At the Elections Secretariat on Friday afternoon after Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake had formally announced the official results of the 2005 Presidential elections (raising a few eye-brows from the old-school public servants when he asked for a personal favour from the new President), President-elect Mahinda Rajapakse in his acceptance speech said the moment reminded him of the mandate received by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1956.
Rajapakse would have been all of eleven years of age when the ?1956 revolution? dawned. But if the fifth Executive President of Sri Lanka is hoping to usher in yet another revolution, he will have to seriously reflect on the circumstances that swept him into power last Thursday.
For the first time since presidential elections began in 1982, the country has voted in a candidate who campaigned without the support of the key Muslim and estate sector minorities. This is seen as a blessing by some, but as a curse by others. It strengthens a President`s hands when he does not have to bow to the dictates of every political denomination. But for Rajapakse, that freedom comes at a price, the price of being a captive at the hands of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and to a lesser extent the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). As Rajapakse himself might say, it may be ?inguru deela miris gaththa wageyi`.
The first test will probably come when Mahinda Rajapakse appoints his Prime Minister which he is yet to do at the time of writing. That he will have to take the red and saffron shades of opinion into consideration is evident.
History teaches us that although Ranasinghe Premadasa tried to marginalise Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake by appointing the benign Dingiri Banda Wijetunga as Premier in 1989, the end result was an impeachment which wreaked havoc within the UNP since which the party is in opposition to this day. Rajapakse would do well to learn from that episode because he must have the interests of the SLFP at heart, even if it means sacrificing personal preferences.
Another decision that President Rajapakse will soon have to arrive at would be the fate of the current Parliament. With loyalties of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) being at present with the opposition UNP, the United Peoples` Freedom Alliance (UPFA) can claim 105 seats, which together with the nine seats of the JHU will add up to 114 seats. However, one JHU member is the dissident Ven. Uduwe Dhammaloka and that leaves the Alliance with 113 seats and the thinnest of majorities in the 225-seat House.
President Rajapakse can either beg, borrow or steal support from the SLMC, dissolve Parliament or even carry on regardless. In the past, general elections held soon after a presidential election, have snowballed into a decisive victory for the ruling party. It so happened in 1989 after the Premadasa victory and in 2000 after President Kumaratunga`s re-election and this may tempt Rajapakse to call for a poll. But if a general election follows on the heels of the presidential election where Rajapakse relied on the well oiled party machinery of the JVP for his campaigning, the Marxists will want to cash in on their IOUs. Payback time will not be very pleasant with the JVP asking for three slots in each district list and four slots for the larger districts such as Colombo and Gampaha.
What could well result is a UPFA Alliance with about 115 members with some 55 JVP MPs. As noted in these columns previously, some of the smaller districts such as Matale, Moneragala and Polonnaruwa have only five MPs each and even if the UPFA wins three seats there is every possibility that the preferences will coalesce towards the JVP nominees resulting in no SLFP MPs for these districts-and Chandrika Kumaratunga`s doomsday predictions of the beginning of the end of the SLFP may well ring true.
Of course, President Rajapakse could assert himself with all the presidential powers at his disposal and ask the JVP to contest separately and that may well benefit the SLFP in the long run. Whether President Rajapakse has the courage to burn his bridges with the JVP so soon after being elected is a different issue but if it does happen it will not be the first instance Somawansa Amerasinghe, Wimal Weerawansa and Co. would have been taken for a ride by an SLFP President: Chandrika Kumaratunga enticed them into supporting her at the 1994 election by promising to abolish the Executive Presidency! But if Rajapakse opts to continue his dalliance with the JVP, to say that his tenure may well be a virtual JVP Presidency would not be an overstatement.
But all these perils and pitfalls that await President Mahinda Rajapakse in his Presidency must pale into insignificance when he confronts the ethnic question. Rajapakse unabashedly gambled on a nationalist platform to grab votes in the South. The ploy worked but now as President, Rajapakse would have to acknowledge that he has alienated the North and comprehensively lost the east as well. The percentages he polled in the region bear this out: 25% in Jaffna, 20% in Vanni, 19% in Batticaloa, 42% in Digamadulla and 37% in Trincomalee and his critics would say it was the Tiger inspired boycott that saved him from even more embarrassing statistics especially in the North.
Rajapakse`s campaign hinged on the battle cry for a Unitary State, a concept that is unlikely to capture the imagination of Velupillai Prabhakaran or his Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Now he would have to convince the LTTE of his bona-fides in seeking a peaceful settlement in the North and East and would be encouraged by the comments of the Head of LTTE`s Political Wing, S.P. Thamilselvan, who said he ?understood the promises made by the Sinhala politicians during the elections? although Thamilselvan did also say that Rajapakse ?was adopting the wrong strategy in promising to take a hard line with the Tigers?.
It is now no secret that the LTTE wished for a Rajapakse victory and ensured just that by exploding bombs, flinging grenades on the night before the polls in the towns of Jaffna and Batticaloa, and sealing their `borders` on election day. That begs the question why, when the South was voting against Ranil Wickremesinghe for allegedly handing over Eelam to Prabhakaran on a platter.
A popular theory is that the LTTE has two options with President Rajapakse ? war and peace as compared to exclusively one option with a President Wickremesinghe ? peace, and possibly a peace trap.
Having fortified themselves during the ceasefire, they are even prepared for war ? in six months time, while the armed forces have long gone into slumber land. The Tiger inspired poll boycott is also consistent with the LTTE strategy of wanting the relatively weaker leader installed in the South; every time a presidential election comes around; they assassinated Gamini Dissanayake in 1994 for this and nearly killed Kumaratunga five years later. In 2005, as the world watched them even more closely after the Kadirgamar killing, they politically assassinated Ranil Wickremesinghe. In the face of a US Senate resolution naming them and urging a democratic poll, and in the presence of observers from the European Union, they did what they did. But the moral of the story is that this should not be necessarily interpreted as a harbinger of war.
So, Rajapakse`s quandary would be in finding a middle ground to deal with the LTTE when he has campaigned and won on a platform of nationalist support to tread a hardline with the rebels. The Ranil Wickremesinghe philosophy of appeasing the Tigers didn`t find favour with the southern electorate, and the LTTE already sees Rajapakse as a hardliner. Unfortunately for the new President, he is further handicapped by the absence of individuals of stature and intellect who are capable of demarcating that middle ground, at least among his political coterie within the SLFP. And of course, to say that Lakshman Kadirgamar will be missed in this effort would be quite the understatement of the year.
Yesterday, President Rajapakse took his oaths, which included the sixth amendment to the Constitution where he pledged to oppose the formation of a separate state. Doing so, he also took his oath as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.
He must realize that the LTTE decision on Thursday`s vote directly benefited him and contributed to his victory. He would not be President today had the LTTE decided otherwise. He would not have received the cheers of those who were there yesterday at the oaths-ceremony, nor be receiving the accolades from press and public, now tracing his lineage to ancient Kings of Lanka.
But the bitter truth, which we sometimes like to wish away is that this decision by the LTTE is the first major step by the rebels in de-linking the north and east from the south of this country. If the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002 demarcated geographical areas classified as `Government-controlled areas` and `LTTE-controlled areas`, the move to have a `Sinhala people-elected President` is not a good omen.
The Elections Commissioner ought not to have ducked the issue raised by the UNP, which asked for the vote of the North and East be annulled, and re-polled. There was prima-facie grounds to do so, and the Commissioner seemed in some indecent hurry to conclude the election, declare a winner, make a personal favour from the President-elect, and go home as quickly as possible.
He could have gone into the merits of the complaint by UNP lawyers; there was ample grounds to do so. There were grounds to call for a re-poll in the North and East so that it at least points the finger to the LTTE. The EU could have used it to ban the LTTE, and the US and other western countries on whose compassion the LTTE relies, would have used the occasion to make it more uncomfortable for the rebels.
Instead, the Commissioner squandered a golden opportunity to expose the LTTE, and let them off the hook so easily, but his decision to legitimize the election has helped to legitimize this de-linking process.
In the least, he could have expressed some concern about what happened, and made a statement. It was a classic case of dereliction of duty, something the anti-LTTE bandwagon of the JVP and JHU backing Mahinda Rajapakse readily acceded to in their impatience to have their candidate quickly declared the winner of Thursday`s poll.As it turns out, the Government of Sri Lanka turning a blind eye to this effective de-linking of the North and East from the South, the world will too, and the LTTE gets away with yet another undemocratic act even as they profess to be reliable peace partners. Business as usual it is, as the majority Sinhalese look for parochial advantages.
This is perhaps also a good time as any to reflect on the Executive Presidency as this country has seen it in practice over the past 28 years and with four Executive Presidents. It is an indictment on the system that the masses were not unhappy when every Executive President made his or her exit. J. R. Jayewardene was burdened not only by age, but by a JVP insurgency and the LTTE issue; Premadasa was assassinated but some people unkindly lit crackers when they heard the news while Chandrika Kumaratunga was just meandering in her Presidency with few achievements and little aim or ambition other than the desperate personal hope of continuing in office for another year.The system continues though Kumaratunga promised its abolition eleven years ago. Lest we forget, even Mahinda Rajapakse has promised its abolition in page 84 of his `Mahinda Chinthana`. But abdication from such absolute power is perhaps too much to ask for from an incumbent.
In the likely event that President Rajapakse too will renege on his own `Chintanaya`, one possible answer to this is to retain the Presidency but limit its term of office to four years. Of course, as the incumbent would not like to cut down his tenure permitted by the Constitution, the President could be permitted three consecutive 4-year terms (in the US it`s two 4-year terms only), that would then still give him or her the 12 years that he or she is entitled to now.The point here is that once a President is elected for six years straightaway, those who voted against him ? and in this case 49 per cent of the people who had the privilege to vote ? feel disillusioned. Incoming Presidents, due to internal party and coalition pressures tend to offer the bread to those who supported him, and neglect or ignore the others. Professionals on the wrong side think of taking their children abroad, and a sense of despondency prevails among the vanquished who are not made partners in the new administration. A 4-year term diminishes that despondency among a huge chunk of the population.
Another drawback of the presidency is that the top job in the country requires election by the people. This may seem a democratic enough option, but it would also mean that the Chief Executive has to pander to populist concerns, sometimes to unsavoury lengths just to get elected ? just ask Ranil Wickremesinghe ? and also shuts the door on minority religions and communities. Lakshman Kadirgamar, for instance could never have reached the Presidency simply because he was born a Tamil-Christian.
There are lessons to be learnt from neighbouring India, whatever its bleak record of ethnic and religious strife. That democracy has matured over the years, and its present Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, has never won an election. In fact, the only elections he contested, for a parliamentary seat from the South Delhi constituency in 1999 for the Congress Party, he lost. Fortunately for India, they have an Upper House where he could be accommodated for just this kind of person; a top-class economist with a socialist background, someone who could mix Keynesian economics with those of Adam Smith. He now is the Prime Minister of India from the Upper House (Rajya Sabha) and is leading India ? and her teeming millions --to unprecedented heights with a surge in economic growth.
Sri Lanka too had similar provision in the past when the SLFP nominated Sirima Bandaranaike to the Senate and then named her Prime Minister following the elections in July 1960. This must be food for thought, especially if Mahinda Rajapakse is mindful of keeping his promise of abolishing the Presidency.
Every country gets the government it deserves, they say. For better or for worse, and time will soon tell, Sri Lankans (or those in the South) on Thursday decided that Percy Mahinda Rajapakse instead of Ranil Wickremesinghe should guide their destinies for the next six years. To Rajapakse`s credit, he ran the presidential race against all odds, sans even the wholehearted support of his own party-and won. He will require all the resolve and resilience that held him in good stead throughout his campaign-and maybe a bit of luck too. Unlike in his campaign, what he cannot count on now is a helping hand from LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
The Executive Presidency in this country confers on its incumbent such enormous powers that he is virtually the monarch of all he surveys. So, while we wish President Mahinda Rajapakse well, we cannot but also forewarn him that his is a crown of thorns.We must also spare a thought for the vanquished Ranil Wickremesinghe. Six months ago, with the retirement of Chandrika Kumaratunga pending, anyone scanning the Sri Lankan political landscape would have perhaps identified just two persons with the vision, commitment and integrity required of a statesman for the resolution of the country`s ethnic turmoil: Lakshman Kadirgamar and Ranil Wickremesinghe. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, ?to lose one may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness??
But then, that is just the way an elusive man named Velupillai Prabhakaran wanted it.