Can Mahinda afford to take a detour?
By Pradeep Peiris
Echoes of the Geneva talks still reverberate. Many analysts
suggest that the Geneva talks are a victory for peace.
Despite having pledged a tough stance against the LTTE
and even the peace process, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s
Government could not avoid negotiation on the CFA with the
LTTE. The LTTE too, for its part, obeyed mounting
international pressure despite its preparation for war.
Nevertheless, it is commendable that both parties have
finally opted for Jaw-Jaw instead of War-War.
However, it is not an easy task for the two parties to deviate
from their original stance. For a democratically elected
leader, there are considerable political risks for Mr.
Rajapaksa, in foregoing his pledges to his political
constituency that voted him to office. Possible
consequences of such a detour would be the loss of his
political allies and/or unwittingly setting the stage for his
political opponents to agitate the masses against his
Mr. Rajapaksa pledged to ‘sack’ the Norwegians from the
peace process on the election platform, and stated that the
CFA should be amended; he also insisted that talks should
take place only in an Asian country.
However, assuming the office of the Executive President
required him to adopt a more realistic approach.
Nevertheless, the extent to which he can afford to be
realistic is determined by his ability to persuade the Sinhala
nationalist constituency that voted him into office.
The aim of this article is to provide an overview of the
Southern Sinhala climate of opinion, in the context of the
recent Geneva talks. Analysis for this paper is based on the
results of the latest wave of the Peace Confidence Index
(PCI) - the quarterly opinion survey conducted by the Social
Indicator, the survey research unit of the Centre for Policy
Alternatives. The latest PCI was conducted amongst 1,300
Sri Lankans across seven provinces, excluding the Northern
and Eastern Provinces during the period February 17 to
March 3, 2006.
CFA: Take it or leave it
Soon after assuming office as the country’s fifth Executive
President, Mr. Rajapaksa invited the Norwegians to continue
their work as the facilitator. Contradicting his anti-CFA stand
during the election, the President fell back on the CFA and
emphasized the need for amendments to it. Even in the
context of large-scale CFA violations by the LTTE, the
President emphasized the need for holding on to the CFA,
which perhaps confirms his seriousness in upholding it.
According to the public opinion as expressed by the PCI
survey, 95% of the Sinhala community believes that
continuation of a “no-war, no-peace” situation is “bad” and
therefore, the Government and the LTTE should go for a
permanent solution through negotiations. When compared
to the opinion on the same issue in September 2005, there
is a 10% increase amongst the Sinhala community towards
negotiations. Thus, one can safely assume that the large-
scale killing of security personnel, the temporary silence of
the Sinhala extremist bugles in the wake of the election
victory and the Geneva talks would have contributed to this
“pro negotiation” climate. Interestingly, support for a
permanent solution through negotiations is high amongst
the rural Sinhalese population compared to the urban
Sinhalese. Therefore, the message is clear: even if a regime
that has a 51% mandate for a nationalist manifesto is in
power, the Sinhala community overwhelmingly supports the
resumption of negotiations to find a permanent solution to
the country’s protracted ethnic war.
The ceasefire agreement signed in 2002 between the UNF
Government and the LTTE has its shortcomings. However,
the CFA has managed to prevent the outbreak of large-
scale violence in the island. Further, it expected to alleviate
the burdens of the war-affected Sri Lankans. In order to
support the peace initiatives, donor countries pledged their
financial assistance to rebuild the war-torn country.
Economic growth jumped from a negative growth rate to a
4% growth rate within a year of signing the CFA. There are
also many other economically immeasurable benefits that
have resulted due to the CFA. However, unless the citizen
individually feels that he/she has benefited by the CFA,
economic analysis or expert opinion makes little sense.
When the CFA was under tremendous criticism from non-
UNP Sinhala political parties in September 2005, the
September 2005 PCI survey showed that 57% of the
Sinhalese believed that they had benefited from the CFA.
Interestingly, results of the February 2006 PCI survey
reveals that it has increased to 67%.
Geneva Talks: A leap forward
The recently concluded talks between the Government and
the LTTE mark a significant achievement for the President.
He was able to bring the LTTE back to the negotiating table
after a three year lapse. Many political analysts praised the
Government and the LTTE for this effort. The talks have
delayed -if not prevented- both parties from going back to
war. While analysts debate the outcome of the Geneva talks
on the peace process, what do the Sinhala masses feel?
According to the latest PCI survey, 72% of the Sinhala
community believes that the Geneva talks have a positive
effect on the peace process, while 23% are unsure of the
effect of the talks on the peace process. However, there is a
marked difference between the opinions of the urban and
the rural populations. Optimism about the effect of the talks
is remarkably high amongst the rural Sinhalese population
compared to the urban Sinhalese.
Norwegian facilitation and Mr. Solhiem
Despite continued criticism of Norway’s role as the facilitator,
it is undeniable that they have contributed considerably to
the peace process, especially in sustaining the CFA.
According to the 2003 PCI surveys, prior to the LTTE
suspending talks with the UNF government, 44% of the
Sinhala community expressed their satisfaction with Norway
as the facilitator. However, by November 2005 election time,
it fell to 26% amongst the Sinhala community. Interestingly -
and quite contrary to southern political opinion - the latest
PCI survey conducted in February 2006 shows that
satisfaction amongst the Sinhala community with Norway has
jumped back to 44% in the context of the Geneva talks.
Meanwhile, we should not ignore that 32% of the Sinhala
masses express their dissatisfaction while 20% is unable to
comment on Norway’s role as the facilitator. This also
reveals the interesting phenomenon of the Sinhalese
measuring the performance of the Norwegian facilitation
based on the behavior of the government and the attitude of
the LTTE towards the peace process.
Of the Sinhalese who are aware that Erik Solhiem is
involved in the Sri Lankan peace process as the Norwegian
special envoy, 38% express their satisfaction with the role
he plays while 45% say that they are dissatisfied. This could
also be suggestive of the fact that Norway could continue to
be accepted as the facilitator to the southerners as long as
the Norwegians take necessary measures to raise the
confidence of the Sinhalese towards Solheim as the special
Rajapaksa is popular
As the latest PCI survey results reveal, an overwhelming
majority of the Sinhala community, (87%) say that they have
confidence in Mr. Rajapaksa’s ability to take the peace
process forward successfully. This indicates that he enjoys
the support of the broader polity -- the confidence not only
of the SLFP and its political allies but also of the liberal UNP
supporters. Further, this is reinforced by the finding that
80% of the Sinhala community believes that Mr. Rajapaksa’s
Government is committed to find peace though talks.
The majority the Sinhala opinion in the South want the
Government to go forward with the negotiations by ending
the “no war, no peace” position of the last three years.
Moreover, more Sinhalese now believe that they benefit
from the CFA compared to the time of the 2005 Presidential
election. An overwhelming majority of the southerners
embrace the recent Geneva talks as a positive step in the
Support for the Norwegians too has risen significantly and
they now enjoy the same support from the masses they had
during the Oslo peace talks in 2003. However, a slight
majority of the Sinhalese dislike Mr. Solhiem as the
Norwegian special envoy. President Rajapaksa however
enjoys strong support from the Sinhala community despite
his detour from the election rhetoric.
Since the incumbent President is viewed as a representative
of the “peace process of the cynical southern masses” who
are also unwilling to make any compromises with the LTTE,
Mr. Rakapaksa has comparatively higher potential when it
comes to persuading the Sinhala polity towards a win-win
solution than Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is generally
viewed as an elitist.
The coming weeks will show the extent to which Rajapaksa
would be able to use the prevailing climate of favourable
opinion among the masses to successfully push the peace
process forward, regardless of his hardline “political allies”.
The writer is an opinion pollster and heads the Social
Indicator -- the survey research unit of The Centre for Policy