Sri Lanka

Elec­tion Route

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Huza­ima Bukhari & Dr. Ikra­mul Haq

Sri Lankan Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa’s United Peo­ple's Free­dom Al­liance (UPFA) has hinted at the pos­si­bil­ity of an early pres­i­den­tial elec­tion – oth­er­wise due in Novem­ber 2016 – after wit­ness­ing a sig­nif­i­cant de­cline in its pop­u­lar­ity in the lo­cal elec­tions. How­ever, ac­cord­ing to an­a­lysts and ex­perts, an early elec­tion will not solve the ma­jor is­sues faced by Sri Lanka. To the con­trary, the elec­tion may prove coun­ter­pro­duc­tive as the coun­try is fac­ing se­ri­ous eco­nomic chal­lenges and a loom­ing threat of rad­i­cal­iza­tion on re­li­gious and eth­nic grounds. It needs sus­tain­able democ­racy, eco­nomic growth and so­cial equi­lib­rium.

In the Septem­ber 2014 provin­cial elec­tions in Uva, the UPFA se­cured 19 out of the 34 seats.The mar­ginal vic­tory was a sign of the plum­met­ing pop­u­lar­ity of the party by an un­prece­dented 22.98 per­cent­age points. The bag­ging of 48.79 per­cent votes has raised doubts about the wis­dom of early pres­i­den­tial elec­tion where the in­cum­bent needs more than 50 per­cent votes to win. Prior to th­ese elec­tions, there was wide­spread me­dia spec­u­la­tion that Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa would seek re-elec­tion for a third term in early 2015 if there was a good show­ing at Uva. But wor­ry­ingly for the UPFA, it fell short of achiev­ing even 50 per­cent votes in the dis­trict of Badulla as well as in Mon­er­a­gala, where it com­manded 81.32 per­cent votes in 2009. Ra­japaksa per­son­ally cam­paigned for the party to shore up its vote in Uva. Uva's coun­cil elec­tion came after two sim­i­lar polls in March 2014 where the UPFA wit­nessed a de­cline of up to 12 per­cent. On the other hand, the votes of the main op­po­si­tion, the United Na­tional Party were almost dou­bled. The Marx­ist JVP and the Peo­ple's Lib­er­a­tion Front also made sig­nif­i­cant gains.

Soon after the elec­tions, Pres­i­dent

Ra­japaksa vis­ited the Vatican on Oc­to­ber 2, 2014 to ex­tend an of­fi­cial invitation to the Pope. The Vatican, in an of­fi­cial re­lease, ex­pressed hope that Pope Fran­cis’ sched­uled visit (Jan­uary 13-15, 2015) would en­cour­age those “who work for the common good, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, jus­tice and peace.”

Car­di­nal Mal­com Ran­jith, the head of the Catholic Church of Sri Lanka, had ear­lier asked Ra­japaksa's gov­ern­ment not to use the visit of Pope Fran­cis as a "po­lit­i­cal tool." Sri Lanka is mainly a Bud­dhist coun­try, but it has a 7.5 per­cent Christian pop­u­la­tion whose block vote could be de­ci­sive in the event of a close pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Asked if it would be ac­cept­able if a snap elec­tion is con­cluded be­fore the pa­pal visit, Car­di­nal Ran­jith said: "The gov­ern­ment has to de­cide on those things. It must be a visit free of pol­i­tics. That is the po­si­tion of the Catholic Bishops' Con­fer­ence."

The 77-year-old Pope is sched­uled to travel to the is­land's for­mer war zone and con­duct mass at a church which was dam­aged dur­ing the height of fight­ing be­tween the Lankan forces and Tamil rebels.

Ac­cord­ing to ex­perts, in the com­ing elec­tions – when­ever they are held – the rul­ing party would face a tough chal­lenge from the UNP, sup­ported by pseudo-left or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Nava Sama Sa­maja Party (NSSP) and the United So­cial­ist Party ( USP). In the Septem­ber elec­tions, the Janatha Vimuk­thi Per­a­muna (JVP) also dou­bled its vote to about 5 per­cent and gained one seat, giv­ing it a to­tal of two. The party, which has all but com­pletely aban­doned its so­cial­is­tic pos­ture, is part of the Colombo po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment and openly ad­vo­cates poli­cies to at­tract for­eign in­vestors. Mired in Sin­hala chau­vin­ism, it was a stri­dent sup­porter of the war against the Lib­er­a­tion Tigers of Tamil Ee­lam (LTTE). As with the UNP, the vote for the JVP was largely a protest against the gov­ern­ment.

The dent in the gov­ern­ment’s support in Uva re­flects a wide­spread hos­til­ity to its aus­ter­ity pro­gram, dic­tated by the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund and the curbs on demo­cratic rights. The in­crease in the prices of ba­sic items and cut­backs in es­sen­tial so­cial ser­vices, in­clud­ing ed­u­ca­tion and health­care, are crush­ing the poor. Lo­cated in the coun­try’s cen­tral hills area, Uva is one of the poor­est prov­inces of Sri Lanka, with the Mon­er­a­gala dis­trict be­ing the most poverty-stricken in the coun­try. Around 20 per­cent of the peo­ple are im­pov­er­ished Tamil-speak­ing plan­ta­tion work­ers. Small farm­ers are also strug­gling, caught be­tween the high cost of farm in­puts and dif­fi­cul­ties in sell­ing their pro­duce.

Sens­ing the grow­ing alien­ation and op­po­si­tion, Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa mounted an ex­ten­sive cam­paign in Uva to se­cure a de­ci­sive win. He wanted to strengthen his hold after in­di­cat­ing that the next pres­i­den­tial and gen­eral elec­tions could be held early next year, nearly two years ahead of their sched­uled time. But as the re­sults show, he did not suc­ceed.

In the course of the cam­paign, the So­cial­ist Equal­ity Party is­sued an elec­tion state­ment and spoke to work­ers and youth in the Badulla dis­trict. One farmer said: “After pre­tend­ing to be dumb and deaf for so long, the gov­ern­ment is all of a sud­den dis­tribut­ing re­lief items. Po­lit­i­cal par­ties can see the suf­fer­ing of the peo­ple only dur­ing the elec­tion pe­riod. We vote as a habit, un­will­ingly. The gov­ern­ment is car­ry­ing out pro­pa­ganda in the me­dia about the de­vel­op­ment of the coun­try. But if there’s de­vel­op­ment, we should feel it. On the con­trary, we can­not even have three meals a day due to the soar­ing cost of liv­ing. The farm­ers are be­com­ing beg­gars.”

Another farmer noted with agony: “All we want is 20 perches of land to build a small home and live with dig­nity. We were brought here from In­dia as slaves, and we have been toil­ing for years for Sri Lanka’s econ­omy. We need a plot of land that we can call home.”

Eco­nomic hard­ships and dis­par­i­ties are the real is­sues that the rul­ing party has failed to ad­dress. Then there were re­li­gious clashes this year at var­i­ous places that cre­ated fears and in­se­cu­ri­ties among the mi­nori­ties. There is so much to do in all spheres for the wel­fare of peo­ple, but the gov­ern­ment has done too lit­tle so far. There­fore, early elec­tions may not bring the ex­pected div­i­dends. The writ­ers, part­ners in law firm Huza­ima & Ikram (Taxand Pak­istan), are ad­junct fac­ulty mem­bers at the La­hore Univer­sity of Man­age­ment Sciences.

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