajapaksa’s steering of the peace process task is made harder by the very support he has received. He can no longer blame recalcitrant coalition partners for delays in adhering to what was agreed to in Geneva in February 2006. The President needs to ensure that disarming armed groups, as agreed to by the Government delegation, needs to carry on apace, since the LTTE can now justifiably claim that there are no longer serious intra-governmental impediments to such action. This is a tremendous pressure, as it is unclear, to date, how the government intends to action that which it agreed to. The recent disagreements between the SLMM and the Government on the very existence of armed groups are indicative of how difficult a task disarmament is.

Mirak Raheem in Paramilitaries: The need for a re-think argues that Geneva I needs to be seen in a holistic light – “It is highly problematic to devise realistic or sustainable solutions without taking into account the wider environment in which the CFA functions, especially those of killings, abductions and other gross violations. There is a fundamental necessity for it to be grounded in a human rights and human security framework that pays heed to the needs that arise from this framework”. Seen this way, the President needs to ensure that the disarmament of armed groups occurs within a rights based framework that safeguards human security, ensures justice, promotes reconciliation and strengthens public support of the peace process.

The danger for Kadima in Israel is one of insularity – the votes it received may be interpreted as a mandate for exceptionalism manifest in policies of unilateral withdrawal and disengagement with larger social processes and relationships central to long term peace and coexistence in the region. Kadima may well find itself unable to pursue a peace process with the PA with an electoral result that may, in the months to come, manifest itself as the voice of an Israeli population tired of peaceful overtures to an unheeding “enemy”, and who just want to go about their daily lives in a cocoon of security guaranteed by a great wall and protectionist policies that trade contested land for security.

The elections result in Sri Lanka shows a similar danger in that it may lead to the President and the SLFP closing ranks and, though the peace process demands a multi-partisan approach. If Kadima’s unilateralism leads to a cocoon mentality that shuts out the world beyond a wall, the President’s danger is a myopia that treats this victory as a mandate for excluding the voices opposed to the peace process in future dialogues. Mr. Rajapaksa needs to show that with this victory, the SLFP’s opprobrium of the JVP is transformed into a working relationship between the two parties for the purpose of furthering the peace process. The article by Welikala and Rampton explore the foundations and possibilities for such engagement–subtle leadership changes within the JVP itself, measures of confidence building initiated by donors, diplomatic pressure or gestures of confidence building by the LTTE can lead to a party more supportive of measures needed to address the ethnic question in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, as the authors note, the JVP’s policies, as with all other political parties in Sri Lanka, show changes over the course of history. It is not impossible to imagine a JVP that reciprocates a unilateral gesture of systematic disarmament by the LTTE with greater support for federalism. Those who say this is impossible need only to look at actions of ETA in Spain and Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) in Aceh, where violence and dwindling prospects for peace suddenly gave way to foundations ripe for peacebuilding on account of unilateral confidence building measures by the rebels.

In this respect, the ceasefire talks need to quickly mature into peace talks that discuss core political issues. While Mr. Rajapaksa needs to ensure that what was agreed to in February isn’t reneged leading to conditions ripe for a war, he also needs to use this victory as a foundation upon which to strengthen public voices that pressure the LTTE to enter into dialogues that slowly bring them into democratic frameworks. This then is the key challenge of this victory for the President – to shore up confidence in the peace process even in light of incidents such as the sinking of the Dvora in March 2006. The President, even before the LG elections result, was uniquely positioned to do so. As the latest Peace Confidence Index (PCI) survey conducted by Social Indicator reveals, 97% of the Sinhala community say that they are confident in Mr. Rajapakse’s ability to take the peace process successfully forward, coupled with 80% of the Sinhala community confident in the incumbent government’s commitment to find peace through talks.

This is a significant corpus of public support, but there is more to politics than statistics. The President and his government need to ensure that this well-spring of public support translates into concrete actions that ensure the strengthening of the peace process. As Raheem points out, everything is connected – disarmament can only occur in a framework that guarantees fundamental rights and human security. These were cornerstones of the CFA signed in February 2002. The LG elections result strengthens that which gave life to the CFA – the firm desire of all communities for peace. Given that peace is won or lost at the community level, it is imperative the all political parties heed the voice of the people and work together to create political conditions that ensure the continuation of the peace talks and strengthens the peace process.

In this respect, both Prime Minister Olmert and President Rajapaksa have significant challenges in the months to come – to translate the aspirations of their peoples into political action that bring about dialogues supporting of coexistence and peace.

In both countries, the people are watching. And waiting.

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