‘Believable change.’ That was disaffected General Sarath Fonseka’s Obama-like assurance for the future when he shed the Sri Lanka Army uniform in November to stand — and stand up — against President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the presidential elections. Fonseka had told Lankans that he would bring in change for the better — from a high cost of living, corruption and family rule. Indeed, Fonseka appeared to be riding a surge of popularity and promise during the two-month poll campaign.
A day after the election, however, the surge turned out to be a trickle. By early Wednesday, postal voting trends showed a healthy lead for Rajapaksa. The former army chief, the man who promised change, changed home instead, moving to a five-star hotel, fearing for his life.
Fonseka could not believe it but Lanka’s majority Sinhala community had brought back Rajapaksa to power. In simple terms, it seemed that most Sinhalese saw Rajapaksa as the one who brought to an end the 27-year-old ethnic war against the Tamil Tigers. This was their ‘gratitude vote’. The verdict: it is difficult to live in expensive times and under a corrupt government, but at least there are no bombs going off in the markets and young Sinhalese boys are not ‘missing in action’.
This was the very tacit impact that Fonseka himself thought he would generate among the Sinhala majority. After all, photographs of his battle-scarred body were displayed generously on poll pamphlets. But it was Rajapaksa who improved his 2005 tally (which he had won on a less than 2 per cent majority). This time, the gap was more than 17 per cent and a whopping 2 million votes. (Fonseka has since alleged that polling wasn’t free or fair and threatened to go to court.)
In November, when Fonseka entered the election arena after a high-pitched resignation drama as the chief of defence staff, he appeared to be a man in uniform reluctantly entering the wily world of politics for cleaning it up. He was backed by major political forces in Lanka: the United National Party, the radical Marxists, the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, and the Tamil National Alliance.
It was expected that Fonseka and Rajapaksa — the two ‘macho’ war heroes who put to sword the mighty Tamil Tigers — would equally divide the majority Sinhala vote, making the minority vote crucial. (There are 22 electoral districts in Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese are in the majority in at least 16 of them.) The two did split the majority vote. But the twist in the voting tale was that Rajapaksa was the one who pulled in the lion’s share. For Fonseka, it did not help that he bagged the overwhelming majority of the minority — including Tamil — votes from districts like Jaffna, Vanni and Trincomalee. Rajapaksa simply proved way too popular in the rest of the country.
Take the Colombo district. Fonseka easily won from Colombo city where Tamils, Christians and Muslims are in a majority. But in the rest of the district, where the Sinhala are more in number, Rajapaksa won. Fonseka lost in his own home district of Ambalangoda where Rajapaksa received 62 per cent votes. The broad picture of the voting pattern was that in Sinhala-majority areas of Sri Lanka, Fonseka’s ‘believable change’ campaign did not work.
Then take the Anuradhapura district in central Sri Lanka. This district has been drought-hit for months — making it fertile ground for the opposition to sow anti-incumbency seeds. But over the years, it has also been hit several times by the LTTE’s suicide cadres. The result: Rajapaksa won 66 per cent of the votes here.
The Tamils believed Fonseka would address their plight. But in the end, the Sinhala majority community did not believe that this was the right time for change. Believable or otherwise.