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Challenges before President Rajapakse

V.S. Sambandan

Mahinda Rajapakse, in his self-defined role of architect of a "new Sri Lanka," has to balance several contradictions. These arise from the polarised mandate and his political allies.

A POLARISED Sri Lankan electorate has spoken. On November 18, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse won the Presidency with a mandate that simultaneously reiterates and challenges a number of stereotypes. Even the Tamil "boycott" in the North-East, is a critical non-mandate of sorts that the new President has to factor in as he commences charting the roadmap for what he describes as a "new Sri Lanka."

First things first: the starting point for the winner is to interpret his mandate. This verdict, almost a political photo-finish, is somewhat tricky to interpret. It represents the best possible under the circumstances. The multi-ethnic electorate has neither resoundingly endorsed the call for entrenching a majoritarian state nor has it given a resigned nod for peace at any cost.

Mr. Rajapakse's victory with the narrowest margin in the history of elections for an Executive President makes it clear there is no overwhelming support for majoritarianism of the variety advocated by the President's allies, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU).

The message from the north-eastern Tamil "boycott," evidently on the diktat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), is clear. From the Tigers' point of view, the conflict is one best fought along clearly demarcated lines of majority and minority nationalisms.

The third element of the mandate is the overwhelming endorsement for Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in electoral divisions where the minorities — Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims, and Plantation Tamils — were in large numbers. Equally important is that the majority Sinhala community remains near-equally divided between the unitarist Mr. Rajapakse and the federalist Mr. Wickremesinghe. This is a critical marker for the new President.

A political leader with vast experience in the dynamics of mass-mobilisation, Mr. Rajapakse is now in a setting appropriate for his transformation into a statesman. Central to his successful tenure at the helm of the Sri Lankan state will be how effectively and painlessly he balances the strong calls by his allies for entrenching a majoritarian state with the equally vocal demand for power-sharing by the minorities. At a glance, the mandate can be interpreted as a politically-convenient consent for a strong Sinhala-nationalist line, which includes an anti-West, particularly anti-Norway, rhetoric. A statesman's perspective would factor in the 48.43 per cent opinion that runs entirely to the contrary.

The direction the Sri Lankan state moves in will depend almost entirely on how true the new President stays to his commitment given to the nation at his inaugural. "From now on Mahinda Rajapakse as President will not be a leader that belongs exclusively to any single party or group. I will not discriminate on party, colour and racial or religious grounds."

Central to Mr. Rajapakse's success in his self-defined role of architect of a "new Sri Lanka" is how he balances the several contradictions that arise from the polarised mandate and his political allies. Needless to say, his poll-pact with the JVP and the JHU vastly enabled him to dent pocketboroughs of Mr. Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP).

The dynamics of ethnic reconciliation and the President's commitment at his inaugural, however, necessitate a seamless recalibration that balances his vision for Sri Lanka and the agenda of his political allies. Among the several ways out could be a well-timed Parliamentary poll. This, though, could be an expensive exercise for a poll-weary nation and, more importantly, a political risk for the ruling party given the small lead secured in the Presidential election.

The opening move for Mr. Rajapakse would be to ensure the early commencement of the proposed inclusive talks with "all those who have a stake in the solution of the national question." On several counts, Mr. Rajapakse has the necessary ingredients for his "new Sri Lanka" already set out by the political leadership of the past 11 years — his predecessor Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mr. Wickremesinghe. For, despite political differences, Ms. Kumaratunga and Mr. Wickremesinghe had made the Sinhala majority aware of the need for political power-sharing. The objections are largely from the extremes of Sinhala polity based on the fear that federalism equals secession.

The polarised electorate, with the unitarists narrowly nudging out the federalists, is another factor Mr. Rajapakse would consider during his proposed consensus talks. More so given the need to present an acceptable southern position that will enable him to re-start talks with the Tigers.

Another challenge for Mr. Rajapakse is to redefine the existing conflict-resolution parameters — the role of the facilitator, Norway, the ceasefire agreement and its monitoring mechanism.

The new President's "appeal to India and other friendly Asian neighbours as well as the international community," to help Sri Lanka reach "an honourable peace," could be a sign of things to come. However, the Rajapakse Presidency is still in its infancy and it is too early for it to elaborate on so sensitive and emotional an issue.

Critical to his impending negotiations with the LTTE would be how Mr. Rajapakse handles his electoral allies and foes as well as the tact with which he crafts a `southern consensus' that cannot be portrayed internationally by the Tigers as one that "falls short of Tamil aspirations." The November 27 "Heroes Day" speech by the LTTE leader is one to be watched for parameters to be set by the Tigers for their engagement with Sri Lanka's new President.

With regard to conflict resolution, Mr. Rajapakse's mandate is one best described in his own phrase — "for an honourable peace."

Economic issues

Silencing the guns of war, however, is meaningless unless bayonets melt into ploughs. Hence, it is equally important for Mr. Rajapakse to ensure economic development flows to the under-developed regions across the country. Massive development of the strife-torn districts of the North-East, which lag behind by decades, is the crying need of the hour.

Outside the North-East, the poll result clearly indicates the preference for Mr. Rajapakse in the under-developed regions and among sections that have little say in economic dynamics. The overwhelming endorsement of Mr. Rajapakse in rural pockets has more to do with the basic realities of economic hardship than intangible constructs such as the structure of a state — be it unitary or federal. The election of Mr. Rajapakse to the highest political office also implies the continuity of a left-of-centre political and economic thinking, but tempered by the times.

It is such a well-calibrated interpretation of mandate that the new President will have to take to the drawing board when he charts out his project for a "new Sri Lanka."

Creating the Sri Lanka of President Rajapakse's aspirations necessarily requires the discarding of several existing moulds: majority apprehensions over political power-sharing, mutual distrust between the ethnic groups, festering wounds of ethnic discord, skewed economic development, and, above all, the bitter bipartisan politics of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the UNP.

The "new Sri Lanka" could be built on several positive island-wide constructs: the mutually-felt need for honourable ethnic co-existence, vast social similarities and, above all, the overarching attribute of a joie de vivre that is so essentially Sri Lankan. Now is indeed the time to accentuate the similarities and submerge differences among the Sri Lankan peoples.

President Rajapakse has certain distinct advantages compared to his predecessors. These include the longest spell of peace between the state and rebel armies, an evolving economy, and a mindset that is amenable to change. He also faces the challenge of an entrenched rebel group, holding territory and staking claim to a de facto state.

In a nation that is still undergoing a painful socio-economic and political churning process, President Rajapakse made his decisive political ascent after challenging foes across the political spectrum. Now that he is vested with vast constitutional authority, backed by the inherent qualities of a mass-leader, the Sri Lankan nation looks forward to him making good on the twin promises he made at his inaugural: ushering in an honourable peace, and emerging as an inclusive, non-discriminatory leader of a new Sri Lanka.

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