Lanka elections unleash new political forces

Updated on Apr 07, 2004 10:25 AM IST

The forces will have a major impact on Lanka's political life, writes PK Balachanddran in Colombo Diary.

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PTI | ByCOLOMBO DIARY | PK Balachanddran, Colombo
The Sri Lankan parliamentary elections held on April 2, just two years after the last one, have not only upset the government of Ranil Wickremesinghe, but unleashed new forces, generating hope of a better life among some, and dismay and deep apprehension among others.

The elections saw the rise of three new forces: (1) ultra-nationalist and Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which got 40 seats, up from 16 in the last parliament elected in December 2001; (2) the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), a LTTE proxy, which secured 22 seats, up from 15 in the last parliament (when it had a different name); (3) the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a new party of Sinhala-Buddhist monks, which got 9 seats.

All three will have a tremendous impact both on parliament and the political life of the country.

JVP: The JVP, which had been in the political sidelines for more than a decade, is now part of the United Peoples' Freedom Alliance (UPFA),which is expected to form a government having emerged as the single largest party in the elections.The JVP is expected to make an UPFA government populist and anti-capitalist and anti-foreign.

It is also expected to stall moves to devolve power to the Tamil-dominated North East Province (NEP) under a new federal constitution.The JVP is also against having provinces on the basis ethnicity, and may want to split the NEP to prevent a Tamil consolidation.

But the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which is the dominant coalition partner of the JVP in the UPFA, is committed to bringing about a federal constitution and devolving power to the NEP.

Unlike the radical JVP, the SLFP is a left of centre party.It is not at all anti-capital or anti-foreign capital. Therefore, there could be clashes within the government over economic policy, both internal and external.

It is no secret that the Western world, which is a major investor and aid giver in Sri Lanka, is extremely apprehensive about the role of the JVP in the new government. Pro-Western media have warned that investments and tourist arrivals will dwindle, impoverishing Sri Lanka further. Domestic capital is, perhaps, even more apprehensive, not the least because in a country known for crony capitalism, domestic capital depends heavily on local political patronage.

The JVP may press for labour rights when foreign and domestic capital are clamouring for "labour reforms", an euphemism for putting curbs on workers' rights.

The UNF and the Western world also fear that the JVP will push an UPFA government into taking a needlessly tough line against the LTTE and thereby push the country into war again. There is room for this fear because both had urged a tough line against the LTTE "terrorists" and criticized the UNF government for "kow towing" to the LTTE when they were in the opposition.

But the Sri Lankan hoi polloi will be looking at the whole thing very differently. They want job generating public sector projects, subsidies for agriculture, protection for domestic industries, and greater budgetary support for social welfare, health and education schemes. And they think that the UPFA will meet these needs.

From the overwhelming support given to the UPFA in the elections, it is clear that the hoi polloi do not think that the UPFA will unleash war and take the country back to the time when the ecomomic growth rate was zero or even negative. As the pre-poll surveys said, the people wanted peace, but were unhappy that they were not getting their share of the peace dividend. In fact, as Prof ST Hettige, a political sociologist at Colombo University put it, the people had begun to take peace (or the no war situation) for granted and were looking beyond.

ITAK: The ITAK, which has 22 MPs, is a proxy of the LTTE. Having come to power with the human and financial resources of the LTTE, it cannot but act according to the LTTE's diktats in parliament.

True, the ITAK is divided, with the moderate Battcaloa-Amparai district leader Col Karuna having split from the main LTTE and got five of his own nominees elected to parliament. But the hardline, mainstream ITAK still has 17 MPs.

The LTTE has made it very clear that it views the ITAK's success in the elections as a vote for the demand for Tamils' self-determination and a separate Homeland. The ITAK itself has said that it will support only that government which accepts the LTTE's proposal for a Interim Self Governing Authority for the North Eastern Province. But the proposal is too radical for any maintream Sinhala-based Sri Lankan political party, whether it is the UPFA or UNF.

The UNF has sought the support of the ITAK to help it form an alternative government. But such support is fraught with dangerous consequences.The UNF may again be accused of being the handmaiden of a "terrorist" and "separatist" organization. One of the reasons for its failure to win the parliamentary elections this time is the allegation that it had kow towed to the "terrorists".

Karuna factor: The split in the LTTE, the emergence Col.Karuna as a powerful warlord in the eastern districts of Batticaloa and Amparai with five MPs in his pocket, is a new factor, generating new possibilities.

Karuna has already said that he is interested only in the economic development of his region Battcaloa and Amparai, and that he is ready for ministerships for his MPs in the central government in Colombo. For the Establishment in Colombo, this should open new avenues for settling the Tamil question.

So far neither the UPFA nor the UNF has approached Karuna.But he may be approached by the UPFA, if the UNF and the mainstream ITAK strike a deal or by the UNF, if the mainstream ITAK is too hard a nut to crack.

The mainstream LTTE and the ITAK might revert to their hardline stand on self determination, if the Karuna group is invested with any recognition or legitimacy by a ruling party in Sri Lanka. This will not be good for the peace process as a whole.

JHU: Buddhist monks being in parliament, as members of a party of monks, is an entirely new phenomenon in Sri Lankan politics. Previously, Buddhist monks had played important roles in politics.They were members of political parties and political leaders routinely pretended to consult them and take their blessings.But now, the monks are in the centrestage of Sri Lankan politics, in parliament itself.

In a hung parliament situation, the JHU with 9 MPs could play a critical role in every situation, from the formation of the government onwards. Both the UPFA and the UNF are wooing the JHU and some effort will have to be made to keep them happy.

But the monks are not going to be easy to handle.The JHU leadership has already put forth a 10-point charter of demands. The party is dead against conversion of Buddhists into Christians by missionaries, who are mostly foreign-funded. It wants an anti conversion law to be enacted immediately, which may alienate the Christians, who are politically very influential in the country.

The JHU is against the division of the country on ethnic lines, which brings it directly into conflict with the LTTE in particular, and the Tamil minority in general.The JHU wants a tough stand against the LTTE and other terrorists and even goes as far as saying that there is no "ethnic" problem in Sri Lanka but only a "terrorist" or "law and order" problem.

The JHU is against Western influence in the economic and cultural spheres.It wants the sale of land and heritage sites to foreigners to be stopped.

The JHU says that governments so far have cared only for the minorities like the Sri Lankan Tamils, Indian Tamils and Muslims, but have grossly neglected the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. Their land and cultural rights and their title to the entire island, are being denied under pressure from the minorities, supported by the neo colonial "international community", it alleges.

Sri Lanka has enormous economic and political problems crying for a solution.But so far, solutions have not been found because the polity is badly fractured. The April 2 elections have not brought any relief because the polity is perhaps even more fractured today than it ever was before.

(PK Balachanddran is the Sri Lankan correspondent of Hindustan Times)

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