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Ranil off to better start in polls

Wickremesinghe is clear about his policies, writes PK Balachandran in Colombo Diary.

india Updated: Aug 29, 2005 21:48 IST
COLOMBO DIARY | PK Balachandran
COLOMBO DIARY | PK Balachandran

In the Sri Lankan presidential race, Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP) is off to a better start than his rival, Mahinda Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

Rajapaksa has the key advantage of being the candidate of the ruling party, but on a number of other counts, he is the weaker of the two, at least at this point of time.

Of course, the situation can change dramatically anytime, as alliances are still being negotiated, and there is still a lot of time as polling is due only between October 21 and November 21 this year.

As on date, Wickremesinghe is clearer about his policies, and is reasonably sure as to whom his allies are, as compared to Rajapaksa. And while the UNP is solidly behind Wickremesinghe, the SLFP is a divided house, with one group led by the powerful and charismatic Chandrika Kumaratunga, the Executive President of Sri Lanka, allegedly trying to scuttle Rajapaksa's plans.

Furthermore, while the UNP had been vigorously campaigning for a presidential poll this year, collecting one million signatures and staging a march to press home its case, the SLFP was defensive all along. The party was divided on this issue, as it was on many other issues. While President Kumaratunga wanted the election only in November 2006, Rajapaksa wanted it this year. Eventually, Rajapaksa fell in line, but the President's distrust remained.

The Supreme Court ruled in favour of holding the election in 2005. This was a shot in the arm for the UNP, and Wickremesinghe declared that the first round had been won. But it brought no joy to Rajapaksa, though he also wanted the poll in 2005.

This was because Kumaratunga was put off by the verdict. Rajapaksa fears that she ay use the verdict to continue her feud with him and redouble her efforts to block his path to the Presidency.

Wickremesinghe's policies

Wickremesinghe is very clear that he will pursue the peace process, safeguard the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE, and establish the planned Joint Mechanism with the LTTE for post-tsunami reconstruction in the Tamil-speaking North Eastern Province if the final Supreme Court ruling, expected next month, will allow him to do so.

Unlike Rajapaksa, he has no doubts about the wisdom of having a Joint Mechanism with the LTTE.

The UNP leader is also not under pressure from the Sinhala-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) to say "no" to the Joint Mechanism, to talks with the LTTE or to reform of the economy. Rajapaksa, on the other hand, is under pressure to do so, because he is angling for an alliance with the JVP. He thinks he cannot win the election without cobbling an alliance with the JVP.

Wickremesinghe is committed to maintaining the best of relations with the peace process facilitator, Norway and the international community, represented by the US, EU and Japan. He will pursue right wing economic policies which will ensure the support of Western governments, international investors and global lending agencies.

Wickremesinghe's way to peace and stability in Sri Lanka is through economic development, investment promotion, accommodation and tolerance, rather than war, opposition, confrontation and sharp notions of sovereignty and strict adherence to the letter of the law. He is more pragmatic and realistic in his assessment of situations and will shape policies based on the ground reality.

The 55-year-old UNP chief has very considerable achievements to his credit. The biggest and the most striking one is the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement with the LTTE in February 2002, an agreement, which despite numerous violations by the rebels, has survived to this day. According to the UNP government's chief peace negotiator, Prof.GL Peiris, the CFA has saved a minimum of 3,000 lives a year, or more than 10,000 in the last three and a half years.

According to Wickremesinghe, between 1987 and 2001, the ethnic conflict had claimed 40,000 Sri Lankan lives. He echoes a strong sentiment among the hoi polloi against war.

He told a youth rally in Colombo on Saturday that it was the peace process, which he had initiated, which made the international community pledge $4.5 billion in aid for Sri Lanka's development. But the obstacles put on the path of peace by President Kumaratunga and the SLFP, including the dissolution of parliament, had resulted in this money not coming to Sri Lanka.

The efficacy of the "International Safety Net" which he had established to safeguard Sri Lanka's unity, integrity and sovereignty against assaults by the LTTE, began to suffer with the change of regime in April 2004. Being in the stranglehold of the radical Marxist and anti-West JVP, the SLFP government which followed him, found itself alienated by the international community, the donors and the facilitator, Norway.

Wickremesinghe further said that the international community had pledged
$3 billion for post-tsunami reconstruction, which too had not been availed of because of governmental inertia and opposition to the setting up of a Joint Mechanism with the LTTE for post-tsunami reconstruction in the North East.

First Published: Aug 29, 2005 13:42 IST