By N Sathiya Moorthy
Now that the mood and methods have set in for three Provincial Council polls, the results would determine if the leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa would want to go ahead with the process in five others before holding the first-ever elections to the Tamil-exclusive Northern Province in September next year, as promised now. Then could come up the question of advancing parliamentary polls and/or the presidential election. A lot will depend on the results of the three PC polls scheduled for September 8. It would mean that the Government has a scheme to keep the nation on the poll-mode for a full year and more, as it did at the height of ‘Eelam War-IV’.
The comparison should end there, however there is some justification in the assessment that the ruling combine would not want to address real issues on the ethnic and economic fronts before obtaining a clearer mandate than already. The Opposition has no doubt in its mind that the polls are a diversionary tactic, aimed at taking the people’s minds off greater issues of the price rise, law and order situation and human rights. This may at best be half the story, considering the continuing in-fighting in the UNP Opposition, and the party’s inability to put together even the semblance of an alliance that it could muster for the presidential polls of 2010, but which fizzled out for the parliamentary polls weeks later.
The international community, already unhappy with the Government over the HR issues relating to the ‘Eelam War IV’, can take an even more serious note of allegations of poll violence and ballot-stuffing this time. The last time round, the Opposition claimed it to be the rule than exception, first in the multi-phase Provincial Council polls, and later in the parliamentary elections. For the intervening presidential polls, conspiracy theories and intimidation rumours were doing the rounds. The Supreme Court dismissed the election petition filed by Sarath Fonseka, the losing nominee of the combined Opposition in the presidential polls.
The Opposition can be expected to make a mountain even out of a mole-hill, as it has been the case elsewhere, whether democracies or autocracies. The international mood is not confined to Sri Lanka. It has its current moorings elsewhere, still in Asia. Hence any prima facie charge of poll-rigging could mean that the rest of the world would want to sweep Sri Lanka with the same broom. At that stage, moves and movements nearer home create a momentum of their own. The burden on the Government, and the complications and complexities flowing from the same could be much more than reality would suggest. The Geneva UNHRC sessions in the coming months could absorb the charges, or absolve the Government. It’s time-consuming and the Opposition can afford to wait, not the Government.
However, on the one hand the Government could trumpet a sweeping victory in the Provincial Council polls as a public endorsement of the Rajapaksa leadership, all over again. It can encourage the ruling combine even to advance the parliamentary polls, if not the presidential elections all over again. Yet, questions would be asked on the urgency in such habitual advancement of polls as real issues, distanced in time and context to the ethnic issue, war and violence, could dominate the national discourse, going beyond the political Opposition. The past has proved that parties do not matter when the voter had made up his mind. Elections-2010 was a case in point, but there were others before it. They were unemotional issues, not that the ultimate victory for the armed forces in ‘Eelam War-IV’ was only an emotional issue. It was more real than price rise and the rest, and was a contributing factor to them all, too.
It is not unlikely that the Government might want to negotiate a political solution to the ethnic issue, with the TNA from a position of relative electoral strength than already. A repeat of the record performance from the past elections would not mean a thing. But a moderate slip-up in the figures could mean that the Government would end up expending more energies and time, defending its position, political, international and electoral – starting with the present Parliament. The Government then would not have the defence of wanting to create a ‘national consensus’ on the ethnic issue through the PSC though that would have been the case than at present.
Experience has shown that an Opposition smelling victory had found extraneous reasons not to cooperate with the Government to find a political solution to the ethnic issue, and also take credit for the same. The less said about the Tamil leadership the better. The last time there was an SLFP President, Chandrika Kumaratunga’s peace efforts were scuttled by the UNP Opposition on the one hand, and the LTTE on the other – both, definitely not having a common agenda, yet a common goal, nonetheless. The Rajapaksa Government’s arguments for a national consensus and hence a PSC too would be put on their head. The question would then remain why should the Tamil leadership negotiate with a ‘weak leadership’ when the very same leadership had refused to take the negotiations path beyond a point when the very same leadership, when relatively stronger, would not take the very same path.
The TNA has a point when it asks why the Northern Provincial Council polls could not be held now, but only later. There is substance in the argument that the presidential, parliamentary and local government polls in 2010 -11 did not have to wait for post-war demining work to conclude, and why PC elections alone should be stalled for the purpose. If the Government has security concerns handing over a Tamils-exclusive Province to the care of the TNA – that is if they are preferred by the Northern voter -- then it should be discussing the issue openly, and finding checks and balances. So is the issue of updating the electoral rolls in the North irrelevant?
TNA sympathisers however should accept the responsibility for claiming that polling percentages since the conclusion of ‘Eelam War IV’ were woefully small, reflecting the Tamil mind-set, when they were substantial indeed, when compared with the original numbers still residing in the North. The mind-set too was the LTTE’s. Such arguments have upset friends of Tamils in the Sinhala community and polity. Arguments of the kind from the Government side already flagged have had the tendency to challenge the credibility of the very same Government, without helping its case and cause. This has been particularly so when the Government indicated time-lines had passed, without anything substantial on the ground. What the world had got instead were more arguments.
The Government should also feel free to discuss the ‘high security zones’ issue with the TNA, and the international community, if it has strong reservations on handing them over to the original Tamil owners for security reasons. The mind-set of the average soldier of his camp not coming within the firing range of the ‘enemy’ – now faceless and mostly non-existent – flows from their early experience and ingrained anxieties. When push comes to the shove, the results could be counter-productive if it is about freezing all HSZ lands. If none else, at least the defence establishments elsewhere might want to understand the Government’s case. As erstwhile militants, many of the Tamil political leaders too would have to acknowledge reality, even if in private, if presented with an argument that is also real.
The Eastern Province is a microcosm of Sri Lanka in its ethnic composition. The proportions change, yes, but the problems of the polity and the political demands of individual communities are for real. Early PC polls in the East and a divided mandate per se would not address the re-merger issue as the Government and the TNA, or even the SLMC might have in mind. It is like scoring a debating point. The ethnic issue is not a debate. It is a national discourse for arriving at a national consensus. So are the problems of price rise and the rest, given in particular the conditions of the global economy, where a country like Sri Lanka would not have any say whatsoever, but the results of somebody else’s decisions would impact on individual Sri Lankans nonetheless, good or bad though such decisions be.