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Threat to Mahinda is from Chandrika

Chandrika Kumaratunga, carries out her threat to change the party's candidate, or dissolve parliament, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Sep 20, 2005 19:52 IST
COLOMBO DIARY | PK Balachandran
COLOMBO DIARY | PK Balachandran

By sewing up alliances with extremist Sinhala nationalist parties like the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), Sri Lankan Presidential candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa has shown that he knows his political arithmetic.

But his calculation may go awfully wrong if the angry President of his party, and the President of his country, Chandrika Kumaratunga, carries out her threat to change the party's candidate, or dissolve parliament. In both cases, Rajapaksa's election machine will be a wreck.

Kumaratunga is very angry that Rajapaksa should strikes deals with the JVP and JHU without consulting her or the authorized decision making bodies of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The deals, she told Rajapaksa from her camp in New York, had compromised the basic principles of the SLFP on the ethnic issue.

While the SLFP favoured federalism, Rajapaksa had gone and committed himself to the continuance of the unitary system and a hard line approach to the ethnic conflict. The alliances have seriously jeopardized the prospects of peace, national reconciliation and economic development, according to her loyalists.

However, it should be remembered that, to date, Kumaratunga has not done anything about Rajapaksa's dalliance with the JVP and JHU despite a long-standing antipathy towards him and his alliance partners. If the current fretting and fuming turns out to be another storm in the teacup, without any precipitate action, Rajapaksa is in a sound position. If it is mere dissension that he has to face, he can tackle it because he has the electoral arithmetic backing him.

Rajapaksa's supporters believe that most SLFP members will want the party to win the election and will therefore support his alliance with the JVP and JHU if only for the limited purpose of winning the election.

Of course, the assumptions behind his electoral arithmetic may prove to be erroneous, because there is nothing certain in politics. A single incident can radically change the scenario in a trice. But conventional wisdom suggests that the arithmetic favours Rajapaksa rather than his rival, Ranil Wickremesinghe, of the United National Party (UNP).

Assuming that the voters' loyalty towards parties have remained unchanged since the last elections in April 2004 (which were for the Sri Lankan parliament), Rajapaksa may get 52.57 per cent of the votes and win. Wickremesinghe may fall behind with 46.21 per cent.

This calculation is based on:

(1) the assumption that the dissension in the SLFP fizzles out;
(2) the fact that the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) continues to be with the SLFP;
(3) the fact that the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) is extending support;
(4) the assumption that at least 50% of the voters of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) have switched to the SLFP because of the UNP's soft line on the issue of a Joint Mechanism with the LTTE for post-tsunami reconstruction in the North Eastern districts.

In the 2004 elections, the SLFP, in alliance with the JVP (and some other small parties), got 45.60 per cent of the votes. The JHU got 5.97 per cent and the SLMC got 2.02 per cent.

Rajapaksa may not get very few Tamil votes, but he will have made up for it by getting greater Sinhala support.

Daunting prospect for Ranil

The UNP's candidate, Ranil Wickremesinghe, on the other hand, may get the 37.83 per cent his party got in 2004; plus 6.84 per cent polled by the pro-LTTE Tamil Arasu Katchi (which may tacitly support him this time); the 1 per cent polled by the Indian Tamil party, the Upcountry Peoples' Front (UPF), and about half of the votes polled by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (about 1 per cent). This adds up to 46.21 per cent.

This being the position, at least on paper, Wickremesinghe faces a daunting prospect. He has a lot to catch up with. At least as on date, his campaign is far weaker than Rajapaksa's. While Rajapaksa is meeting, over dinner or tea, a variety of interest groups, assuring each that its interests will be looked after, Wickremesinghe is less in the public eye. In terms of posters and cutouts, Rajapaksa clearly dominates.

Sources in the UNP say that the party and its leader are conserving their powder for the crucial month before polling day, which has not been announced yet. Wickremesinghe may be waiting to see how the contradiction between Rajapaksa and Kumaratunga develops in the coming weeks, so that he can raise appropriate issues and chalk out appropriate strategies.

He has already spoken about the existence of unity between the SLFP and the UNP on key national issues like the ethnic problem, the peace process and economic restructuring. He has blamed Rajapaksa's opportunistic alliance with the JVP and JHU for scuttling the emergence of a national consensus on these core issues and thwarting the progress of the country. If Kumaratunga does eventually split from Rajapaksa, Ranil will seek her support and may get it. But the million dollar question is, how may SLFP voters will go with the new Kumaratunga-Wickremesinghe alliance.

Rajapaksa's bid to woo wider constituencies

While consolidating his position among the Sinhala nationalist segment of the population, Rajapaksa is also telling the progressives and the minorities that he will safeguard their interests also.

Allaying fears among businessmen that his alliance with the Marxist and belligerent JVP might mean an end to liberalisation, privatisation, the restructuring of the public sector and an end to foreign investments, Rajapaksa told top businessmen last week: "I will not take this country to war or to a closed economy. I will follow a policy of modernising our economy."

He pointed out that in the one year he had been Prime Minister (with the JVP being in his government for the major part), the Colombo Stock Exchange saw a boom, with the All Share Price Index up 56 per cent. Average daily turnover increased by 87 per cent and market capitalisation saw a surge of 91 per cent.

While he would not privatise the Electricity Board, the ports, banks, water and railways, these organisations would be restructured to be modern and commercially independent, he said.

Though in alliance with the JVP and JHU, which want a tough line against the LTTE, and which, in turn, could land the country in another war with the Tamil militants, Rajapaksa has been telling the minority Tamils that he will not take the country to war. He told an international news agency that he would seek direct talks with the LTTE's Supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran, to solve the Tamil question.

Allaying the fears of the international community, which does not want Sri Lanka to return to war under any circumstances, and is wary of the JVP and JHU, Rajapaksa reportedly told the US Ambassador that war was farthest from his mind. But he asserted that the international community should play a more forceful role in pressuring the LTTE to observe the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). He stressed the need to amend the CFA to make it more meaningful.

After the killing of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, allegedly by the LTTE, it has become difficult for the international community to turn a deaf ear to the protests and contentions of people like Rajapaksa. This is the reason why the Norwegian facilitators are sending Maj Gen Trond Furuhovde again to Sri Lanka to study the implementation of the CFA. In this connection, the Norwegians will also be meeting the other co-chairs of the Sri Lankan peace process, namely the EU, US, Japan, this week.

However, Rajapaksa is finding it difficult to convince the Tamils and other minorities that he will not dance to the tune of the Sinhala nationalist JVP and JHU. The JVP has made him promise that he will not change the present unitary constitution to set up a federal structure to accommodate the LTTE and the Tamils.

Rajapaksa's supporters say that there is nothing to worry, because once elected, there will be very little check on what Rajapaksa may do. He will not deviate from the SLFP's core policies and will not alienate the international community, they say. The office of Executive President is very powerful, they point out. The JVP and JHU can cry hoarse, but they will have no leverage against the President. The alliance, they say, is only to get elected, nothing more.

Rajapaksa's supporters agree that there may not be any tangible progress in the peace process because contradictions with the LTTE will have increased many times. But they maintain that there will be no return to war, as neither the government nor the LTTE can afford to go to war now. The conflict is too internationalised for that to be possible now. They predict the continuance of the current "No War, No Peace" scenario, which by itself, may be sufficient to enable the country to make a steady though modest economic progress.

They point out that after the SLFP-JVP alliance came to power in April 2004, war was predicted, but the prediction did not come true. The peace process, as such, suffered jolts, and made no progress, but there was no war.

Wickremesinghe's hopes

Of course, the UNP led by Wickremesinghe, is creating a fear that war will break out once Rajapaksa becomes President because he will be a "puppet" in the hands of the belligerent king makers, JVP and JHU. Most Sri Lankans may want tough action against the LTTE, but they certainly do not want war. The UNP is playing upon the distaste for war.

The UNP also holds out the threat of economic stagnation and governmental inaction because of contradictory pressures on Rajapaksa, his indecisiveness and lack of achievements in the field of governance.

The UNP's hope is that its line will appeal to the common man in Sri Lanka who is battling unemployment, the effects of price rise, and the consequences of the tsunami which killed 30,000 people and rendered 100,000 homeless. There is a substantial constituency, which believes that any UNP government will put money in the common man's pocket by opening up small and big economic opportunities. A recent survey by "The Sunday Times" among 250 business leaders showed that 82 per cent were behind the UNP on the ethnic and economic issues.

Last but not the least, the UNP is fervently hoping that Kumaratunga and Rajapaksa will split soon on the issue of the alliance with the JVP and JHU, and that the split will be substantial enough to benefit it.

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

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First Published: Sep 20, 2005 19:52 IST