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

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