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PP Mathew: A vote for reform
August 20, 2015
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Sri Lankan voters have good memories, one should assume. Unlike many in several other democracies, Sri Lankans on Monday voted for a new parliament more or less sticking with their approach in the presidential election held seven months ago. In what was called the “January 8 revolution,” they then rejected president of nine years, Mahinda Rajapaksa, despite his reputation as a war hero who ended a three-decade long armed insurgency by Tamil militant LTTE; because he was seen extremely authoritarian, trampling anyone who dared to question his ways, as allegations were flying around that he and his family were indulging in massive corruption.

Once again now on August 17, they have foiled his bid to make a comeback, even as he fought to wriggle out of a series of inquiries and legal procedures over corruption and abuse of office during his two terms as president. He had nearly split the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as he sought a ticket to contest to parliament and projected himself as prime minister candidate.

Voters were emphatic that he could not make such a comeback. The SLFP ended up with just 95 seats in the 225-strong parliament where the numbers required for power is 113. A hung parliament is nothing new in the country, and coalitions are a regular formula to solve the problem. However, none of the other parties are a natural ally for SLFP when Rajapaksa seeks power. He remains untouchable.

On the other hand, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who led his United National Party (UNP) to a remarkable victory, has no dearth of allies. With 106 seats, he needs just seven to stitch up a government. A ready ally is the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the northern and eastern provinces. With 16 seats in hand, it has emerged as the third largest party.

The UNP victory is also seen as an acknowledgment of the efforts made by President Maithripala Sirisena and his prime minister to heal the wounds of a nation torn apart by a three-decade long armed insurgency that lasted until six years ago. Celebrating on Tuesday, Wickremesinghe said people have backed the “revolution” achieved in January and want that to continue.

“We have to unitedly work towards lifting the nation to a new height by facing challenges of the new era. I invite all of you to join hands with us to face the challenges of our mission,” he said.

Wickremesinghe, who initiated the first dialogue with the Tamil Tiger insurgents in the north, is thought of as an untainted leader who believed that the country could progress only if a peace deal is worked out. Rajapaksa, who has been projected as a strongman and a nationalist, chose the military option instead and eliminated the Tigers in 2009, earning the title of a war hero that catapulted him to power.

People rewarded him with power when he ended the insurgency and brought peace. However, as the post-war regime became drunk on power, with the entire family accused of abusing power without any inhibition, his nationalist campaign and claims of a war hero lost charm. He even offended his basic supporters, the Sinhalese, by jailing former army chief Sarath Fonseka, the country’s first Field Marshal, over allegations that were never proven. His crime was that he dared to run against Rajapaksa in 2010. In jailing him, it was obvious that Rajapaksa was trying to eliminate the other war hero, the man who actually led the operation against the Tigers on the ground.

The ripping of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was another assault on people’s sentiments, especially those of the Sinhalese. She was impeached and removed by a parliament controlled by Rajapaksa in 2013. The idea was to elevate a Rajapaksa crony. One of the first things that Sirisena did as he assumed power this January was to reinstate her. He also bestowed the rank of Field Marshal on Fonseka and acquitted him of all the charges that were imposed on him by Rajapaksa.

Sirisena, who was a minister in Rajapaksa’s cabinet, has proven to be a healer in the seven months that he has run the country. He had won the election with solid support of not only the Sinhalese, but also the minority Tamils, Muslims and Christians, and had promised several measures that would bring about a much-desired unity that was essential after the insurgency and civil war. Among his priorities were more powers to the Tamil north, on which he has worked in the past months despite stiff opposition from hardcore Sinhalese politicians who still fear a revival of the blood-soaked insurgency. The best part of his reform has been the curtailing of vast powers that the constitution granted him and the declaration that he will leave after a single term.

No doubt, the parliament election is a reward for good work that Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have been credited with. A surge in Sinhalese support and from rural masses who adore Sirisena, especially for his rural background, have been of help too. In fact the UNP ends up with two districts more than the January election, meaning a clear growth in its support in seven months.

As for Tamil areas, it is no surprise that Rajapaksa was simply dumped. The massive victory of TNA which is allied with UNP shows an inclination towards reconciliation.

The UNP finally made it to the top after a 14-year long wait. The benefit for UNP is that it is no more inhibited by the SLFP as it seeks to push its reform agenda. Neither is Sirisena clipped anymore though he is still an SLFP leader. He has been able to draw support across divides, which means he will now consolidate his base more and bring SLFP in his grip. That would mean that Rajapaksa cannot have his sway over the party anymore.

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