Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election: The Suspense Builds
January 25, 2010
Sri Lanka’s presidential election will be held on January 26, 2010. The race has been more competitive than people expected. The incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), elected in 2005, is battling for a second term against the former army chief, General Sarath Fonseka, who together with the president and his defence secretary defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009 and ended Sri Lanka’s three-decade-long civil war.
General Fonseka entered the race in early December as a joint opposition candidate bearing a grudge against the president and defence secretary after feeling personally slighted by them after the war. Fonseka was encouraged to run by Ranil Wickremesinghe, the leader of the main opposition party the United National Party (UNP), because his own chances of winning were slim. Mr. Wickremesinghe is hindered by the fact that he was the architect of the unsuccessful peace process with the LTTE from 2002 to 2004. The peace process is so discredited and Mr. Wickremesinghe so closely associated with it that a Wickremesinghe-led UNP could not hope to mount a serious challenge to the popular war president. Opposition leaders were grateful that Fonseka was available, none more than Mr. Wickremesinghe.
Had Mr. Wickremesinghe stood as the UNP’s candidate for president and lost, it would have been more difficult for him to retain control of the party going into the crucial parliamentary elections that will follow on the heels of the presidential election. While Sri Lanka has had a competitive two-party system for decades, there is little internal democracy within parties. Leaders are chosen through back-room deals among party bosses; party rules make it virtually impossible for the rank and file to get rid of an unpopular leader.
It is an unlikely cohort of parties that are supporting Fonseka’s bid – the center-right UNP, the leftist Sinhalese nationalist People’s Liberation Front, the Tamil National Alliance, and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. The “joint opposition” is a temporary marriage of convenience; the only thing that unites them is their desire to see the back of the president.
When the campaign began, most observers expected President Rajapaksa to win handily because he is credited with providing the political leadership needed to defeat the LTTE. However, the issues that have made the election close are corruption and nepotism. General Fonseka has accused the president of both, and this accusation has stuck in the minds of many voters. However, in a cynical electorate that expects the worst from its politicians and believes they are all the same, it may not be enough to offset the advantages of incumbency.
In the absence of rigorous, freely available public opinion surveys it is impossible to say who is leading on the eve of the election. Foreign commentators and journalists who rely heavily on the Colombo intelligentsia for their insights have argued that the election will be extremely close and some have hinted of a Fonseka win. They make two crucial assumptions: the Sinhalese vote, comprising 73 percent of the electorate, will be evenly split between the two war heroes and that minority voters (Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims, and Upcountry Tamils) will vote overwhelmingly for Fonseka. These are crucial assumptions and if neither pans out – if Fonseka’s share of the Sinhalese vote falls short and if the minority vote is fragmented – President Rajapaksa is likely to win by a comfortable margin.
If the party-less General Fonseka wins, it will be a political earthquake of the likes Sri Lanka has not seen in decades. If President Rajapaksa is re-elected, we may look back on the last two months as little more than an entertaining diversion from the real predicament of Sri Lankan politics: the leadership crisis in the UNP that has deprived Sri Lanka’s two-party system of its historical balance of power and competitiveness. Politics in Sri Lanka have become a one-horse race dominated by President Rajapaksa and the SLFP. If the country’s political system is to be regularly accountable and responsive to all of its citizens, Sri Lanka must have two strong and capably-led national parties, not just one.
Nilan Fernando is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Sri Lanka. He can be reached at [email protected]
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