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Elections in Sri Lanka

The election has brought to fore issues of ethnic and religious survival, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Nov 14, 2005 18:21 IST

In the Sri Lankan presidential election of November 17, political mobilisation is being shaped by a variety of factors and a wide range of issues. These relate to questions of the identity, security, survival and economic development of ethnic and religious groups; Sri Lanka's unity and integrity; the LTTE's attitude; pan-ethnic matters relating to governance and economic development; personal attributes of the two principal candidates; and the effectiveness and credibility of their grassroots level political organisers.

Ethno-cultural issues

The election has brought to the fore issues of ethnic and religious survival. One of the principal candidates, Mahinda Rajapaksa of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), is directly or indirectly mobilising support on the issue of the identity, progress and survival of the majority community -- the Sinhala Buddhists. They are about 70 per cent of Sri Lanka's population of 20 million.

Even though Rajapaksa himself is not blunt about it, and his public statements are politically correct, his alliance with the Sinhala nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) has given an impression to the voters that he is a pro-Sinhala Buddhist person.

The Sinhala-Buddhists see him as a protector of their culture, religion and country -- Sri Lanka (the only country Sinhala Buddhists can call their own, as they ever so often point out). It is believed that Rajapaksa will prevent the division of Sri Lanka into ethnic or religion based autonomous units like an autonomous Tamil or Muslim unit in a federal system.

The dress and mannerisms of Rajapaksa are contrasted with Wickremesinghe's Western attire and demeanor. Rajapaksa is portrayed as a dyed-in-the-wool Sri Lankan in general, and Sinhala Buddhist in particular.

The rallying round of the Sinhala Buddhist majority around Rajapaksa has alienated the minorities of the country, like the Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Origin Tamils, Muslims and Sinhala Christians. The minorities are flocking to Rajapaksa's principal rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP).

The Tamils, whether Sri Lankan Tamils of the North East, or the Indian Origin Tamils in the rest of Sri Lanka, fear that they will be discriminated against by a Rajapaksa regime. They fear that their political and economic progress will be thwarted by Rajapaksa. This is not because Rajapaksa is himself undesirable, (he is personally secular and also much loved) but because he could become a puppet in the hands of his allies, the JVP and JHU, which are perceived to be anti-Tamil.

The Christian minority's bugbear is the anti-conversion bill, which the SLFP government tried to enact at the instigation of the JHU. The Archbishop of Colombo, Oswald Gomis, wrote an open letter against it and Rajapaksa, in a knee jerk reaction, wrote back accusing the clergyman of virtually instigating Christians to vote against him. Rajapaksa pointed out that his manifesto never mentioned the anti-conversion bill.

The Muslims too are worried about the new "political Buddhism", spearheaded by the JHU. They resent the setting up Buddha's statues in Muslim villages in East Sri Lanka.

Wickremesinghe is indeed a Sinhala Buddhist, but many voters are reluctant to accept his credentials as a protector of the political and cultural interests of the Sinhala Buddhists. They have a doubt if he would preserve Sri Lanka as an undivided state with no room for an ethno-based sub-unit like an autonomous Tamil Homeland.

Of course, not all Sinhala-Buddhists think so. Many view the SLFP/JVP/JHU set as a backward communal one. Such people tend to support the UNP. UNP supporters do not make religion or community an issue at all. They look at Wickremesinghe as a secular, non-communal person who thinks of "Sri Lanka" as whole.

They believe that he will bring about economic growth. They believe in the efficacy of the peace process which Wickremesinghe initiated in February 2002. They do not believe that he will divide the country on ethnic lines and dismiss such allegations as malicious propaganda. They do not believe in Rajapaksa camp's allegation that Wickremesinghe has a secret pact with the LTTE.

Wickremesinghe, eager to get a lead among the Sinhala-Buddhists, has been trying hard to solve his image problem by announcing plans to promote Buddhism and displaying his knowledge of the religion. But this has not won many over to his side.

LTTE's attitude

Although the Sri Lankan Tamils living in the North and East are eager to vote for Wickremesinghe because he is non-communal and has brought about peace, they may not be able to vote for him because the LTTE's interest and agenda clash with their interest.

The LTTE, through its front organisations, has asked the Tamils of the North-East to stay at home and observe November 17 as a Black Day.

The LTTE views this election as an election of the Sinhala majority because both candidates are playing the Sinhala-majoritarian card, and neither of them has made any workable and acceptable proposal to solve the Tamil problem to the Tamils' satisfaction.

While this is the stated position, political observers say that the LTTE has an unstated reason for wanting a boycott. Articles in the media friendly to it have been hammering the point that actually, Wickremesinghe is more dangerous for the Tamils and the LTTE than Rajapaksa and that it will be good if he does not come to power. The argument is that if Wickremesinghe came to power, he would strengthen the "International Safety Net" for Sri Lanka which he wove in 2002. He will get India and the dreaded US to play a direct role in the peace process in Sri Lanka.

Rajapaksa, on the other hand, does not have such an influence in the international arena. In the eyes of the LTTE, he is a local man who can be tackled more easily. Rajapaksa will also take a hard line on the Tamil issue, and this in turn will enable the LTTE to legitimise its separatist armed struggle before the world.

One way to prevent Wickremesinghe from coming to power will be to see that the 6,30,000 Tamil votes in the North-East do not go to him. And this can be done through a boycott. The LTTE knows that Wickremesinghe is weak in the Sinhala-Buddhist areas, and therefore needs these Tamil votes desperately. In a tight situation, which the LTTE expects, he may lose if he is denied these votes. The boycott call, made on November 10, is subtle and informal because the world is watching and a European Union election monitoring team is in the island.

Economic issues

Economic issues are very important in this election, and both the principal candidates have made oodles of promises in this regard. Both have promised to bring about a reduction in the price of essential commodities. The UNP's supporters say that their party has always brought about economic development, and therefore, Wickremesinghe will definitely deliver.

But Rajapaksa's supporters argue that Wickremesinghe's right wing policies and support for globalisation will only help the rich. They think that Rajapaksa will look after the interests of the poor in the urban and rural areas. It is thought that he will restrict imports and give a boost to indigenous industries and agriculture. Wickremesinghe, Rajapaksa's followers believe, will parcel out Sri Lanka's assets to foreign interests, but Rajapaksa will not.


Issues of governance worry the voter. While UNP's supporters claim that governance will be professional under a Wickremesinghe regime, the supporters of Rajapaksa say that their leader's regime would be nearer the common man. Rajapaksa's image of being a simple and accessible man gives the impression to his supporters that his administration will also be accessible and caring, especially to the poor man from a village.

The UNP's case is that Wickremesinghe is experienced, and that he has solid achievements such as the ceasefire agreement which stand to this day, saving not less than 3,000 lives a year. But Rajapaksa's followers say that he has not been given a "chance". Though he has been a minister for years and is now the Prime Minister, the Executive President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, has been putting spokes in his wheel, not allowing him to shine, they argue.

Personal attributes

This is an election in which the personality of the two principal candidates seem to matter a lot. Rajapaksa is seen as a homegrown leader, a kind of Kamaraj or Deve Gowda in Indian terms. He is referred to as a "Jana Priya" leader, as one villager in Uva province said. He is seen as a likeable, true blue nationalist, "our own" kind, who one can implicitly trust. "He is Ape Mahinda" (Our Mahinda).

A large number of people seem to want to see someone like Rajapaksa in the seat of power in Colombo, and bring about a fundamental change in Sri Lanka's power structure. Sri Lanka, according to them, should not be ruled always by the Colombo-based, urban, English speaking, capitalist elite, with foreign connections.

But to the followers of Wickremesinghe, he is a doer. They attach no importance to the cultural coordinates of a leader and say that work and track record should alone be the yardstick of competence. They point out that Wickremesinghe had brought about peace against great odds. His economic policies would put money into the pockets of the people of all classes. Trade, both domestic and international, would boom and there would be foreign investment. Support for Wickremesinghe among traders is strong, especially in the urban areas.

Grassroots organisation

Grass roots/district level organisation is playing an important role in this election, especially in the case of the UNP. While Rajapaksa's campaign is personality oriented, with his image and persona being the USP, the UNP seems to be banking on its organisational capabilities, rather than the image of its candidate.

In areas where the UNP's district level leaders have been doing a good job, meeting the needs of the hoi polloi, the cadres are enthusiastic, and the voters are gung ho. But in areas where the leaders have forgotten the voters and are busy leading a luxurious life in Colombo and making money, the voter base has eroded.

The UNP and the SLFP, depend a lot on their traditional vote banks. But this traditional vote bank can be converted into votes only when there is mobilization, either through the personality of the party candidate, or through the performance of the local level leader and his cadres. Rajapaksa may not have a great party machine (the SLFP is not a cadre-based party) but his image is garnering votes. Wickremesinghe, on the other hand, is depending more on his party machine, its cadres and its local leaders, including MPs and ex-ministers from the area. Their work has assumed critical importance in his case.

(PK Balachandran is Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka)

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First Published: Nov 14, 2005 00:00 IST