Saturday, December 27, 2014

1994 Sri Lankan Presidential Election

The third presidential election in Sri Lanka was held in unique circumstances. The United National Party government, which had come to power in 1977, had fallen in the General Election of August 1994. It had been defeated by the People’s Alliance, an alliance of opposition parties led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Soon afterwards, the country was preparing for a presidential election.

The changing political currents had been evident for a few years during the tenure of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. After his election victory in late 1988, Premadasa appointed D.B. Wjietunga, a less prominent figure in the UNP, as his Prime Minister, perhaps hoping to neutralize his more formidable rivals within the party. He ruled the country in a populist which was ruthlessly slammed by his opponents as a personality cult. There was considerable gravity to certain accusations leveled by the opponents.

It was at this juncture that certain rivals within the UNP and some opposition leaders joined in a scheme to oust the president. Their plan was to impeach the president. However, the plan did not work and Premadasa rivals in the UNP, including Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, left the party. They formed a new political party, the Democratic National United Front (DUNF) with the eagle as its symbol. This party was to become a thorn on the side of the UNP in general and on Premadasa in particular. Its effect was somewhat similar to the effect of Sri Lanka Mahajana Party on the Sri Lanka Freedom Party in the 1980s.

By 1993, opposition forces were growing in strength against the UNP regime. This was in a way strengthened by two tragic assassinations which happened a week apart. On April 23, 1993, Lalith Athulathmudali was assassinated at an election rally, during the Provincial Council Elections. Many fingers were pointed at President Premadasa, who was seemingly disturbed by the amount of criticism leveled at him. He publicly made a mind boggling statement, stating, “Kill me if you want, but do not assassinate my character.” Days later, on May 1, he was killed by a suicide bomber in broad daylight.

Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, the sitting Prime Minister, became the president without being elected. His was a totally different character to the former president and perhaps also felt the tide turning. Therefore, he decided to call for a general election months before term of the parliament was to expire.

Gamini Dissanayake had rejoined the UNP after the death of president Premadasa. Meanwhile Anura Bandaranaike defected to the UNP when his sister Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s entry to the SLFP sidelined him. The opposition saw a fresh political leader in the form of Chandrika, who could defeat the UNP regime. In the August 1994 election, this is precisely what she did, thereby becoming the Prime Minister.

President DB Wijetunga decided to call for a presidential election immediately after the general election. Nominations were accepted on October 7 and the election was held on November 9. Six candidates came forward as prospective contestants and they included Prime Minister Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Gamini Dissanayake from the UNP.

Chandrika and the People’s Alliance (PA) were riding high in popularity. She had initiated a peace process with the separatist rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This decision, while viewed by some with suspicion due to the prior conduct of the LTTE, was a popular decision. Kumaratunga increased her popularity among the Tamil community as well.

Meanwhile, the UNP came out of the general election in an internal crisis. There were two camps in the party, supporting Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was the Prime Minister from May 1993 to August 18994, and Gamini Dissanayake. President Wijetunga decided to ask the 91 members of parliament elected in August 1994 to decide on whom to be the presidential candidate. With a slim majority, Dissanayake was selected.

The other candidates included four interesting faces. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or the People’s Liberation Front, was returning to politics after the insurrection of 1987-1989. Their party was not still registered, and therefore the JVP came to politics under the banner of Sri Lanka Progressive Front. Nihal Galappaththi had surprisingly won a parliamentary seat from Hambantota District in August 1994. He was selected as the party’s candidate for presidency.

Meanwhile, a Sinhalese Nationalist party came to the presidential election for the first time, in the form of Sinhale Mahasammatha Bhoomiputhra Party. Its leader Dr. Harischandra Wijayatunga contested the election. Meanwhile Hudson Samarasinghe and former Cabinet Minister AJ Ranasinghe contested as the first ever independent candidates in a presidential election in Sri Lanka.

The campaigning started in earnest after nominations were accepted on October 7. There was considerable interest in the general public on the election. Clearly the underdog, Gamini Dissanayake launched a strong campaign. However, on the night of October 24, tragedy struck as a suicide bomber blasted herself at an election rally in Colombo. Fifty people died, including Dissanayake and several other leaders of the UNP. Ossie Abeygunasekera, the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party candidate from the 1988 presidential election was also on the stage and succumbed to his injuries two weeks later.

The bomb had exploded the day before the next round of talks with the LTTE. All fingers were pointing at the LTTE but Prime Minister Kumaratunga was reluctant to put the blame on it for fear of jeopardizing the peace talks. It was a delicate issue. Meanwhile, the UNP itself was in another crisis as it was forced to find a replacement candidate. Srimathi Dissanayake, wife of the late Gamini Dissanayake, was chosen by the party to contest the election. Thereby, it became a race between two women candidates.

Meanwhile the JVP created a political discourse unlike never before when it offered to support Kumaratunga on the condition that she abolishes the executive presidency. Kumaratunga gave a written assurance that she would do so by June 15, 1995, and Galappatti asked his supporters to vote for her. This was seen by some critics as an opportunist move by the JVP. The argument was based on the assumption that the JVP would have done poorly in the election. According to the critics, what the JVP did was finding an excuse to hide their inability to get a considerable amount of votes.

The PA’s presidential campaign was focused on several important aspects, namely the peace process, executive presidency and the unanswered questions on several assassinations which had happened during the UNP regime’s tenure. People wanted answers and people wanted their hopes to be realized. In this backdrop, and after the assassination of Dissanayake, there was no meaningful race for the presidency. Despite the sympathy factor, Srimathi Dissanayake could not attract enough votes to be a challenge, as she was a political novice.

Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga became the first female president of Sri Lanka, pollind 4,709,205 votes at a record 62.28 percent. Srimathi Dissanayake polled only 2,715,283 percent votes at 35.91 percent. The electoral map was all PA, with Kumaratunga winning the race in 159 constituencies out of the 160. The sole constituency carried by Srimathi Dissanayake was Mahiyangana, where she polled 24,842 votes at 56.3 percent while Kumaratunga polled 18,218 votes.

One important aspect of the election was the hope for peace, which drew the Tamil and Muslim communities towards Kumaratunga. While the election could not take place in a meaningful way in the North, it was held in the Eastern Province, and Kumaratunga won in almost all constituencies with thumping leads. In Padirippu constituency in the Batticaloa District she polled 40,489 votes at 94.2 percent and also won in several other constituencies with more than three fourths of the vote. She received all 56 postal votes casted in Jaffna District. There were several other seats where she received a 100 percent vote but only a handful of the votes were casted in those seats.

Unfortunately, Kumaratunga could not keep most of the promises she gave. The peace process ended with a treacherous LTTE attack on two Navy gunboats in April 1995. The fortunes of the war swayed from side to side but fighting continued for almost seven years before another peace process was attempted. Meanwhile, the deadline given to the JVP to abolish executive presidency expired, and nothing was done. Inquiries were held on several high profile political assassinations which took place during the UNP regime period. However, speculation and conspiracy theories are still abundant on almost all the assassinations investigated.

Kumaratunga’s presidency during her first term had mixed fortunes, but she could perhaps sense her popularity fading. She decided to call for an early presidential election in 1999, with one more year still left in her presidency.

First published on 'The Nation' on December 14, 2014

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