Can an election endanger democracy? Yes, if one takes seriously the alarm sounded by the main opposition candidate in Sri Lanka’s forthcoming presidential election.
Gen. Sarath Fonseka, former chief of the island-state’s armed forces, has warned of the possibility of a military coup after the election scheduled for January 26. In a statement issued less than a week before the event, the general’s spokesman Anura Kumara Dissanayaka voiced the fear that President Mahinda Rajapaksa, seeking a second term, would use the military to remain in power if he was defeated in the polls.
Fonseka had earlier accused the government of pushing senior Army commanders to appear on the state-run television, Rupavahini, to drum up support for Rajapaksa. Dissanayaka told the media, “By getting very senior officers to side with the president, the government is preparing the ground to hold on to power by using the army to suppress the people’s will.”
Talk of a military coup preceded Fonseka’s final plunge into politics, too. On November 14, 2009, the general had accused Rajapaksa of nursing such a fear when there was need for none. He charged that the president was “so afraid of a military coup after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers that he warned India to place its troops on high alert” in October. “This action tarnished the image and reputation gained by the Sri Lankan Army as a competent and professional organisation capable of defeating a terrorist group,” he said.
It is not every Sri Lankan election that is dominated by the theme of military danger to democracy. The contest, however, is taking place in an unprecedented context. What the voters are witnessing is a confrontation between candidates contending for the conqueror’s halo.
Six months after the end of Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war, with the extermination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Rajapaksa chose to seek a fresh mandate in his hour of triumph before waiting for his term to expire in 2011. It did not take long for him to discover that this was also the time and tide of new-found popularity Fonseka had been waiting for.
The Sinhala-majority triumphalism of May 2009 has since then yielded place to a months-long tirade between the two erstwhile symbols of the majority ethnic community’s pride. A bitter series of allegations, ranging from corruption and nepotism to war crimes has been exchanged between the two camps – Rajapaksa ruling United People’s Freedom (UNAF) Alliance and Fonseka’s New Democratic Front, holding aloft their poll banners with the symbols of betel leaf and swan, respectively. Fonseka is the chosen common candidate of an until recently utterly disunited opposition force, including the United National Party of Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Sinhala-Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).
The joint victory of Rajapaksa and Fonseka in the war against the Tigers has been followed by the increasingly violent campaigns of their respective camps, including 600 serious incidents, claiming a toll of five lives so far. The irony of the struggle between the two “saviors” of Sri Lanka for the political spoils of war has been obvious. Their competition for the support of minority Tamils has now become more conspicuous.
Their near-equal shares of Sinhala support make it crucially necessary for both to woo and win the votes of the Tamils, comprising about 12 percent of the 20 million population. During the last presidential election in 2005, the Tamils boycotted the vote under pressure from the LTTE. This only helped to defeat the UNP’s Wickremesinghe, who had promised talks with the Tamils, and to bring Rajapaksa to power.
The Tamil parties have been anxious not to repeat the mistake this time. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), earlier considered the proxy of the LTTE in Parliament, has cast its lot with Fonseka. Rajapaksa has secured the support of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress, representing plantation workers of Indian origin (as distinct from the native minority), but this may not make up for the loss of TNA support.
On November 14, 2009, Fonseka wrote to Rajapaksa: “Your Excellency’s government has yet to win the peace, in spite of the fact the Army under my leadership won the war.” Both the war heroes are seeking to win fresh laurels as peacemakers. Thus, we have the once improbable reports of the general, who once proclaimed that ” Sri Lanka is a Buddhist, Sinhala nation,” offering something like autonomy to Tamils. We have also the even stranger spectacle of the staunchly Buddhist president seeking photo-ops in as many Tamil Hindu temples as possible.
The Tamils, of course, can play the kingmakers in this election. It is far from clear, however, whether this can secure for them the citizens’ rights that an armed struggle since 1983 could not. The Tamil’s future will also depend on the success or failure of the attempts (reported inadequately in the midst of the media’s election coverage) by remnants of the LTTE to regroup.
Rajapaksa, who has ruled out a merger of the two Tamil-speaking provinces in the north and the east, and has not promised more than rehabilitation, may not have too many commitments to keep. Fonseka, who has pledged to release all uncharged Tamil detainees, and to end the nearly 27-year-old state of emergency besides considering a devolution of powers, may have a more daunting task on the Tamil front.
Similarly, facing charges of dictatorship by his “royal family” (a reference to his relatives in his regime), Rajapaksa has offered only to reduce the powers of presidency. Fonseka, who has promised abolition of executive presidency, will obviously have to go much farther. Wickremesinghe, who hopes to become the executive prime minister, is not likely to let Fonseka forget his promise.
Returning to coups and like calamities, civilian rulers in Colombo have always put down such challenges with a strong arm, indeed. The coup attempts in 1962 and 2000 were crushed by the governments of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and President Chandrika Kumaratunga, respectively. The insurrection of 1971 by the JVP met a swifter end than the LTTE’s insurgency.
Whether this history will continue to repeat itself will depend on who enters the Temple Tree, the presidential mansion in Colombo, after the election and with what degree of popular support.