The Yal Devi chug-chugged to the Jaffna railway station on Monday, helping President Mahinda Rajapaksa fulfill an important post-war promise. After 24 years, Sri Lanka’s major southern towns were reconnected to the Tamil historic and cultural heartland of Jaffna by rail, once the easiest and most economical way to travel between the two ends of the island.
The physical reconnection has immense psychological significance. Regular trains between Colombo and Jaffna ensured the people of the south remained linked to those in the north; terrain and geography were familiar, trade and educational links ran deep.
For nearly a quarter of a century, that link was broken. Between the vicious fighting between Government forces and the LTTE and the lack of connectivity by rail and road, distance set in between communities, geography became alien and Northern Sri Lanka was lost to an entire generation.
Jaffna, when it was accessible, was a hub of commerce and culture. Tamil children studied in Colombo and returned to the North during the holidays, sometimes bringing along their southern friends into conservative Tamil homes. The link ensured the people from both the north and the south remained empathetic to each other, despite simmering political tensions.
It is harder to be a racist or a separatist, when kinship, friendship and memories are shared between communities. For the LTTE, it was essential that this link be broken. Without interaction between the two communities, it became easier to demonise the entire Sinhalese community; easier to bend the Tamil people of the North to its will.
The attack on the Yal Devi train and the Northern line in 1990 which severed the rail connection to Jaffna, had an emotional and psychological impact. Which is why it is the re-linking of the northern capital of Jaffna that holds the greatest significance, even though the northern line extends to Kankesanthurai, the port city once famous for the cement industry in the island’s northern tip. The reconnection has rekindled public memory about unity and connectivity between the Tamil and Sinhalese before the Tigers began a violent struggle for a separate state in the north.
For President Rajapaksa’s administration, beset by challenges on the human rights front and faced with accusations about its failure to ‘win the peace’, the re-linking of North and South by railroad became a vital step in the attempt to return to normalcy, five years after the war ended. Accused of losing the hearts and minds battle, the Rajpaksa administration realises the emotional significance of the return of the Yal Devi train to the Jaffna railway station.
The station was completed in a hurry and the ceremonial opening was suddenly scheduled by the Indian Rail Company, IRCON, in order to facilitate President Rajapaksa’s own presumably political, schedule. October and November are likely to be months filled with accelerated development project launches and completions, with the proclamation about a snap presidential poll likely late next month. The presentation of the budget – widely expected to be filled with handouts and concessions – has been advanced to 25 October, and the budget debate shortened to facilitate the announcement on schedule, most likely on 20 November.
Yal Devi and the sudden interest in reconciliation initiatives, including the return of gold and lands to the people of the North, have become vitally important to the presidential electoral project of the incumbent.
Despite his Government’s accelerated development initiatives in the former war zone, President Rajapaksa has become wildly unpopular in the region. The ruling UPFA polled a paltry 82,838 votes (18.38%) in the Northern Province in the September 2013 provincial election after using the full force of the military and government resources during the campaign.
Rampant militarisation, continued surveillance and land grabs in the battle worn regions of the North have made the Tamil majority area deeply distrustful of the incumbent regime, a notion that is constantly reinforced by the main Tamil political party, the Tamil National Alliance. The TNA is embroiled in a prolonged battle of wills against the ruling administration on every front.
Northern Province Chief Minister, C.V. Wigneswaran, the outspoken and no-nonsense former Supreme Court Justice who was elected with a thumping majority in the September poll. Wigneswaran refused to participate in the ceremonies to welcome the Yal Devi back to Jaffna, because he said he was unwilling to participate in what he called ‘election gimmicks’ in a strongly worded letter to President Rajapaksa.
With the astronomic rise of Buddhist hardline movements perceived as being tolerated and granted patronage by the State, the Rajapaksa administration commenced its journey towards alienating the island’s Muslim population, who famously stood by the Government in the fight against the LTTE.
As hate speech and fear-mongering spread by these groups unleashed an unceasing wave of sporadic, unreported attacks against mosques, Islamic shrines and Muslim-owned businesses around the island, President Rajapaksa remained passive. The religious riots in Aluthgama followed three months later with the arrival of Burma’s radical hardline monk Ashin Wirathu – accused of instigating brutal violence against the country’s Muslims – proved the final nails in the coffin.
In the September Uva election, Muslim polling booths reportedly broke overwhelmingly in favour of the opposition in Badulla, where religious tensions have been simmering. So deep is the mistrust of the Government’s minority policies, the special bureaus for reconciliation and lip service to communal harmony will have limited potential to work electoral magic in the Tamil and Muslim communities.
Furthermore the Rajapaksa regime cannot afford to appear too friendly towards the minorities when it has worked tirelessly over the years to cultivate and hone its nationalist base. This base is non-negotiable for President Rajapaksa, who, some analysts say, will be hard-pressed to garner 20% of the minority vote at a January election he appears adamant now to declare. The UPFA’s electoral fortunes have foretold a depressing future for the ruling party and the incumbent head of state, even among rural Sinhalese, the heart of its support base.
With the Ceylon Workers’ Congress contesting under the UPFA banner in the September election, the estate vote largely favoured the ruling Government. But the close fight in the Badulla District in particular, where Tamils of Indian origin reside in larger numbers, appears to indicate that a significant proportion of Sinhalese voters have opted to go with the opposition UNP which obtained 44% of the vote against the UPFA’s 47%.
The drastic dip suffered in the Moneragala District, which is predominantly Sinhalese, reinforces the problem. Analysts say the UPFA has suffered serious erosions in its Sinhalese vote base in recent years, most notably in the elections in the Western, Southern and Uva provinces. With the minority vote almost certain to overwhelmingly favour a Rajapaksa opponent – whosoever he or she may be – President Rajapaksa will have to obtain more than 60% of the Sinhalese vote in order to ensure he can cross the 50% mark and clinch the presidency for the third time.
But all of this remains in the statistical realm. Presidential elections are fought on the national level and is a contest between personalities. President Rajapaksa, with his considerable charm and shrewd political skill, remains a forerunner in the competition, and still commands significant political capital as a result of winning the war.
Whatever the numbers might predict – and it is far too early yet to set too much store by the figures – the battle for the presidency will be a fight to the death for the incumbent administration. Under no circumstances will it be a fair fight. It will be both violent and ugly, and may even come down to a question of spending power. The state machinery is President Rajapaksa’s to command, with its unlimited resources, personnel and coffers.
His greatest challenge will be to keep his coalition together until the end of the contest. While it was almost certain that the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress would split from the ruling alliance ahead of the campaign, the UPFA has a new challenge in the form of the Jathika Hela Urumaya, the nationalist party that has been one of President Rajapaksa’s most staunch supporters.
On Tuesday, JHU MP Athuraliye Rathana Thero launched his campaign for constitutional change, seeking to prune executive power and push through good governance reforms. The event held at BMICH was well attended by trade unionists, artistes and activists, many of whom were strongly allied to the Rajapaksa administration.
UNP Leadership Council Chairman Karu Jayasuriya, Bar Association President Upul Jayasuriya and other opposition activists also arrived at the venue. Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa also put in an appearance, as did Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, but both politicians departed before Rathana Thero, the Government MP, launched his scathing attack.
Confessing that the JHU made a mistake by voting in favour of the 18th Amendment, the JHU monk begged pardon. He claimed the 19th Amendment, the draft of which was introduced at the event, would right those wrongs. The 18th Amendment, the JHU monk claimed, was only an attempt to increase the power of one family and one individual. Rathana Thero’s movement, the National Council for an Uncorrupt Tomorrow (Pivithuru Hetak), is demanding that President Rajapaksa move constitutional amendments to ensure independent commissions and good governance.
“If there is any attempt to call snap elections without establishing these changes, we will do everything in our power to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa,” the Government MP charged to wild cheers from the crowd. Also in the audience was Science and Technology Minister and JHU strongman, Champika Ranawaka.
The JHU, a key UPFA constituent ally, has been unhappy for a while now over the Government’s corruption track record. Calls from the party for the Government to cease its support for mega casino projects fell upon deaf ears. The JHU has also been a strong critic of the Government’s failure to arrest the drug problem and the apparent political involvement in the large scale smuggling of narcotics.
Athuraliye Rathana Thero has been leading the JHU charge against the ruling regime, while Minister Ranawaka has remained a disillusioned but loyal member of the administration.
The JHU is a political party with ideologies that are fundamentally right wing nationalist, and it is unclear yet whether the Rathana-Ranawaka duo have adopted a policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. In order to ensure it can keep demanding zero concessions to the minorities, it will be in the JHU’s interest to keep casting its lot with the incumbent. It remains to be seen if the anti-corruption and good governance drive will prove the stronger motivator for the hardline party ahead of a presidential poll.
As the stars command
In light of all these factors, the decision to declare early presidential elections seem illogical at best. President Rajapaksa has a good two years left in his second term – time enough to seek rapprochement with the minority communities and put marginal reforms in place to rid his Government of the stain of corruption and impunity.
But the writing on the wall could not be clearer and Sri Lankans will most likely head to the polling booth early into the new year to choose their next executive president. The decision is based almost entirely on astrological predictions.
Over the last several years, elections and election dates have been declared largely based on astrological conditions. Rathana Thero launched a scathing attack on the practice to declare elections based on the incumbent’s horoscope at the BMICH event on Tuesday. “Elections in Sri Lanka are not determined on whether the people want it, but on personal horoscopes,” he charged.
The stars foretell that a presidential poll ahead of February 2015 will be more favourable to the incumbent, so to the polls Sri Lanka will go, even if it means the cancellation of a Papal visit and a completely disruptive holiday season.
Legal challenges to President Rajapaksa’s decision to seek a third term in office are likely to be mounted and defeated in the highest courts. But despite this formidable astrological and constitutional head-start, the incumbent will pull off the election not by the strength of his policies or even his personality, but rather on the might of his resources and the disarray within opposition ranks.
The numbers mean nothing as long as the Opposition remains in limbo, about its presidential candidate and even a platform upon which to contest an election that could be less than three months away. The movement against the executive presidency maybe coalescing but the UNP continues to dither, unsure of whether it is going to lead an alliance or field its own candidate and go its own way. Internal battles continue to plague the party, even after the ascent of Sajith Premadasa as deputy leader, an appointment that irked several top r ung UNP members at the time. The fate of the party’s leadership council, headed by Karu Jayasuriya, remains uncertain. It is not a place a national opposition can afford to be, especially when it is pitting itself against a powerful and entrenched incumbent candidate.
Against all odds therefore, President Rajapaksa appears to be willing to take this gamble on an early election, almost certain that 80 days will prove insufficient time for the Opposition to get its act together. (Courtesy Daily FT)