Monday, January 5, 2015

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.

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