Lanka Poll Rhetoric

By Malladi Rama Rao

The Sri Lanka Presidential election has entered the most exciting phase. The outcome will depend on how the main contenders – incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his commander turned challenger Sarath Fonseka manage to swing the voters. In any election the last 48 to 56 hours before polling are very crucial.  This is the period when the electorate more or less firms up its choice.  The Sinhala and Tamil voters may not throw up a surprise though it is the Muslim vote that appears to have become most decisive in the past fortnight.

Surprisingly, neither Mahinda nor Fonseka has outlined how the economy will be addressed. So far the two Presidential hopefuls have largely restricted themselves to issues in the political domain like, for instance, the 13th amendment and Presidential powers. Nor did they offer a clear road map for national reconciliation, which is the need of the hour after decades of damage to the national psyche by Sinhala Chauvinism and Tamil adventurism.

Fonseka’s assertion ‘I have a vision of a free Sri Lanka, where decent and functional democracy prevails and the rights of all citizens are upheld’ is as vague as Rajapaksa’s assurance that ‘after the present election I am going to put forward my own solution to the problem (demand for provincial autonomy)’.

Fonseka is silent on re-merging the East with the North and thus undoing the court verdict that nullified the benefits from the Rajiv-Jayewardene accord. On his part, Rajapaksa ducks the issue but promises to ‘re-establish the Northern Provincial Council under the 13th amendment with immediate effect’. Put differently, both have not addressed the key challenge of transforming Sri Lanka from a unitary state into a federation that grants autonomy to provincial and local bodies.

As the ‘outsider’ to the political system, the former general can afford to speak about ‘Believable Change’.  More so when he makes ‘End the Raja Pavula’ (end the Royal family – a reference to Rajapakse and his brothers) his poll plank and stands as the face of opposition alliance under the banner ‘Platform for Freedom’.

As a leader in public life for long years, President Rajapaksa is a cut above his challengers.  ‘Mahinda Chintan’ was his campaign theme last time around.  This time, he has not come up with anything that is near the ‘vision’ that made him a darling of the masses. His decision to declare the centuries -old Thirukethieswaran temple (at Manthottamam about seven miles north of Mannar) as a sacred city is a good gesture undoubtedly.

This temple is important for Hindus and Buddhists alike. Legend says Bhagwan Kethu worshipped Lord Easwaran (Shiva) at the temple. It is also believed to have offered ‘shelter’ for a night to the sacred palladium which brought the Tooth Relic from India to Sri Lanka. The army occupied the temple for over a decade in the eighties during the civil war. Rajapaksa’s decision, notwithstanding its political significance, is a poll eve sop. All such sops generally bring limited dividends.

Victory against the Tigers is Rajapaksa’s achievement but it came eight months back and is no longer fresh in the mind of the voters whose concern is with the immediate – inflation and economic hardship which are the residues of the Eelam War IV.  The Lanka economy badly needs on bail outs. Its mainstay, export sector, is facing the threat of losing EU concessions. It will be a body blow to apparel, ceramics and many other sectors which employ hundreds of thousands skilled and unskilled workers.

After some reluctance, the IMF has advanced $2.8 bn but it is not enough. The country needs more aid either as investment or credit. This is what will make the country a hostage to human rights campaigners. Now that the video footage of Sri Lanka soldier killing an unarmed Tamil combatant, which was aired by Channel 4 in August last, has been certified as authentic, the rights champions will mount a vigorous campaign for investigation into Wanni War crimes and ‘crimes against humanity’.

Such a probe will re-open old wounds and will come in the way of national reconciliation. Economically battered Colombo will find itself vulnerable to geo-political and geo-strategic arm-twisting. It may even be drawn into the bitter international conflicts since Rajapaksa played off major powers one against the other in his bid to conduct a hands-free Wanni War. Significantly a recent US Senate Foreign Relations Committee report has acknowledged Sri Lanka’s strategic importance and called for a ‘robust’ approach for the Indian Ocean region that recognises the US geo-strategic realities.

The media with all attention fixed on the ‘War Heroes’, is missing a side-show being played by two socialists in the fray. One of them, Siritunga Jayasuriya of the United Socialist Party (USP) is aligned with the Opposition Platform for Freedom and has been sharing the public stage with them. Weird politics?  His socialist rival, Wije Dias (68), who entered the fray on his Socialist Equality Party (SEP) ticket, thinks so.

‘The USP and NSSP (Nava Sama Samaja Party, another socialist party) have always functioned as left satellites of the Colombo political establishment, subordinating workers to one or other of the main bourgeois parties’, Dias wrote on the world socialist web site (WSWS). He poured scorn over Siritunga for projecting himself as the candidate against ‘the capitalist butchers’ and yet ‘lending indirect’ support to the general as the means for ending Rajapaksa’s ‘presidential dictatorship’.

Dias is also unsparing of the United National Party (UNP) and former Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party-Peoples Wing (SLFP-PW), the main props of the ‘common’ opposition candidate. Voting Fonseka to get rid of Rajapakse, or vice versa, would be equally disastrous, according to him.

The socialist’s take on Rajapaksa’s foreign policy is no less interesting. ‘He (President) relied heavily on Chinese arms, financial support and diplomatic assistance against US and European calls for war crimes investigations. In return, he has given preferential treatment to Chinese investment, including in a key port facility in Hambantota. Fears of rising Chinese influence in Sri Lanka played an important role in the decision by India and the US to back Rajapakse in his renewed war’.    What he had left unsaid is that General Fonseka also favoured China as a friend, arms supplier amidst allegations that his son-in-law’s company acted as the agent for Chinese security firms.

How serious a candidate Wije Dias is?  He says the SEP is campaigning to mobilise the working class, in opposition to all the representatives and apologists for the bourgeoisie. “We fight for workers’ and farmers’ government in the form of a socialist republic of Sri Lanka and Eelam, as part of a socialist federation of South Asia and the entire globe”, he declares.

January 26 will tell how far the electorate was swayed by the SEP rhetoric.

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