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Rajapaksa's win unclear as Sri Lanka votes today

As many as 15 million Lankans will go to polling booths Thursday to tick either symbol and therewith choose a president - either incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa or his erstwhile health minister Maithripala Sirisena.

world Updated: Jan 08, 2015 10:19 IST
Padma Rao Sundarji
Padma Rao Sundarji
Hindustan Times

A betel leaf versus a swan. Fifteen million Sri Lankans will go to the polls on Thursday to tick on either symbol and therewith elect a president: either incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa to an unprecedented third term or - his own erstwhile health minister, Maithripala Sirisena.

When all-powerful President Rajapaksa, who has been in office for the constitutionally admissible two terms, late last year announced the bringing forward of the presidential polls - originally slated in two years -to January 2015, it raised few eyebrows.

After all, he was the first head of state to have achieved what none of his predecessors had: to bring the 30-year long civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to an end.

His government began developing the ravaged parts of the country. Highways and railways came up, landmines were cleared and all essential services restored. The first free and fair provincial elections in the embattled northern province were held last year and won by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a union of Tamil parties that was formerly sympathetic to the LTTE. And Rajapaksa promised to go further than merely greater autonomy as envisaged by the India-authored 13th Amendment to the Tamils.

It is that promise that Sri Lankan Tamil citizens are still waiting for him to come good on. In the meanwhile, charges of corruption, nepotism and an amassment of personal wealth have grown against Rajapaksa and the many members of his family who hold senior positions in both the government as well as in the private sector.

Still and given Rajapaksa's huge support base in the Sinhalese south of the country, his re-election was a given.

But on November 22 last year, things took a dramatic turn. Maithripala Sirisena, abandoned the president and 'crossed over' to the opposition. It didn't stop at that. A stream of departures followed: a total of 22 parliamentarians who had worked with Rajapaksa for decades decided to join Sirisena. These included two Sinhalese nationalist parties and a Muslim party. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, too came out of retirement to lend support to New Democratic Front which includes its chief architect, her formerly bitterest rival and United National Party opposition leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe.

The NDF announced Sirisena as its 'common candidate' to challenge Rajapaksa at Thursday's poll. And just last week, came the most surprising announcement of all: the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which has never supported any party of the 'Colombo old guard' with a Sinhalese voter base, too, announced support for Sirisena.(see HT interview with TNA parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran January 7 2015) There have been no credible opinion polls so far, and both sides claim they will win, of course.

But even if Sirisena does, how are Tamil nationalists who want maximum self-rule in the North and East, ever going to see eye-to-eye with Sinhalese nationalists who are bent on not giving it to them? How are Muslim parties going to break bread with Buddhist clerics after last year's virulent attacks by rightwing Buddhist monks upon minority Muslims?

"Having these parties together is precisely the way to resolve issues so I see it as a plus," Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe told the Hindustan Times in an exclusive chat two days before the election. "This is not just about toppling Rajapaksa but restoring a multi-party democracy in place of a Rajapaksa regime endowed with unlimited powers. This country must build a new political culture."

In 2002, Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister (and Chandrika Kumratunga as President) had accepted Norwegian mediation and signed a ceasefire with the LTTE, one which was doomd to fail as all other previous ones had.

Rajapaksa, on the other hand, had steadfastly resisted all attempts by the international community to dictate terms to Colombo. Sri Lankan army generals say that each time they had stood on the verge of victory before Rajapaksa's two tenures, external mediation had pressured Colombo to call for ceasefires.

And each ceasefire had allowed the Tigers to rearm and fortify their ranks. It is only Rajapaksa who, for the first time, had allowed them a free hand to crush the LTTE.

Consequently, many Sri Lankan analysts fear that a Sirisena win may mean heightened international meddling in Sri Lanka's internal affairs all over again. All the more so given the 950,000 strong Tamil diaspora, sections of which, along with escaped LTTE cadres, have formed an exile Eelam 'government' in western countries and continue to pressure their local parliamentarians to censure Sri Lanka at every available international forum.

"The Norwegian mediation and the ceasefire agreement of 2002 happened with the consent of India. Rajapaksa too, received support from India and the EU to carry on the war till the Tigers were defeated," said Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in an exclusive chat to the Hindustan Times two days before the elections in Colombo.

"But for that, he also promised the full implementation of the 13th amendment (self-rule and other powers to the North and East) and that hasn't happened so far". Wickremasinghe also dismissed the 'threat' of an Eelam 'Transnational government" by pointing out that there were several such self-proclaimed organizations - for Kashmir, for 'Khalistan' overseas, which, though retaining the right to demonstrate in the democratic countries they had sought asylum in, remained unanimously unrecognized by their host countries.

Whatever may be the case in the West, no election in South Asia can be quite blemish-free and without hooliganism. Over the past weeks, there were several incidents of shoot-outs and intimidation of the oppositional coalition reported from across Sri Lanka.

Election observers from several countries including India received hundreds of complaints. "Some ruling party supporters here were distributing fake copies of ballot papers which is illegal," said India's former election commissioner SY Quraishi, who is heading a 11-man team of Indian election monitors and spoke to the Hindustan Times from Jaffna. "Then, there were some papers on which the opposition's symbol of the swan had been changed to a three-wheeler in an obvious attempt to confuse voters".

However, Quraishi said other than such incidents, arrangements for the elections were proceeding smoothly and that reports of the govt-controlled army intimidating Tamil voters to prevent them from voting for the oppositional candidate Sirisena, were 'distorted'.

"Petty stuff will go on," the experienced commissioner said. "But I am pleased to see that up here, every collector is Tamil, every election officer is Tamil and their confidence levels are high. I hope the local people realize the significance of this development."

Over the last days of campaigning that ended on Monday this week, President Rajapaksa went into overdrive. Allegedly using state machinery, he waged a hectic campaign across the country, exorting Tamils in Jaffna to vote for the 'known devil' who brought them roads and development rather than the 'unproven' candidate Sirisena. He also hinted darkly that he had 'files' on the 'traitors' who had defected to the opposition.

With more modest means and less lead time at its disposal, Sirisena too, toured the country under his symbol of the swan, promising voters a restoration of multi-party democracy, an empowered prime minister and parliament and a less almighty head of state than Mr Rajapaksa has been for the past decade. In what would come as music to New Delhi's ears, he also indicated a scaling-down of Chinese investments and presence in Sri Lanka.

Two television poll adverts for each of the competing sides tell the tale of the key message of the respective campaigns.

The first shows a family in a car, driving through verdant, peaceful countryside. Suddenly, they are confronted by a road block.

It sends their car spinning backwards only to hurtle into more and more roadblocks. The countryside has now been replaced by pictures of burning cars and dying people, reminscent of the dark days of Sri Lanka's bloody, 3-decade long civil war. 'Vote for Rajapaksa', says the tagline, implying that only he can prevent a regression of the country into bloody turbulence and unrest again.

The second - obviously made with modest means - shows Maithripala Sirisena dressed in a white shirt and sarama, carrying a frangipani bloom, strolling by a peaceful lake, while a small child laughs. This is the idyllic future that the new challenger to Rajapaksa promises.

Both candidates reportedly spent the day after campaigning ended in visits to both Buddhists temples and Hindu kovils. There have been no credible opinion polls so far, and both sides claim they will win, of course.

On Tuesday, the mood in the new candidate Maithripala Sirisena's ofice was upbeat, if chaotic and disorganized with the candidate himself surrounded by seas of supporters who moved in swarms whenever he did. But through his media advisor, he responded to the Hindustan Times's questions on what his victory would do for both for his country's Tamils as well as big neighbour India's trepidation about Chinese presence in Sri Lanka.

"We are neither focussing on the Tamil issue nor on bilateral relations with other countries right now," Sirisena said. "We are not against Chinese investment per se, only against such that allows individuals to amass personal wealth at the cost of our country. But I'll say this: India was, is and will remain our first concern."

(The author is a veteran foreign correspondent who has covered Sri Lankan affairs for two decades and the author of a forthcoming book: "Sri Lanka: The New Country" to be published by Harper Collins next month).

First Published: Jan 08, 2015 00:17 IST