Will Fonseka achieve his ideals or assist in further dividing the opposition
‘Old soldiers never die, they just fade away,’ goes the cliché - but former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka refuses to even fade away. As the dust settles on elections in the Northern, Central and North- Western provinces concluded last Saturday, Fonseka has become a focus of attention.
Most of the results of the poll were a foregone conclusion. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) emerged victorious in the North as expected, as did the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in the Central and North Western provinces. The surprise package was Fonseka’s party.
His Democratic Party (DP), recognised as a political entity less than six months ago, emerged as the ‘third force’ in the Central and North-Western provinces polling 3.8 per cent and 4.3 per cent of the votes respectively in the two regions.
Its performance will be a rude eye-opener for the two other ‘major’ opposition parties in the South, the United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), both parties failing miserably at these elections, particularly the latter which registered just over one per cent of the votes.
The results are the first political high note for Fonseka who challenged President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2010 Presidential Election and lost, and since then has been stripped of his rank, jailed, deprived of his pension and then released on a presidential pardon.
Gardihewa Sarath Chandralal Fonseka, now 62 years of age, hails from Ambalangoda. He schooled at Dharmasoka Vidyalaya, Ambalangoda and later at Ananda College Colombo. Like many others from Dharmasoka, he excelled at swimming.
Fonseka joined the Army as a school leaver and rose through its ranks. In so doing, he quickly acquired a reputation of being a strict disciplinarian and for being a very professional soldier who single-mindedly pursued his objectives, regardless of the obstacles he faced.
Fonseka’s career in the Army coincided with its war against the LTTE. He led a series of notable military efforts, relieving the siege on Elephant Pass in 1991 and regaining control of Jaffna in 1995 being significant among them. By 2005, he was the Chief-of- Staff of the Sri Lanka Army.
That was the time when Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, an year junior to Fonseka in the military, was appointed as Defence Secretary. Rajapaksa handpicked Fonseka for the job of Army Commander over and above others with the objective of defeating the LTTE.
With unqualified political backing from the Rajapaksa government, Fonseka set about the task of destroying the LTTE. His skills were obviously recognised by the Tigers: they staged an assassination attempt on him in April 2006. Fonseka was seriously injured but survived.
This probably strengthened Fonseka's resolve to annihilate the LTTE. That happened three years later. However, in so doing, there was little love lost between Fonseka and the other service chiefs, most notably Navy Commander Wasantha Karannagoda with whom he clashed publicly.
Fonseka expressed a desire to remain as Army Commander for the Army’s diamond jubilee celebrations. He was denied that honour and ‘kicked upstairs’ as Chief of Defence Staff. Irked by this, Fonseka submitted his resignation and announced his candidature for the presidency.
Fonseka rallied the principal opposition parties: the UNP, JVP, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and even the TNA. But it was not to be; he secured only 40 per cent of the vote and conceded a 1.9 million vote majority, his war hero status being no match for the politically-savvy President.
Since then, the wheels of justice have been turning at lightning speed against Fonseka. He was tried on a string of charges both in military and civil courts and found guilty. He served time in jail and became the Welikada prison’s most talked about prisoner and generated regular media headlines.
In May 2012, President Rajapaksa pardoned Fonseka, leading to his release from prison, following months of negotiations. Nevertheless, the pardon has not restored Fonseka’s military rank, pension or his civic rights. Undaunted, Fonseka vowed to enter the democratic mainstream and has done so.
Last Thursday’s elections results are the latest twist in Fonseka’s roller coaster ride in politics over the last three years. He has been quick to proclaim the DP as the new ‘third force’ in the country- but that is a claim that needs to withstand the test of time.
Sri Lanka has seen numerous parties and alliances take on the mantle of the ‘third force’. For decades, the old left parties served in this role until they withered away in the aftermath of the post-1977 UNP landslide. Thereafter, it was the JVP that took on the mantle.
Then it was the turn of the Vijaya Kumaratunga led Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya which briefly emerged as the ‘third force’ until the emergence of the Democratic United National Front led by Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake when Ranasinghe Premadasa was President.
A notable feature of almost all of these parties is that they are usually centred around a charismatic leadership-as it is the case with Fonseka and his Democratic Party. Unfortunately for Fonseka, these parties have not lasted long and have been subsumed by the two-party system eventually.
Besides, Fonseka has other issues to contend with. His civic rights have not been restored which effectively disqualifies him from contesting elections. How a party which relies heavily on Fonseka’s appeal to draw voters will function at a parliamentary poll without him, is a moot point.
"The results are the first political high note for Fonseka who challenged President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2010 Presidential Election and lost, and since then has been stripped of his rank, jailed, deprived of his pension and then released on a presidential pardon"
The Democratic Party’s commendable showing also came in the context where both the other ‘major’ opposition parties, the UNP and the JVP are fractured with internal divisions, with a dissident faction of the JVP forming its own party. It is safe to assume that some of these votes have accrued to the DP.
It is clear that Sarath Fonseka, the indefatigable fighter that he is, has not given up his political battle. He calls his campaign the deveni meheyuma, or the second operation to rid the nation of corruption. In reality though, he may even be helping the ruling party by dividing the opposition some more.