The gloves are off in Sri Lanka's election
By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - With Sri Lankans going to the polls on January 26 to elect their
next president, there is considerable apprehension that polling will be neither
free nor fair. The run-up to polling day has been violent, with five people
killed in poll-related violence and scores injured.
The election monitoring group, People's Action for Free and Fair Elections, has
recorded 382 confirmed instances of violation of election laws between November
17, when candidates filed nominations, and January 20.
Supporters of the ruling party and the opposition are "aggressively moving
towards a violent election", a spokesperson of the
Campaign for Free and Fair Elections told the BBC. "The remainder of the
election campaign and the presidential election itself will not be conducted
according to the legal procedures and limitations established by the
constitution and the law," the Colombo-based Center for Policy Analysis has
Although there are 22 contestants on the ballot list, the election is
essentially a two-horse race. The two dominant candidates are cut from the same
cloth; both incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his former army chief,
General Sarath Fonseka, are Sinhala hardliners and warmongers. Both have seen
the island's ethnic conflict as a terrorism problem that had to be handled
militarily rather than politically. Indeed, Fonseka executed the war against
the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that president and
commander-in-chief Rajapaka had sanctioned.
Few Sri Lankans would have thought they would see Rajapaksa and Fonseka pitted
against one another politically, let alone in a battle for the presidency.
After all, the two (besides the president's brother and Sri Lanka's Defense
Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa) were part of the clique that waged war on the
LTTE and defeated it militarily in May 2009. Few Sinhalese would have imagined
even a few months ago that their "war heroes" would fall apart so quickly after
the war and in such an undignified manner.
It was over the spoils of war that a rift emerged between the president and the
general. Fonseka resented the president for trying to take all the credit for
the defeat of the LTTE, and worse, shunting him into a ceremonial position
bereft of real powers. When Rajapaksa called early presidential polls - he was
hoping to cash in on a wave of Sinhala support - the general struck back. He
put in his papers and threw his hat into the ring as the opposition's
candidate, upsetting Rajapaksa's calculations.
Even three months ago, few would have thought that anyone challenging Rajapaksa
stood a chance. That has changed with Fonseka in the fray. The
Rajapaksa-Fonseka contest seems a close one and the nearer Fonseka draws to his
rival, the dirtier the campaign has become.
There has been little hard debate of the real issues confronting Sri Lankans -
spiraling prices, loss of freedoms, growing authoritarianism or resolution of
ethnic conflicts. Instead, mudslinging and name-calling have dominated the
campaign. Fonseka has accused Rajapaksa's brother of ordering the army to
execute Tiger leaders who surrendered; he has accused the president of war
crimes. The president's supporters have in turn accused Fonseka of being a
traitor and have drawn attention to arms deals in which his son was involved.
The Rajapaksa camp has put to full use its access to state machinery.
State-owned television channels and newspapers blatantly promote the president.
Reporters without Borders, which closely monitored two state-owned TV stations,
Rupavahini and ITN, on January 18 and 19, found that 98.5% of the news and
current affairs air time was for coverage of the president's campaign. Besides
the advantage of airtime, the president has benefited from the state-owned
stations' smear campaign against Fonseka.
With the Sinhala vote divided between the two frontrunners, the island's Tamils
- roughly 12.5% of the population - are likely to play kingmakers. In the 2005
elections, the Tamils helped Rajapaksa scrape through. The LTTE had called for
a boycott of the polls and Tamils stayed away, which aided Rajapaksa. It would
be understandable if they did the same with these polls as both Rajapaksa and
Fonseka were behind the relentless bombing of Tamils over the last several
years of the war.
Both have made some conciliatory offers to the Tamils as part of their wooing
of the Tamil vote. Fonseka offered them a merger of the Tamil northern and
eastern provinces - an important Tamil demand - and then retracted it;
Rajapaksa said he was considering a bicameral legislature that would give the
provinces - and thus the Tamils - more say in parliament. Few Tamils are
impressed; the two present them with a choice between the devil and the deep
And yet, of the two, Tamils view Fonseka in a marginally more favorable light.
He has the support of the United National Party, the main opposition party,
which when in power had signed the ceasefire agreement with the LTTE and
pursued a negotiated settlement. Rajapaksa has the backing of several Tamil and
Fonseka has also managed to get the endorsement of the Tamil National Alliance
(TNA), the largest Tamil party in parliament long seen to be a mouthpiece of
the LTTE. The TNA's backing is believed to have helped him close the gap with
Rajapaksa. The question is whether the TNA can get Tamils to come out and vote,
and do so as it wants them to. Tens of thousands of Tamils, especially
internally displaced persons who were languishing in camps until recently are
unlikely to vote, and only a small fraction of them are said to have even
One recent opinion survey indicated that Rajapaksa was ahead of Fonseka in all
the island's districts, especially in rural Sri Lanka, except those in the
north and east. It does seem unlikely that Fonseka's support among urban
Sinhalese and Tamils in Colombo and the north and east will be enough to pip
Rajapaksa at the post. At best, he will be able to force the election to a
Both have high personal stakes in the outcome, especially Fonseka, who has a
score to settle with the president. Many Sri Lankans see him as a man with a
grudge who has plunged into politics with the aim of settling personal scores.
A career soldier all his life, used to issuing orders, he has no experience in
politics and little understanding of the working of a democracy.
Rajapaksa has several decades of experience in politics. But as president, he
has functioned in an authoritarian manner and has been accused of nepotism.
Gotabhaya is only one of his well-placed brothers. While elder brother Chamal
is a minister, younger brother Basil is the president's adviser. And then there
are sons, nephews, nieces and cousins in various positions of power and
influence. They stand to be stripped of all this if the president is ousted.
Should Fonseka win, he will seek revenge and it is the Rajapaksas he will
For the Rajapaksa family, losing is simply not an option; and the president is
fighting his hardest to see it does not happen.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in