New President faces formidable challenge of
By Jehan Perera
Newly elected President Mahinda Rajapakse took his oaths of office after a
closely fought electoral battle that saw the country polarise electorally along
ethnic, religious and regional lines.
All parts of the country with significant concentrations of ethnic and religious
minorities were won by Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. The margin of
victory was 180,000 votes. Ironically, it was the disenfranchisement of over
700,000 Tamil voters that swung the election in favour of President Rajapakse
who had campaigned on a Sinhalese nationalist platform. The President’s voter
base was unaffected by the enforced boycott imposed by the LTTE and
orchestrated by pro-LTTE social organisations in the north east.
In a cruel twist, Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe who had carefully nurtured
the support of the ethnic and religious minorities found himself cheated out of
victory by the enforced boycott. The main feature of this election was the non-
participation of virtually the entirety of the Tamil electorate in the north east of the
country. A high level of intimidation and the strategic use of violence ensured that
the voter turnout in the populous Jaffna peninsula and the LTTE controlled parts
of the north east was nearly zero.
The election report of the international observers of PAFFREL stated that “Pro
LTTE groups called for a ‘Mourning Day’ to replace Election Day, and sadly, that
is what they got: the sinister façade of peace of a closed society rather than the
exuberance of the democratic process at work.”
The report also stated that, “The widespread election day violence in the east
demonstrated the false claim of the LTTE that there was no boycott of the polls. In
LTTE-controlled areas buses and ferries sent to collect voters were detained until
after the voting and burning tyres and other obstacles blocked the roadways.”
If the Tamil voters had been permitted to vote in the north east most of them
surely would have cast their votes for Mr Wickremesinghe. The voting pattern of
the few who did vote indicates that this would have been the case. If elected
President, Mr Wickremesinghe would have been a truly national president of the
Sri Lankan polity, representing all ethnic communities. It is therefore doubly ironic
that the LTTE should post statements on their websites that the international
community should not support the “Sinhala Government” that they themselves
helped to bring to power.
Most of the Tamil people I spoke to in Jaffna in the north and Trincomalee in the
east prior to the election told me they would vote for Mr. Wickremesinghe as they
felt he would keep the country away from war. What they valued most was the
preservation of peace. The LTTE’s planned celebrations of their Heroes Day at
the site of the former Elephant Pass army base may be to send a message that
their patience is running out with the type of peace that is on offer.
It is clear that President Rajapakse is well aware of the divided and polarised
polity over which he has been entrusted leadership. In his inaugural address the
President said that he would henceforth act without bias as the President of all Sri
Lankans. He reassured the religious minorities that religion and the state would be
separate. He promised to restore peace through negotiations with all parties,
including the LTTE. There was no gloating in the President’s speech, and there
was an outline of the priority areas he wished to tackle and the spirit of consensus
he hope to achieve.
But the difficulties that lie in the new President’s path should not be discounted or
underestimated. President Rajapakse has around him a diverse and contradictory
coalition of 27 parties in which the Sinhalese nationalist element has been
They would each see an opportunity to achieve their own goals, which are at
variance with the vision of a multi ethnic and multi religious society. The great
majority of the ethnic and religious minorities chose not to vote for President
Rajapakse, but voted for his opponent Ranil Wickremesinghe instead. All of these
people are anxious about their futures.
In addition, President Rajapakse has inherited two important realities that can limit
his ability to implement the programme of action he may have in mind. The first is
the need for a stable majority in Parliament that is not hostage to the threat of
withdrawal. This would necessitate rebuilding coalitions with the minority parties.
But there are indications that his nationalist Sinhalese allies may wish to scuttle
that option. Instead of being conciliatory to the parties representing minority ethnic
and religious communities who supported the defeated opposition candidate,
these Sinhalese nationalist parties are publicly gloating that it is possible to win
elections without their support.
The other important reality that the new President has to contend with is the LTTE’
s hold over the north east. So far the LTTE’s military control has been limited to
the LTTE-controlled areas that are demarcated by the Ceasefire Agreement. This
agreement ended the horror of war for the people.
But the protracted situation of no-war, no-peace has permitted the LTTE to enter
into government-controlled areas of the north east and achieve de facto control.
This was clearly evident in the effectiveness of the LTTE’s boycott call of the
It is only the resumption of the peace process under greater international
supervision that can make the LTTE subject to the accountability of responsible
The ascent of President Rajapakse to the highest and most powerful position in
the country brings with it a measure of doubt and of hope. There is a measure of
hope because of the kind of person he is, and what he has been saying recently.
President Rajapakse has been liberal in his political life. It is wrong to describe him
as a Sinhalese hardliner. In one of his campaign speeches he outlined his four
priorities for the country. At the top of the list came peace. This was followed by
economic revival, restoration of law and order and the creation of a society in
which children could grow healthily.
On the other hand, there is doubt because there is uncertainty about the new
President’s actual strategy to solve the problems facing the country. During the 37
years of his political career President Rajapakse has been a loyal party member,
sticking with his party at the worst of times.
He accepted the leadership and vision of those who were his superiors in the
party hierarchy. Now it is he who is expected to give that leadership and vision. He
can continue to listen to a variety of views and seek to operate within a
consensus. But he will have to give leadership in forging that consensus.
The most difficult problem that President Rajapakse will have to face is to
convince the LTTE that they can get into a peace process with him within the
framework of a united country. It appears that the LTTE’s experience of
negotiating with Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe convinced them that
what the separation they sought to gain was not possible with him. It was because
of this anxiety with the peace process that they withdrew from peace talks with Mr
Wickremesinghe’s government in April 2003. Therefore his offer in his election
manifesto to recommence the peace process from the point it got stalled in 2003
did not hold great promise to them.
On the other hand, the three main principles of a new peace process articulated
by the President would undoubtedly prove to be unattractive to the LTTE. These
are that power sharing will be within the framework of the unitary state, that the
role of the international community in the peace process needs to be rethought,
and that the peace process must be more inclusive and involve more parties than
the government and LTTE. He may have to focus on getting more rather than less
international involvement in the peace process.
In order not to alienate himself from the goodwill of the international community,
President Rajapakse could articulate the positions on the peace process of this
party set out by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga as his own.
He would also need to unify his victorious coalition on this basis in order to adopt
a pro-active and consistent approach to the peace process.
A pro-active approach could begin soon with direct dialogue with the LTTE
leadership as promised by the President in the course of his election campaign
with the purpose of engaging the LTTE in problem solving actions. If accompanied
by a positive response from LTTE, these steps can transform the stagnant peace
process into a dynamic one that meets the just aspirations of all communities.
The President needs to continue to build upon the gains achieved by the
governments headed by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and
President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Landmark agreements with the LTTE include
the Ceasefire Agreement and the Oslo Declaration on federalism which provide
the foundations for lasting peace. The international community too needs to make
a greater visible commitment to supporting those agreements. Perhaps the ideal
scenario will be one in which President Rajapakse and Opposition Leader
Wickremesinghe team up in one government along with other Tamil and Muslim
parties to negotiate an interim administration for the north east with the LTTE.
Hopefully this can thwart the threat of renewed war and separation that the LTTE’
s Heroes Day Celebration at Elephant Pass is likely to portend. [DailyMirror]