As Sri Lanka concluded its sixth Presidential elections Mahinda Rajapakse again emerged victorious. Although Rajapakse was tipped as the favoured candidate, there were expectations that the election would be a closely contested with the emergence of General Sarath Fonseka as the joint opposition candidate. However, this was not to be and Rajapakse’s comfortable victory over Fonseka has clearly demonstrated that his popularity, particularly among the Sinhalese electorate, has expanded considerably since he was first elected in 2005.
Rajapakse obtained 57 per cent or 6,015,934 votes, while Fonseka received 40 per cent or 4,173,185 votes. Although Fonseka refused to accept the final result claiming the elections were rigged, his stance is at odds with the Elections Commissioner and all independent election observers. The elections, despite some incidents, were endorsed by the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE), the Peoples Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), and the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV). Also, the preliminary post-election report compiled by a five-member Commonwealth team led by former Jamaican Foreign Minister KD Knight confirmed that, “ballots were properly counted” and “overall voting and counting have proceeded reasonably well in most areas.”
In historical perspective, the significance of Rajapakse’s victory lies in the fact that no other Sri Lankan president has achieved a majority of 1.8 million votes or gained 57 per cent of the vote in running for the second term. As a result, Rajapakse has secured a strong mandate to follow through on his pledge to push reforms in governance and broker a political settlement (including constitutional reform) with the island’s Tamil minority.
However, the fact that the majority of Tamils and Muslims voted for Fonseka is a clear indication that, despite the restoration of normalcy and success of Rajapakse’s infrastructure development projects, especially in the Eastern Province, there are cleavages on ethnic lines that require priority attention. According to political commentator Dayan Jayatilleka, who was also Sri Lanka’s former UN Ambassador, “[Rajapakse] has not yet resolved the state’s crisis of legitimacy at its periphery. There is no political consensus which cross-cuts ethnicity and runs from North to South, East to West. Thus, the crisis continues.” Hence, if Rajapakse in the early part of his second term fails to address ethnic minority grievances, then Sri Lanka may face an escalation of ethnic tensions and politically motivated violence in the long term.
With the separatist insurgency over, issues of governance, accountability and transparency have moved to the forefront, as demonstrated by Fonseka’s election platform, which promised a new era of transparency, accountability and good governance. There is an implicit expectation among ethnic Sinhalese who voted for Rajapakse, that his second term will augur in a new era for Sri Lanka; one that is different and which consolidates on the achievements of his previous term. Realizing the significance of the challenges that lie ahead, especially in achieving national consensus in addressing ethnic minority grievances, Rajapakse will need to make headway in the lead up to the Parliamentary elections in April to exploit his popularity and to also deal further damage the Opposition. Sri Lanka’s main Opposition party, the United National Party (UNP) has lost every Presidential contest since 1994.
If the recent trends are anything to go by, it is not hard to fathom why the majority of Sinhalese voters opted to vote for Rajapakse. Starting with Fonseka himself, there was a strong underlying sense that his main motivation was based on his anathema for the Rajapakse family. Indeed, this was also the case with his coalition supporters who were also driven by antipathy towards the Rajapakse family. In addition, Fonseka’s coalition was a paradox made up of parties and personalities with divergent and clashing interests. As such, it became increasingly apparent that the opposition lacked internal cohesion and if Fonseka, a political newcomer, did in fact succeed to become President, his disparate coalition government would have likely encountered serious internal turmoil. For instance, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), an ultra-nationalist Sinhalese party, has consistently opposed concessions to the Tamils while the ultra-nationalist pro-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Sri Lanka’s largest Tamil party, has not renounced its endorsement of secessionism.
In this context, the stability and leadership that Rajapakse offered bolstered his image, especially since he has delivered on infrastructure development and is also credited with defeating the LTTE. Clearly, this transpired in the official results tally when Fonseka was trounced, winning only six electoral districts. Hence, there is doubt whether a unified coalition will exist in the upcoming Parliamentary Elections., as there are indications that the UNP is now gearing up to go it alone without Fonseka. It also remains to be seen whether Rajapakse’s domination of the political system will have negative implications on accountability and transparency. Rajapakse is at the height of his power and hold an unprecedented position to lead much needed political and constitutional reform, which will be the most crucial test of his leadership in a country at a crossroads phase in its post-civil war history.