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Rajapaksa gets gratitude vote, Fonseka minority mandate

world Updated: Jan 28, 2010 17:37 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

"Believable change". Disaffected general Sarath Fonseka’s Obama-esque assurance for the future as he had shed his uniform in November to stand up against President Mahinda Rajapaksa for last Tuesday’s Presidential election. He would bring in change for the better, Fonseka told Sri Lankans, 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 campaign.

A day after the election, the surge turned out to be a trickle. By early Wednesday, postal voting trends showed a healthy lead for Rajapaksa; Fonseka, former army chief, the man who promised change, changed home instead, moving inside a five-star hotel, fearing for his life.

Fonseka could not believe but the majority Sinhala community had brought back Rajapaksa to power. In simple terms, it seemed that most among the Sinhala community had cast the ``gratitude’’ vote for Rajapaksa for bringing to end the 27-year-old ethnic war against Tamil Tigers. 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 market places 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; photographs of his battle-scarred body were displayed generously on poll pamphlets.

But it was Rajapaksa who improved his 2005 tally when he won on a less than 2 per cent majority. This time, the gap was more than 17 per cent and 2 million votes. (Fonseka has since alleged that polling wasn’t free or fair and has threatened to go to court.)

In November, when Fonseka entered the election arena after a high-pitched resignation drama as chief of defence staff, he appeared to be a man in uniform reluctantly entering the wily world of politics to clean it up. He was backed by spectrum of major political forces in Sri Lanka: the United National Party (the main opposition party), the radical Marxists, 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 majority in at least 16 of them.)

The two did split the majority vote. But the twist in the voting tale was that Rajapaksa pulled in, well, the lion 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 proved way too popular in the rest of the country.

Take the example of Colombo district. Fonseka easily won from Colombo city where Tamils, Christians and Muslims are in 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.

Instead, Rajapaksa got the gratitude vote from the war weary Sinhalese. For example, the Anuradhapura district in central Sri Lanka has been drought-hit for months; fertile grounds for the opposition to sow anti-incumbency seeds. But over the years it had also been hit several times by LTTE’s suicide cadres; Rajapaksa won 66 per cent of the votes.

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.