| by Jehan Perera
(October 18, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The final phase of the local government elections held on Oct. 8 demonstrated that the government had not lost its grip over the ethnic majority electorate in the country. Wherever the Sinhalese outnumbered the Tamils and Muslims the government won comfortably. These elections also showed that the government’s electoral strength was not limited to the rural sector. The elections were primarily held to 17 municipal councils, one urban council and five Pradeshiya Sabhas. It is a testament to the popularity of the government and to the weakness of the Opposition among the Sinhalese voters that the soaring cost of living did not impact on the government’s vote in the urban areas.
In keeping with the President’s
immediate post-war policy
statement and despite the
passage of over two and a
half years since the end of
the war there has been no
fundamental shift in the
government’s approach to
the ethnic conflict.
The government invested considerable political capital in its bid to win the prize municipality of Colombo, which has been an opposition bastion for decades. Top governmental leaders, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa, personally campaigned for their mayoral candidate. There was a mixture of threats such as possible eviction from homes and inducements such as promises of alternative housing. There was also a visible record of improvement in the city’s appearance. There was widespread belief that the government would win in Colombo. But unlike the other urban areas in the south of the country in which the local government elections took place Colombo did not have an electorate in which the majority of voters were Sinhalese.
Colombo was an important testing ground for the government’s longer term strategy. Being able to demonstrate the support of the most urban, educated and cosmopolitan section of the country’s population at a democratic election is a great source of strength to any government. At the present time the government is facing a very serious international challenge from powerful countries and international human rights organizations that seek to haul it before international forums on allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses. A victory in Colombo, the capital city, would have strengthened the government’s hand to show that even the most politically and educationally literate section of the population had bought into the government’s version of governance.
Government leaders have often attempted to argue with their local and international critics that post-war Sri Lanka needs no political reform that queries the past or devolves power. They have said that such ideas are now outdated with the elimination of the LTTE. Instead, they have articulated the need for political centralization that gives priority to post-war economic development above all other considerations. This position has also been taken on by a large section of the country’s intelligentsia, or so it appears to be, as there are hardly any dissenting voices to be heard in this respect. The problem for the government, however, has been to back this argument up with electoral support from the ethnic minority regions and now also from Colombo.
Although the government won 21 of the 23 local authorities, the gloss was taken off the victories by defeats in the municipality of Colombo, and urban council of Kalmunai in the east. The verdict from Colombo, however, was a nuanced one. No opposition party won an absolute majority of seats. A considerable number of Tamil voters appear to have selected the DPF headed by Mano Ganesan rather than vote for either the government or the main Opposition UNP. Looking at the results it would seem that neither the Muslim nor Tamil vote went to the government, which was fatal for it as they are the majority of the electorate in Colombo. It is also likely that some of the government’s infrastructure improvements in Colombo were also too much at the expense of the poor of all communities, who were the majority of voters at these elections.
After his defeat the government’s mayoral candidate Milinda Moragoda, who had advertised a 100-day action plan to improve the city, said the election results in Colombo showed not only the polarization within the city but also the lack of trust between different groups – a problem he had often referred to. While he did not elaborate on that statement, it seems that he was referring to the polarization that exists between the ethnic communities in terms of voting. Ever since President Mahinda Rajapaksa became the supreme leader of the country, there has been a stark line of division in the voting pattern. The electoral map resembles the map that the LTTE sought to achieve by force of arms and the government suppressed by an even greater resort to force of arms. The challenge for the government is to ensure that the resemblance to the past ends there.
It is noteworthy that shortly after the vanquishing of the LTTE, President Rajapaksa made a pronouncement that was deemed to epitomize the new statesmanship of the Rajapaksa era. He declared that in Sri Lanka there would no longer be an ethnic majority or ethnic minorities but only a majority who loved the nation and a minority who were traitors. Apart from the dire warning inherent in this statement to those who were political dissenters, there was also the implication that no political solution to the ethnic conflict would be forthcoming after the defeat of the LTTE. The logic of this position is that a political solution was only discussed because of the pressure of the LTTE and now with its demise there was no need to take that discussion forward.
In keeping with the President’s immediate post-war policy statement and despite the passage of over two and a half years since the end of the war there has been no fundamental shift in the government’s approach to the ethnic conflict. The talks with the main Tamil opposition party, the TNA, give every appearance of having gone nowhere and the government’s promise to form a Parliamentary Select Committee to discuss a political solution has also not materialized. This is not the government’s failure alone. Nearly all public intellectuals from the Sinhalese community who support the government appear to have also taken the cue from the President that there is no ethnic conflict to resolve. But, ethnic minority voters have repeatedly challenged this assumption.
So long as there are unresolved ethnic grievances the electorate will tend to vote along ethnic lines. The government’s policy of formulating and promising policies of economic development as an alternative to political reform have been repeatedly rebuffed by the ethnic minority electorate. Not even the personal campaigning by the President himself and the government hierarchy has proven able to turn this vote in the direction of the government. Although the government’s delivery of economic infrastructure development may be appreciated it, too, was not able to turn the tide in the direction of the government either in the North, East or in Colombo where the ethnic minority vote predominates.
The government’s reluctance to accommodate a political solution to minority ethnic grievances would seem to come from its calculation that it cannot afford to lose its hold over the Sinhalese majority electorate. This is an electorate that can give the government a permanent majority and the prospect of long term rule so long as it does not fracture. The issue on which the Sinhalese electorate is most likely to fracture is that of a political solution to the ethnic conflict. At least, this has been so in the country’s post independence history beginning with the failed effort of Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in 1957. Therefore, the government is unwilling to change its policy with regard to the ethnic minorities.
For politicians who wish to stay in power as long as possible, taking on challenges that might fracture their electoral support is not an agreeable prospect. So far the government has shown itself unwilling to reach out to the ethnic minority voters to an extent that it might risk alienating its Sinhalese majority vote bank. However, this unimaginative and un-statesmanlike political approach, which is power-centered and not problem-solving, will not resolve the main problem facing the country. The ethnic conflict is the problem that gave rise to three decades of war. It continues to fester within the country and to attract the negative attention of important sections of the international community. The failure of the government to win in Colombo is yet another bit of evidence that economic development alone is not going to overcome the ethnic divide and that the harder choices to be made are being evaded.