An Elusive Reconciliation in Sri Lanka

the hindu logoby Jayadeva Uyangoda, ‘The Hindu,’ Chennai, November 18, 2019

It can be achieved only through democratic, inclusive, and accommodative means

The outcome of Sri Lanka’s presidential election has surprised the winners, the losers as well as the observers. The most obvious, arguably disquieting, and unanticipated trend is the re-sharpening of the majority-minority divide in electoral choices. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the winner, has received overwhelming backing of the majority Sinhalese-Buddhist community. He has been almost totally rejected by the minority Tamil and Muslim voters who are concentrated in the Northern and Eastern provinces, the Central province’s plantation country, and some urban areas of the Western and Southern provinces. Sajith Premadasa, Mr. Rajapaksa’s main challenger, has received support of a majority of Tamil and Muslim voters. He has been rejected by the Sinhalese voters.

The vote shares show that Mr. Rajapaksa has received a clear mandate that has also rocked Mr. Premadasa’s coalition, the New Democratic Front. The vote distribution between the two candidates is a reaffirmation of the continuity of ethnic polarisation in shaping the political destinies of Sri Lankan society. This is a factor that the new government should not fail to address in a manner that will heal the wounds of the past. The outcome is also a severe blow to candidates who emerged to form a ‘third force’, with the hope of breaking the monopoly of the two main political coalitions in the near future. These ‘alternative’ candidates could not secure even 4% of the total votes.

Impact of the Easter attacks

There is one major reason that seems to have contributed to this polarising outcome: the political impact of the Easter Sunday bombings. The attacks targeted Sinhalese and Tamil Catholics as well as civilians. The attacks exposed the utter failure of the government leadership and the defence establishment to prevent them, despite prior warnings. The far-reaching consequences of the attacks run parallel to the way in which the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. changed the contemporary politics of the U.S. and Western Europe.

The political impact of the attacks was seen in multiple ways. The bombings created a deep sense of insecurity among citizens as well as a loss of faith in the capacity of the leadership to provide security and safety. Amidst public outrage, the government began to face an unprecedented crisis of public confidence. The attacks also set in motion a new wave of Islamophobia, spearheaded by social media, which spread rapidly, particularly among the Sinhalese-Buddhists.

This new phase of Sinhalese nationalism gave rise to a fresh political consensus: the ‘weak and ineffective’ government should be replaced with ‘a strong government’ headed by ‘a strong leader’ with the capacity and resolve to protect citizens from a new generation of terrorists, with international connections and modern technological capabilities.

By this time, Mr. Rajapaksa, a former Defence Secretary who was in charge of the war against the LTTE, had already begun his campaign to be a candidate for the election. He and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna had also developed a political campaign focusing primarily on the promise of establishing a national security regime led by a strong leader free from the shackles of liberal democracy. This was the alternative offered to replace the deeply divided, inept and crisis-ridden government jointly headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

How did the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims respond to the two opposing political alternatives presented by the two principal candidates? Mr. Premadasa was the candidate of the New Democratic Front, a broad coalition formed a few weeks before the election. Its key partner is the United National Party (UNP), headed by Mr. Wickremesinghe. The multi-ethnic coalition is supported by the main Tamil and Muslim parties.

Mr. Premadasa, deputy leader of the UNP, was given party candidacy only in late September, due to internal party differences between the two factions led by him and Mr. Wickremesinghe. Having entered the fray rather late, Mr. Premadasa developed a welfare state narrative that countered his government’s neoliberal economic and social reform policy agenda as well as his opponent’s national security narrative. During the election campaign, Mr. Premadasa also projected himself as the candidate of the poor and marginalised.

Election results indicate that Mr. Premadasa’s central promise of bringing the welfare state back, with an ideology of paternalistic populism, failed to make any significant impact on the Sinhalese-Buddhist electorate. The fact that he was the candidate of a ruling party that had lost public trust and the resultant anti-incumbency disadvantage added to his woes. However, the most important reason why he was rejected by the Sinhalese section of the electorate by a substantial margin was the perception that he was not nationalist enough to be President in the post-Easter Sunday context.

It is also Mr. Premadasa’s weak Sinhalese nationalist credentials that ensured him overwhelming support — in many electorates over 80% of the valid votes — among Tamil and Muslim voters. The Tamil and Muslim citizens seem to have had an insecurity problem different from their Sinhalese counterparts. The source of this is the political elite of the Sinhalese nationalist coalition led by the Rajapaksas. The latter’s past track record, from the point of view of the minority communities, has had a distinctly Sinhalese-nationalist orientation. Mr. Rajapaksa’s development agenda for Tamil- and Muslim-majority provinces could hardly resolve the insecurity dilemma of the ethnic minorities. In the districts where the Tamil and Muslim communities are dominant numerically, Mr. Premadasa polled more than 1 million votes over Mr. Rajapaksa. These votes contributed to his national total and national average quite significantly. In many electorates in the North and East, Mr. Rajapaksa’s share of votes is as low as 20%.

The pressures of big electoral victories are such that the new President and his family members, who will constitute the core of the new regime, might find it difficult to resist the temptation of giving into the wishes of their Sinhalese nationalist constituency. This is particularly so in view of the ethnic polarisation of the verdict.

Healing wounds

However, to fulfil his promise of taking the country out of its present state of deep economic and governance crisis as well as ushering in an era of economic prosperity and political stability, the new President will need to rebuild the trust between the majority and minority communities. The best, incurring possibly the lowest political cost, to achieving that goal lays through democratic, inclusive, dialogical, and accommodative means, despite the popular support for a possible retreat from traditional forms of democracy.

Thus, the election outcome highlights once again how inter-ethnic reconciliation continues to be centrally relevant to any recovery and reform agenda for post-war Sri Lanka. Reconciliation is needed to heal the wounds in a country that is struggling to come out from a recent past of violence and democratic setbacks.

Jayadeva Uyangoda is Emeritus Professor of Political Science, University of Colombo

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