September 26, 2013
The first postal vote results of the Northern Provincial Council election were just trickling in, when President Mahinda Rajapaksa left for New York, to address the 68th Session of the UN General Assembly. With the historic northern poll just concluded and declared largely peaceful, other than for sporadic incidents of violence, the President no doubt left native shores with mixed feelings.
On the one hand, he was going before the UN having finally delivered on a major promise to the international community, even if his Government did so through gritted teeth, and at New Delhi’s relentless prodding. But the results of Saturday’s polling had also ripped to shreds his Government’s consistent mantra that economic development was more important than political rights to the war-battered populations of former conflict zones. The ruling coalition had registered a spectacular defeat in the Northern Province, its development showpiece, to the Tamil National Alliance that secured an overwhelming mandate in the provincial election.
The ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) had secured anticipated victories in the North Western and Central Provinces, typically decimating the opposition United National Party and completely knocking out the country’s third political force the JVP. Pleased as the ruling administration would be with its major victories, some discomfort is likely in the ranks over the surprise showing of its former Army Chief and current political rival, Sarath Fonseka’s Democratic Party, which managed a total of five seats in both provinces in play.
The main act
But in the election dramas that unfolded last Saturday, it was made clear early that the North-Western and Central Provinces were just sideshows to the main act. For one thing, the two Southern Provinces had polls to elect provincial representatives many times before, and so with the exception of the hotly contested preferential races within the ruling party, there was little to anticipate. For another, the results of the two polls were a foregone conclusion and the only thing left to decide was how big the UNP’s margin of defeat would be in the latest round of polling.
But the northern election had become a matter of global and regional relevance after sustained attempts by New Delhi and other sections of the international community to have the poll conducted since the war ended in May 2009. The provincial council system perceived in the rest of the island as a resource-sapping white elephant, came about in 1987 through New Delhi’s intervention as a means to provide a degree of political autonomy to the Tamil majority regions of the north and east.
With the Government’s commitment to devolution and a political settlement to the country’s ethnic feud faltering four years after the defeat of the LTTE, the postponement of the northern provincial election was increasingly seen as an attempt by Colombo to prevent northern Tamils from enjoying the most basic autonomy over certain specified areas the rest of Sri Lanka’s provinces had been enjoying for the past quarter of a century.
Tying his hands
When President Mahinda Rajapaksa in an interview with The Hindu in July 2012 casually threw out September 2013 as a probable date for the northern provincial polls, the international community latched on to his words. In March 2013, reportedly at New Delhi’s insistence, the second US0sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka further cemented the election date by welcoming the President’s announcement about the September 2013 northern polls. The poll is seen as a much-delayed, much-needed concession to the Tamil people of the north to whom the Government had promised political resolution when soliciting the support of the international community for its military push to defeat the LTTE until 2009.
As pressure mounted in the lead up to September, a desperate administration tried hard to dilute the powers of the provincial councils as set out by the 13th Amendment. The moves were strongly backed by the defence establishment and hardline Sinhala parties in the ruling coalition. None of these attempts withstood the colossal pressure that was brought to bear upon Colombo from New Delhi, which sent its National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon to Sri Lanka in July to read the Rajapaksa Administration the riot act.
Furthermore, the UPFA itself was sharply divided over the proposed dilution of 13A, with old Left parties and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress vowing to deprive the Government of the two-thirds majority it would need in Parliament to enact the constitutional changes. Late in the game, about a week before the poll, five petitions were filed by Sinhala hardline organisations challenging the TNA manifesto as being secessionist in content and therefore a violation of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. Taking the petitions up on 18 September, three days before the poll, the Supreme Court issued notice on the TNA to appear in Court early next month, but stopped short of issuing an injunction against the 21 September election.
So it was against all odds that the northern election finally came about last Saturday, not without incident but peaceful overall. Credit for holding the election, regardless of the compulsions, goes to the Government.
Accustomed to having every major national decision made on military calculations in war time, the country’s massive defence establishment remains a force to reckon with as Sri Lanka grapples with meeting its post-war obligations to the Tamil people and the international community. The conduct of the northern provincial election was in essence the triumph of the political factions within the regime that must now constantly battle the more militaristic, hardline elements in its ranks for supremacy on virtually every key national issue. It was this victory of the more moderate sections of the Rajapaksa administration that allowed the President to tell the world on Tuesday, as he addressed the UN General Assembly, that the northern people had enjoyed the right to elect its provincial representatives after the lapse of 25 years, because of his Government’s efforts.
If there is a lesson for the Government from this election, apart from the defeat of its ‘development is reconciliation’ political philosophy, it is that victories for moderate elements in its ranks can always be translated into victories internationally.
President Rajapaksa’s speech to the UN came less than 24 hours before UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay was scheduled to issue a blazing report on the country’s human rights situation, three weeks after her fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka. His ability to tout at least one major victory on the reconciliation issue at the UN in New York, ahead of Pillay’s report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, gives the Government an edge in its international dealings that propaganda and grandstanding simply does not.
In contrast, the fiasco surrounding the D.S. Senanayake statue at Independence Square was a spectacular example of what transpires when the more hawkish sections of the ruling administration win the day.
Attempts made by the Defence Secretary to claim that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had requested the President to remove a statue of Sri Lanka’s first Prime Minister from Independence Square blew up in extraordinary fashion when Pillay’s office issued a formal complaint to Sri Lankan Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva demanding a retraction and clarification. When no retraction came – for obvious reasons – Pillay’s office hit back hard with a strongly-worded denial accusing the most powerful sections of the ruling administration as being bare-faced liars.
The High Commissioner’s rebuttal received wide publicity worldwide, since the statement was released both in Geneva and New York, a sign that the campaign of vilification by the Government of Sri Lanka against a high-ranking UN official was being taken very seriously even at UN Headquarters. Reports say UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was also scheduled to take the matter up with President Rajapaksa when the two met on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly sessions on Tuesday, although the official communiqués from the meeting did not allude to that discussion.
Since Pillay’s harshly-worded denial, the Government has maintained a deafening silence, leaving it entirely up to its mission in Geneva and Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha to handle the damage control on the issue. The reasons that compelled a senior public official to make such an accusation against High Commissioner, when at least 10 other people sat in on her meeting with the President on 30 August, are baffling. But it is clear that while it sweeps up the debris from the careless remark, days before the High Commissioner was due to issue an oral report on Sri Lanka, instructions have been issued to Pillay’s accusers in Colombo to maintain radio silence.
With international forces building against Sri Lanka as the regime continues to be intransigent on dealing with allegations of major violations during the last phase of the conflict and taking credible steps towards devolving power to the north and east, it is clear that foreign officials are now proving ready and willing to take on the Rajapaksa Government.
India’s much-respected former Elections Commissioner, N. Gopalswami who was leading the SAARC monitoring mission for the northern elections in Sri Lanka, did not mince his words after the polls, directly accusing the armed forces of involvement in the attack on the home of the TNA candidate and imposing on the electoral process by distributing campaign propaganda and putting up election posters. Commonwealth monitors, also in Colombo to monitor the election in the north, have echoed the sentiments, going further to accuse the military of harassing and intimidating voters.
Against all these consistent independent reports, repeatedly blanket denials and lack of investigation from the military establishment is beginning to ring hollow. In an area that is heavily garrisoned even four years after the end of the war, it is becoming clear that decisions of the political administration notwithstanding, the defence establishment has a mind of its own.
Turning to Basil
It is perhaps with this comprehension that the Government has chosen to turn to its most astute political strategist to deal with all matters pertaining to the aftermath of the northern election. Economic Affairs Minister Basil Rajapaksa struck a conciliatory note in Colombo the day after the election, pledging the Government’s commitment to continue its development agenda in the north and work with the TNA-led Provincial Council on addressing Tamil issues. The sentiments had been echoed in Jaffna just hours previously.
Clad in the traditional vetti, TNA Leader R. Sampanthan and National List MP M.A. Sumanthiran were the first to walk into the auditorium of the Tilko Hotel in Jaffna on Sunday afternoon, to address a packed press briefing for a large contingent of local and foreign journalists who had descended on the Northern Province for the historic elections. The party had just won 30 seats on the 38-seat Northern Provincial Council and its Chief Ministerial candidate had garnered a massive number of preferential votes in the Jaffna District.
All smiles and in high spirits about the TNA’s huge win, Sumanthiran quipped that his party leader had not watched election results that started coming in well past midnight, but had gone off to sleep in ‘supreme confidence’. But the TNA had a few anxious hours on Saturday, when initial reports about voter turnout was bad as monitors reported that voters were being turned away from polling booths. At the Uthayan Rest House in Jaffna town on Saturday afternoon, Sampanthan tried to reassure the political fresher and TNA Chief Minister candidate Justice C.V. Wigneswaran who was fretting about voter turnout that it was too early to make any definitive calculations.
Sumanthiran and the TNA’s Jaffna District stalwarts Suresh Premachandran and Marvai Senathirajah had little time to fret, spending a lot of their time on election day on the roads, backing the party’s candidates and supporters. While the Sampanthan-Sumanthiran-Wigneswaran triumvirate have been lauded for being the chief architects of the TNA’s landslide victory in the north, TNA General Secretary Senathirajah is also due a lion’s share of credit for the party’s success in the former conflict zone.
Senathirajah staked a claim for the Chief Ministerial slot at the beginning of election season, but once the party’s decision was made, threw himself wholeheartedly into the campaign, despite his reservations about Wigneswaran’s credentials. Senathirajah’s support in Jaffna remains unparalleled and Wigneswaran owes a significant part of his massive victory in the district to the man who contested him for the party’s nomination.
Learning from Marvai
There is a lesson in the TNA’s ability to pull together for the greater common good, for other Opposition parties, and especially the UNP. The main Opposition party is plagued by internal rifts because party members who challenge the leadership and fail in a bid to change the status quo often resort to undermining or even sabotaging the party’s attempts at electoral success. Conversely, Senathirajah’s ability to put his party before personal ambition likely played a bigger role in his party’s success than the TNA leadership would like to admit.
At the press meeting on Sunday, the new Chief Minister elect and Sampanthan claimed they were ready to work with the Government on overlapping issues and urged the regime in Colombo to heed the democratic verdict in the north. It is early days yet, but the conciliatory tones in both Jaffna and Colombo are a hopeful sign. As it transforms itself from an Opposition party to governance, the TNA will be called upon to show political maturity in order to push the Rajapaksa regime in Colombo to reciprocate. To do so, it will be firmly compelled to shed its election rhetoric, some of which bordered on the inflammatory and unnecessarily adoring of the LTTE. Wigneswaran in particular, has found himself between a rock and a hard place as he tried to placate both the hardline Tamil diaspora and the Sinhala south, oscillating between moderate and hardline speeches on the stump and in interviews.
“Mr. Wigneswaran was a moderate and remains a moderate,” Sampanthan says, the day before the election. “It was I who chose Mr. Wigneswaran and at the time, the primary criticism against him was that he was too much of a moderate,” he claims with a smile.
The resurrection of the Tamil political leadership to its pre-1977 moderate, intellectual beginnings is something the TNA is clearly working towards, although it is hitting snags along the way because of the diversity within the alliance. It is trying to choose educated Tamils drawn from war-torn districts of the north to take up provincial ministerial portfolios, something that will prove a key difference between the NPC and other councils if the efforts succeed. But in the end, the TNA’s reinvention process, undertaken after the defeat of the LTTE, will come full circle when and if the party is able to transcend the compulsions of the diaspora, its own hardline elements and push for negotiations with a Government they barely trust that does not trust them.
As for President Rajapaksa, whose popular support was recently reinforced in the two southern provincial elections, if he manages to silence the hardliners in his camp long enough to pursue genuine discussion on the issues of devolution and Tamil political rights with the TNA, next year in New York he really will have something to showcase. (Courtesy Daily FT)