Friday, January 23, 2015

Maithri's 100 Days

History has seen several famous ‘hundred days.’ Almost exactly 200 years ago, Emperor Napoleon returned to France from exile in Elba, taking power dramatically and abdicating for a second time just under 100 days later. Napoleon was fighting against a daunting alliance of almost all European powers, and defeat at the Battle of Waterloo just accelerated the inevitable. Abandoned by his former allies and facing a mammoth force against him, the Emperor abdicated and left for his final exile in St. Helena.

Sri Lanka too has seen a 100 days program before, after the fall of the People’s Alliance government in December 2001. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s “100 days” were geared towards establishing peace and revitalizing the economy. Wickremesinghe government signed a Ceasefire Agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. However, this agreement became a farce as the weeks turned into months and years. Meanwhile, the government was able to come out of the power crisis with help from rains but had limited success in other areas. Of course the government was in power while an executive president of from the other main party, the PA, was in power.

The 100 Days Program of President Maithripala Sirisena is aimed to reduce the powers of that presidency, which has been in existence from 1977. This is one of the three main objectives of the program, the other two being the re-introduction of the five independent commissions and the amendment of the election process.

Sirisena started his election campaign with a promise of constitutional reform. The need for this had arisen in the minds of a certain sector of the population after the 18th Amendment. However, days into the campaign, the Maithripala Sirisena camp understood that it was not easy to convince the vast majority of the people of the primacy of constitutional reform over the economic issues. Simply, one had to earn a living before considering the constitution.

The success in the Maithripala campaign was to change according to the issues raised. The common opposition was able to introduce proposals of economic relief, basically a salary rise and the reduction of the fuel tax. The fuel tax relief itself will undoubtedly help the reduction of the cost of living considerably. The common opposition had its moments of inconsistency as different people promised different things on the same subject on different speeches. However, the common opposition was able to find more coherence as the campaign went on and therefore, the campaign gained momentum.

Minority vote

One major accusation against the victory of President Maithripala Sirisena is the ‘minority factor’ where it is argued that the minority vote played a crucial role in determining the election result. Much is written about this matter and therefore, no lengthy discussion is needed. However, this writer hopes to stress the facts on why former president Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the minority vote as well as a significant amount of the Sinhalese vote.

Former President Rajapaksa lost the Muslim vote because of Aluthgama incidents. The Muslims were apprehensive of the moves by the Bodu Bala Sena. Rajapaksa never publicly criticize the BBS perhaps because he was worried of losing the Sinhala Buddhist votes. However, this created speculations on links between the then government and the BBS. This caused a vast majority of the Muslim vote to turn the other side and ultimately had a decisive impact on the decision by all Muslim political parties to join the Sirisena camp.

This might have been countered if the BBS continued to be a force to reckon with. However, the defection of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) which started the dramatic series of events which ended with the fall of the Rajapaksa government was a key event in the whole process. While the JHU was a more middle class, urban, Sinhalese nationalist party with a limited voter base, its defection was critical in rupturing the Sinhalese Buddhist vote base of the Rajapaksa government. Incidentally, after the defection of the JHU, the BBS lost its crowds for some reason. BBS decision to support Rajapaksa openly just added to the difficulties of the government.

On the other hand, the Tamil National Alliance did add several hundred thousand votes to the Sirisena camp. Despite extensive development work carried out by the government, it is obvious that the Tamil people still do not consider that reconciliation has been completed. They voted for Sirisena fully aware that he was also a Sinhala Buddhist leader from a rural background and therefore someone who will not fulfill their dreams. As some commentators had said, it was not an election of the Tamil people. Nevertheless, calls by extremist factions for a boycott was thrown away by the Tamil people, which itself is a good sign of a rejection of extremism.

By the last days of the campaign, it was obvious that the majority of the minority votes were to be polled by Sirisena. Therefore, Rajapaksa had to assure a clear majority of the Sinhalese votes. However, the urban Sinhalese were more tilted towards the opposition as they were more conscious on constitutional matters. They were more conscious even on economic issues. Unlike those in the villages, the urban population has no means of producing their food. Therefore, they had to worry on the economy more than the village populace.

Despite the economic development, the income gap between the rich and the poor was apparently increasing. The urban middle class experienced this. Even the city beautification projects were beneficial largely to the elite as new shops and eateries were high prized institutions more suited for the rich.

Therefore, Mahinda Rajapaksa had to find enough votes from the villages, which was what his campaign was mostly focusing on. However, the Maithripala Sirisena camp too worked hard to attract as much rural votes as possible. On many occasions, Sirisena spoke in the same towns after Rajapaksa had visited them. Thereby, Sirisena had the last word in many places, as far as political rallies were concerned. In the end, all tactics and votes added up to defeat Rajapaksa in the election.

The Hundred Days

Now that the election is done, the attention will be on the 100 Days Program. As it was mentioned, this is basically a program focused on constitutional amendments. The exact details of the constitutional reforms are yet to appear in all three points. Even though the presidency will be reformed, it is not exactly clear as to what changes will occur pertaining to the powers of the president.

Even though the five commissions are to be re-established, it has been said that the commissions implemented under the 17th Amendment should be rectified so that the flaws that were apparent will be avoided.

Meanwhile, even though the electoral system is to be amended, the exact electoral process that will be implemented is still unclear. It has been said by some spokesmen in the government that the new system will be a combination of the first-past-the-post system and the proportional representation, a final decision is yet to be taken.

The government has given a timetable for both constitutional reform and also for economic reform within the 100 days program before a general election will be held. Despite some apprehensions, the government seems to have won a majority in the parliament and the opposition has also said that it will support the main points of the 100 day program. However, the government has not kept the deadlines of some of the measures it promised in the program. Therefore it must get its act together and carry out the proposed reforms on time. Otherwise, the Maithripala Sirisena government will prove to be a failure in the eyes of those who voted it into power.

First published in 'The Nation' on Jan. 18, 2015

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Elections for People

Sri Lankans voted in another election, the  seventh election to choose a president for the country. This took place in a background of political debate which centered on the arguments for a constitutional reform and the usual question of the cost of living. People decided on what their priorities were, based on the past, the present and the future.

An election is the occasion people get the chance to directly elect their representatives. People hope for a better future in taking a decision. In a multiparty democracy, as it is said, people get the government they deserve. People have the chance to take a decision based on what they hear and see and their prediction of the future.

Work is over at the Polling Station (Pic. Chamara Sumanapala)
Some will agree with the decision of the people, while some will not. It will not be easy for those on the losing side to reconcile with the result. Meanwhile, the winning side will enjoy a sense of success and self-satisfaction that a majority of the people had chosen their side. A winner will always want to do more for the people, at least for a certain period of time. Grandiose dreams of radical sociopolitical changes will be seen by both those in power and those who voted for them.

As George Orwell said, “he who controls the past commands the future. He who commands the future conquers the past.” On each Election Day, people decide on a side to vote based on their ability to fulfill certain aspirations. This is decided taking the past into account. Sometimes they vote out of a sense of loyalty or a sense of gratitude. Whatever the reason may be, people always have at least a vague idea of voting for the future, while analyzing the past. The leader who has delivered in the past will be chosen to lead the future. But if a particular leader has not delivered, a new leader can appear and create dreams of a brighter future. This is true for any election, in any country.

The trouble is that people and politicians have had such dreams from time immemorial. In the case of Sri Lanka, people had been promised many things under the sun during the past 67 years. People will continue to have such dreams for years, decades and centuries to come. How much of those dreams have been fulfilled and how much could have been fulfilled under the prevailing circumstances are the questions to be answered.

For 67 years, people have voted for politicians of various parties and colors. People have seen insurgency, war, increasing crime rates, certain improvements in certain sectors and rapid infrastructure developments in the recent years. Yet, a considerable section of people live in poverty, 67 years after the British left the country. While there are improvements, there has always been room for more improvement. In the economic sector, Sri Lanka has been overtaken by countries like South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia decades ago. Sri Lanka, while moving in that direction, still has some distance to go to catch up.

Ironically, the first Sinhalese film which was screened in Sri Lanka on January 21, 1947, was named “Kadawunu Poronduva” or “The Broken Promise.” Sri Lankan politics have been largely a broken promise. Before each election, people strike a bargain and usually end up no better than they were.

The most important step people can take in making an election result count will be to strengthen the democratic institutions. When democracy prevails leaders will not be able to go against the people they vote for. As US writer Matt Taibbi said, “in a society governed passively by free markets and free elections, organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy.” It also implied that organized democracy will counter organized greed better.

The idea of a democracy is the fact that every sector, every individual gets a voice. This pure form of democracy is hard to be instituted in the national level. But it should be introduced in the local levels at least.

Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers, but everyone was heard, chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and laborer. People spoke without interruption and the meetings lasted for many hours. The foundation of self-government was that all men were free to voice their opinions and equal in their value as citizens.

The above description is not from a book about Athenian Democracy, and not about the Western world at all. It is a description of the Xhosa royal court given in Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom.” Democracy, one might say was better practiced in early 20th century in Africa than in many countries today.

This strengthening of democracy is vital for any country for its elections to have a better impact. Otherwise, whoever wins, it will be a certain class of people who will benefit. If the economy is not well managed, the vast majority of people will have to wait for the trickle down effects of wealth created by development. People should keep this in mind during or after election times.

As Marx said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” But if history repeats over and over again, we the people will have to blame ourselves.

First published on The Nation on January 11, 2015

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Pope Francis Arrives in Sri Lanka

Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, arrived in Sri Lanka earlier today, January 13, 2015. The Pope arrived at Katunayake Bandaranaike International Airport at about 9am. He was greeted by a party led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith.

This is the third visit by a Pope to Sri Lanka. The first Pope to arrive in the country was Pope Paul VI, who visited the island in 1970. Pope John Paul II visited the country in January 1995.

Pope Francis was driven in a special motorcade to Colombo on the Colombo-Negombo main road. He will take part in several activities today, including an audience with the President Maithripala Sirisena. The Pope will address an inter-religious meeting in the evening.
The motorcade of Pope Francis at Maradana, Colombo 10 (Pic. Chamara Sumanapala)

Pope Francis will conduct a mass at Galle Face in the morning of January 14 and another mass at the famous Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu in the former war zone in the afternoon. The Pope is expected to canonize Blessed Joseph Vaz at the mass in Gall Face. He will leave for the Philippines on January 15.

Pope Francis is known as perhaps the most radical of all Popes in the history of the Catholic Church. He is a simple person and a champion of the poor, homeless and the sick. He is the first ever Pope from Latin America and the first Jesuit priest to become Pope. His stance on homosexuals and other social taboos have also been radical for the Catholic Church and have created an unprecedented discourse within the establishment of the Church.

Interestingly, both Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II arrived in Sri Lanka within months after changes in governments, and so did Pope Francis. Pope Paul VI arrived in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) on December 4, 1970 and left the country the following day. It was the last leg of a pilgrimage which took him to Iran, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) (stopover in Dacca), Philippines, American Samoa (stopover in Pago Pago), Samoa, Australia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Ceylon. This visit took place months after the change of the government of Ceylon in July.

He was slightly injured in an assassination attempt at Manila Airport on November 27, days before he arrived in Ceylon.

Pope John Paul II arrived in Sri Lanka on January 20, 1995, several months after another government change. He beatified the Apostle of Ceylon Joseph Vaz at a mass held at Galle Face on January 21, 1995.

Pope Francis arrived in the island just days after a government change which saw the election of a new president.

Monday, January 5, 2015

2010 Sri Lankan Presidential Election

The 2010 Sri Lankan Presidential Election was proved to be unlike anything before. Most importantly, it was the first presidential election held after the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May 2009. However, the election was to become an instance of increased political tension due to the unexpected appearance of an unlikely presidential candidate in the form of former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka.

After the defeat of the LTTE and the annihilation of all its local leadership, Sri Lanka was starting to enjoy peace after many years civil war. The victory projected the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to unprecedented popularity in the country. Meanwhile, those who criticized the war effort and those who were perceived to have been critical of the war effort were sidelined in Sri Lankan politics, at least for the time being.

The United National Party was one major casualty both in terms of popularity and strength. Some leaders of the party openly ridiculed the war effort which had an inedible mark on the party. There was a simmering leadership crisis within the party as Ranil Wickremesinghe was attacked from several quarters. Wickremesinghe prevailed partly because his detractors could not unite under one leader. This led to a group of parliamentarians to defect to the government while the war was on, seriously reducing their strength in parliament. At one point, there was a fear of the UNP losing the opposition leader’s position as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna also had about 40 seats in the parliament.

However, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna was to become a casualty of the position they took as well. The party opted to leave the UPFA while the war was going on. While one could attempt to justify its reasons to leave the government, the people found it hard to accept as the main concern of the majority of the people was the end of the war. There was also a perception among a sector of the public that the JVP withdrew since it saw the war could not be won with the absolute defeat of the LTTE.

Whatever the reasons, the JVP was also broken up when the Propaganda Secretary Wimal Weerawansa left the party. He found a new political party, the National Freedom Front and joined the UPFA later. This reduced the JVP membership in the parliament and further strengthened the UPFA government, which was once on the verge of collapse months earlier.

Therefore, the war ended when both the main opposition parties were divided and weakened by internal squabbles. The UPFA tested the waters just after the end of the war by calling for Provincial Elections just after the war. The UPFA swept the Uva Provincial Election on August 8, 2009, capturing 25 of the 34 seats. Despite Badulla District being a stronghold of the UNP, the part managed just 7 seats in the entire province. Meanwhile, the Southern Provincial Council Election in October 2009 provided another victory for the UPFA which won 38 seats. UNP won 14 and the JVP could manage just 3 seats.

By this time it was expected that the Presidential Election will be around the corner. President Rajapaksa’s term completed its fourth year on November 18. According to the provisions in the constitution, the presidential election could be called after that date. At this juncture, the election was expected to be a cakewalk for the president, if not something unexpected happened.

It was to happen in the form of the arrival of Sarath Fonseka as the presidential candidate of the opposition. After the end of the war, the tensions heightened between the President and the Army Commander who led the battle against the LTTE. The Army Commander was replaced and Fonseka was given the largely ceremonial role of the Chief of Defense Staff in July 2009. Sometime thereafter, the opposition approached Fonseka to be the candidate in the next presidential election. Fonseka retired from the military in November and soon announced his candidature, ending weeks of speculation and rumors.

Nominations were accepted on December 17, 2009 and the election date was set for January 26, 2010. There were 22 candidates who contested the election. Several former candidates also came forward for the election, including Siritunga Jayasuriya of the United Socialist Party, Achala Ashoka Suraweera of the Jathika Sangwardana Peramuna (National Development Front), Wije Dias of the Socialist Equality Party and Aruna de Soysa of the Ruhunu Janatha Party had all contested for the 2005 Presidential Election. Meanwhile Mahiman Ranjith, who had contested in 1999 also contested. The New Left Front leader Dr. Wickramabahu Karunaratne decided to run for presidency in 2010. Meanwhile, Battaramulle Seelarathana Thera of the Jana Setha Peramuna became the first Buddhist monk to contest a presidential election in Sri Lanka, and perhaps anywhere in the world.

Fonseka’s arrival gave a new life to the opposition, mainly the UNP and the JVP. However, Fonseka suffered several setbacks in his election campaign. In December 2009, the local newspaper "Sunday Leader" quoted Sarath Fonseka saying that during the final few days of the war against LTTE, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a brother of the President, gave orders to the army senior officers to execute LTTE cadres who surrendered to the Army. This became known as the “white flag” incident. Although General Fonseka later issued a statement saying that his original statement has been published by the newspaper out of context, he had already lost the debate on the issue.

Meanwhile, the government claimed that Sarath Fonseka had been corrupt while he was the commander of the Sri Lanka Army. This came to be known as the Hicorp incident. This also worked to undermine Fonseka.

Then the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a party loyal to LTTE, announced that it was supporting Sarath Fonseka. This worked against Fonseka, especially after the government claimed that there was a secret agreement between TNA and General Fonseka.

Fonseka’s campaign also suffered from an inherent shortcoming, that of the uneasiness between the UNP and the JVP. Although the leaders of the party appeared on the same stage with Fonseka, the rank and file members could not work together especially in the villages. The JVP had waged a bloody insurrection against a UNP government in 1987-89 and the memories were still lingering especially in rural areas. Therefore, effective campaigning did not take place in certain parts of the country. Although the contest was more or less even in the urban areas, the rural parts of Sinhalese majority regions were mostly aligned to Rajapaksa.

This became evident when the results came in. Fonseka swept the areas where a Tamil or Muslim majority lived, and performed relatively well in urban areas while he completely lost the Sinhalese majority rural areas. Rajapaksa defeated Fonseka even in his own constituency in Ambalangoda.

What happened after the election is subjected to much speculation. Fonseka was accused of planning the overthrow of the government. He was arrested a few weeks after the election and spent in prison for more than two years. President Mahinda Rajapaksa signed the order to release him in 2012 and he returned to politics and launched the Democratic Party. However, Fonseka has remained relatively less effective in the political arena after January 2010.

First published in 'The Nation' on January 4, 2014

2005 Sri Lankan Presidential Election

The 2005 Presidential Election is remembered as the closest of all presidential elections held in Sri Lanka to date. Although there were many candidates in the fray, it was obvious to all that the contest was between two candidates, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe. All other candidates could not poll even two percent of the vote.

The election came in the backdrop of a serious constitutional crisis. The then president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was due to end her second term. Since she could not be re-elected, a new president had to be elected.

However, there arose a question as to when Kumaratunga’s second term ends. She insisted that she should serve 12 years as president since she was elected twice and the duration of a presidential term is six years. However, she had sworn in as president almost immediately after her re-election in 1999. Therefore, her opponents argued that her second term begins from the date of her second swearing in. If she was to complete 12 years in office, she could be the president until November 2006.

The issue however went to the Supreme Court, which is the arbiter in constitutional matters. The Supreme Court decided in favor of the argument against Kumaratunga. Her second term was deemed to have started from the day of her second swearing in. Therefore, the presidential election had to be held in 2005.

Once her attempt at clinging on to power until 2006 ended in failure, Kumaratunga started promoting her brother Anura Bandaranaike as the candidate of the United People’s Freedom Alliance for the presidential election. However, Anura Bandaranaike had little popularity within the party as well as the masses. Clearly, the most popular figure to be the presidential candidate was Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was the Leader of the Opposition during the United National Party government from late 2001 to early 2004. He had risen through the ranks of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party as the most popular choice for the opposition leader. He had been an important figure in the discussions for the formation of the United People’s Freedom Alliance, which was formed in January 2004 when the People’s Alliance and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna joined forces. In April 2004, this alliance won the parliamentary election. Despite her reluctance, Kumaratunga had to appoint Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister of the new government. As the last days of her presidency approached, her influence within the UPFA decreased and Rajapaksa emerged as a powerful figure.

Meanwhile the United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe emerged as the presidential candidate of the party for a second time. He was keeping faith in the anti-incumbency in the voters and his ability to attract more votes from the minorities. As the campaign moved on the role of the JVP in the Mahinda Rajapaksa camp also became an issue for some voters.

Like in the 1999 Presidential Election, there were a number of candidates contesting besides the two main contenders. Some of them were from the left of the political spectrum. Siritunga Jayasuriya of the United Socialist Party, Wije Dias of the Socialist Equality Party and Chamil Jayanetti of the New Left Front were among them. The Sri Lanka Progressive Front also contested this election. The selection of Chamil Jayanetti from the New Left Front was an interesting choice as he was an almost unknown figure. Dr. Wickramabahu Karunaratne, the leader of the party, opted not to contest.

However, the third candidate who attracted most of the attention was Victor Hettigoda. He was a renowned entrepreneur, known around the country for his Ayurvedic products. A native of the Matara District in Southern Province, he was admired for his commitment which had brought him to where he was in the business world. However, during the election campaign some of his comments became anecdotes, such as his claim that all families should be provided with a cow. His idea was to make the country self sufficient in milk and thereby reduce malnutrition. But the practicality of this step was questioned by opponents and even the public.

This election was known for some on stage lapses by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose perceived lack of knowledge in the history and culture of the Sri Lankan people was portrayed on several occasions. These became valuable points to the Mahinda Rajapaksa camp. The Ranil-Wimal duel captured the attention of the people, especially among the Sinhalese community. The then JVP Propaganda Secretary Wimal Weerawansa tore Ranil Wickremesinghe to pieces on UPFA election stages.

However, another aspect of the election was the alleged assistance from the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to the election campaign of Ranil Wickremesinghe. Her antagonism towards Mahinda Rajapaksa was a known fact. So was her antagonism towards the JVP which was thought to be responsible for the death of her husband Vijaya Kumaratunga in 1988. Once her plan to promote her brother as the presidential candidate, she got involved less in the campaign and sometimes even assisted the opposition against Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign. However, some of her erstwhile allies became key figures in the Rajapaksa campaign, most notably Mangala Samaraweera, who used to be a close confidant of the President.

The Mahinda Rajapaksa-JVP partnership was also questioned by many who doubted the sincerity of the Rajapaksa camp. With a section of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party taking a back stage in the campaign, the JVP did the bulk of the propaganda work. This made some people suspect as to whether Rajapaksa was a stoolpigeon of the JVP. They were proved to be seriously wrong under his presidency. But before he was elected, no one could say with a certainty what sort of an agreement Rajapaksa would have with the JVP if elected.

However, despite his on-stage debacles, Ranil Wickremesinghe was in a strong position with the backing of the UNP and some other parties and with the tacit support of the president. However, at this juncture, Wickremesinghe found an unlikely opponent in the form of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

There are various theories and speculations as to why the LTTE leader instructed the Tamil people to boycott the election. Perhaps he thought that he could easily isolate Mahinda Rajapaksa on the international stage, given the latter’s Sinhalese nationalist position. The minorities were thought to be supporting the opposition overwhelmingly and the small numbers who decided to defy the LTTE and vote suggested the trend. Given the slim margin in the election result, it was obvious that Wickremesinghe would have won the election if the Tamil people in the north and east voted.

Eventually, Rajapaksa was elected with 4,887,152 votes (50.29 percent) while Wickremesinghe polled 4,706,366 votes (48.43 percent). The margin was less than 200,000. Wickremesinghe had won the election in areas where there was a sizable population of minorities and also in some traditional UNP seats.

As the election was held on November 17, President Rajapaksa was sworn in on November 18, which was also his 60th birthday. Rajapaksa had asked the voters to give him a birthday present and they had done it.

The LTTE tactic became evident just after the president was elected. It started intensifying the military attacks on government forces despite the peace process that was in operation. The LTTE thought it could isolate the government while breaking the ceasefire agreement repeatedly. The peace process became a farce. Even then the government could have been isolated if not for a puzzling decision to close the Mavil Aru reservoir worked against the LTTE. From then on, the LTTE started sliding down towards its eventual annihilation.

First published in 'The Nation' on January 4, 2015.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

1999 Sri Lankan Presidential Election

The fourth presidential election in Sri Lankan history was held in December 1999 at a time of increasing political unrest. The People’s Alliance government of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had seen a decline in popular support at the failure in both the war and economy.

The government embarked on the war path after the failure of the peace process in April 1995. Initially the war was successful as the government forces captured several important rebel held areas. The liberation of Jaffna in the latter part of 1995 was a morale boost to the government and a setback for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). However in the years afterwards, the LTTE won several victories in the form of daring attacks sometimes in the city of Colombo itself. Mullaitivu was captured in July 1996 and Kilinochchi in 1998.

The terror campaign was at its height by 1999. In early November 1999 the LTTE captured Mankulam, a key strategic point in the vital A-9 route to the north, just days after the presidential election was called on October 28. This was predicted to cost the president a considerable amount of votes. Meanwhile, nominations were accepted on November 16 and the date for the election was set for December 21.

The main reason for the call for the early election was the obvious decline in the popularity of the government. The economy was faltering and the war was not taking the intended course. While the president herself remained considerably popular, her government was increasingly becoming unpopular. At this juncture, while the main opposition United National Party was getting strengthened on one end, other parties such as the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or the People’s Liberation Front, was getting increasingly influential. The JVP had penetrated the student movement in the country and was moving into the labor movement as well.

Meanwhile, 1999 had been an election year with seven provincial council elections being held. Political violence was high and the election in the North Western Provincial Council in 1999 is remembered as by far the most violent election in the People’s Alliance (PA) government era of 1994-2001. The PA won majorities in only two of the seven provincial councils including the North Western PC. In other provinces, it had to rely on the smaller political parties for support. It was a time of political uncertainty to a certain extent as smaller parties including those representing minority communities obtaining the brokering power in some provincial councils as well as the parliament.

The number of candidates in this election was 13, a higher figure than ever before. The main contenders were President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Meanwhile, the JVP had come to an agreement with the Nava Sama Samaja Party of Dr. Wickramabahu Karunaratne and the Muslim United Liberation Front, and put forward Nandana Gunathilake as the ‘common opposition candidate of the left.’ Ironically, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, who had joined the PA in 1994 but had later broken away from it, also contested. Some other candidates were contesting to extend their support to one of the two main candidates.

There was a candidate, Ariyawansa Dissanayake, from the Democratic United National Front, the party Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake had founded early in the 1990s. There was also a candidate, Alwis Premawardhana, from the Bahujana Nidahas Peramuna (People’s Freedom Front), the party Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had founded after breaking away from the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party.

There were two other candidates who had contested when Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga had won the election in 1994. They were Dr. Harischandra Wijetunga from the Sinhale Mahasammatha Bhumiputhra Party and the independent Hudson Samarasinghe.

Meanwhile, there were two other independents, former parliamentarian Mahiman Ranjith and Tennyson Edirisuriya. The latter argued that all politicians should be rejected and asked the people to cast reject ballots. Ironically, he was to end up receiving more than 20,000 votes.

The election was hotly contested, perhaps than never before. There was a clear possibility of Wickremesinghe winning the vote. Meanwhile the JVP candidacy was also working to help him indirectly as a considerable number of center-left voters were leaving the PA, disillusioned by its relatively unsuccessful record.

The election campaign was to end at midnight on December 18 as per the election law. However, the election was to end in dramatic events, which might have changed the result of the election. It nearly ended the life of the president.

On the night of December 18, a private TV channel was to interview the president just before midnight. She was to arrive at the studio from the last election rally at Town Hall Grounds, Colombo. The country awaited in front of their TV screens anticipating the arrival of the president. The president was getting late. As she had this habit of getting late for events, people might have joked that the president was getting late as usual. At that time with no Twitter and Facebook and live streaming on the internet, news was not filtering through as fast as it is today. Only slowly did the country learn of the bomb blast in the Town Hall Grounds, nearly killing the president.

On the same day, another bomb had exploded in the opposition rally, killing several members and supporters of the UNP including Major General (retired) Lakshman Algama. The LTTE was attributed as the perpetrators of the bombs. At least 35 people died that night in the two bomb blasts.

It was later revealed that the president had survived but may lose the sight of one eye. Later she appeared on television, which sparked some outrage in the opposition camp which alleged that she was violating election laws. However, she managed to convincingly win the election with 51.12 percent of the votes. While it was significantly lower than the 62 percent she received in 1994, it was convincing enough.

President Kumaratunga had received the support of the majority of the rural Sinhalese population, carrying all constituencies in Southern and North Western provinces. She also led the race in all seats in the Western Province except within the city of Colombo. Her popularity was still strong in the rural farmer communities. Meanwhile, the Tamil people had not lost hopes in her as an agent of peace, as seen by the election results in much of the government held areas in Jaffna District. For the fourth consecutive time, a presidential candidate of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party or an alliance led by it polled more votes than the UNP in a presidential election. The UNP leader carried Trincomalee and Batticaloa Districts, with the support of the Muslim community, and also won all five electoral constituencies in the Colombo city. The UNP also won the race in the Nuwara-Eliya District and Badulla Districts with thin majorities.

Perhaps the most disappointing performer was Nandana Gunathilake who polled just over 4 percent of the vote. This was surprising as the JVP had done well in the provincial council elections. One explanation given was that the last moment tilt towards the president affected the JVP mostly. Also, since the JVP could not possibly hope to win the election, some who might have considered voting for them in a different election may have not decided to vote for them in this election. The impact of voting for the JVP in a general election or a provincial election was different than voting for them at the presidential election.

President Kumaratunga left for the United Kingdom for medical treatment after the election. She told BBC that she was still a believer of peace and the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had “an obsessive fear of peace.” However, after returning to Sri Lanka, she made a television appearance in which she spoke scathingly on almost all her detractors and opponents. This served to intimidate the media and the opposition, perhaps unlike never before in her term as president. It signaled that her second term as president was not going to be an easy ride.

First published in 'The Nation' on December 21, 2014