Col R Hariharan
The much debated and delayed Sri Lanka parliamentary election is now scheduled to be held on August 5. After missing two dates set earlier for the election, after the disposal of eight fundamental rights cases, the Election Commission (EC) announcement came with a lot of conditions on conduct of campaigning as well as the elections, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Each general election has its own flavor; but never before Sri Lanka had to conduct an election when the administration was fighting a global pandemic threatening the country. This makes the present election extraordinary because the Covid-19 pandemic has dislocated normal life and queered the pitch of usual election narratives of political parties.
However, the gods seem to be favouring President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the Covid pandemic is showing signs of being tamed. The virus strike rate started falling by end of May and as on June 30, it stands at 2042 cases with only 10 deaths, according to WHO statistics. This is a record any nation can be proud of; and it comes in handy to boost the election prospects of the President’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Yet another good news for the public was the lifting of the curfew imposed to contain the pandemic from March 20 onwards; the day-long curfew had continued for more than a month, before the timings were modified to night times in most of the areas.
The election will test the ability of the Election Commission (EC) and the administration to conduct it as per the health guidelines to control the spread of the virus.
A total of 7,452 candidates are in the fray for a seat in the 225-member parliament. Members to the parliament are elected by proportional representation for five-year term. Out of the 225 members, 196 will be elected from 22 multi-member electoral districts, while the remaining 29 MPs will be elected from National Lists of their political parties and independent groups based on the proportion of their share in the national vote.
There are over 16.263 million voters eligible to participate in the election as against 15.04 million eligible voters in the 2015 parliamentary election. In the 2015 election 77.6 percent voters participated. However, strict public health restrictions in place both during the campaign period and the conduct of elections could adversely affect the voter percentage.
As in other South Asian countries, election campaigns are colourful in Sri Lanka also with lots of public participation. However, the Covid pandemic seems to have dampened the mood so far. Health guidelines have restricted major election rallies to one for a district. Participation in public limits meetings to 100 persons. Social distancing norms are applicable to seating at meetings for both the audience and speakers. Before the meeting is organized health official has to be given three day notice. Moreover, participants even in small gatherings are required to provide their names, addresses and phone numbers. This is likely to discourage active public participation in campaign meetings. So political parties will have to innovatively use social media for campaigning. The UNP has already launched its social media campaign. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has already flagged off the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) political campaign. According to the party, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would be joining the campaign from July 3.
No dearth of rhetoric
In spite of all the limitations imposed by health guidelines on the election campaign, there seems to be no dearth of electoral rhetoric, many of them are sensational, while a few them are made only for shock effect.
A typical example is the political maelstorm triggered by former minister and ex- LTTE Eastern Commander “Col” Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna Amman’s flippant statement at a political rally in Amparai on June 19. He boasted that he had massacred 2000-3000 Sri Lanka soldiers in one night in Elephant Pass responding in response to an opposition leader’s remark that Karuna was more dangerous than Corona virus. Two CID teams were sent to Ampara and Batticaloa to gather more information about Karuna’s “claim” as though they had suddenly discovered his LTTE antecedent, his role in LTTE operations and in establishing in Eastern Province on a firm footing.
The CID recorded his statement for seven and a half hours. In the slanging match that followed, Karuna’s statement in an interview alleging that opposition leader Sajith Premadasa’s father President Ranasinga Premadasa had given the LTTE 5000 rifles and one crore rounds of ammunition, targeting the UNP, was typical election rhetoric.
UN Human Rights Council added its penny’s worth to the Karuna controversy by tweeting “We note that #Karuna, former LTTE commander & Government minister, is being questioned for alleged past crimes. He should also be investigated for wholesale recruitment of child soldiers, a crime under int’l law. Accountability should apply to everyone in Sri Lanka.”
New narrative in Tamil politics?
With the UNP a divided house, there are clear indications that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which is the largest group of Tamil parties, is changing its strategy to do business with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has come favoured the Sinhala Buddhist majority in his actions. Nothing illustrates the President’s action better than the appointment of an all Sinhala “task force composed of members of Buddhist clergy and the military to report on Archaeological Heritage Management in Tamil and Muslim majority Eastern Province.
TNA spokesman MA Sumanthiran said last week in Batticaloa that they will support the government if it takes up constitutional reform. His logic is “The President is considered a war hero and if he supports a new Constitution, the South will not oppose him. Though Sumanthiran, articulate in Sinhala, was targeted by hardliners as a traitor after he distanced himself with Prabhakaran’s terrorist methods, the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) came out in his support. TNA supremo R Sampanthan’s congratulatory message to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on his completion of 50 years in active politics, also struck a conciliatory note. Describing Mahinda as a Man of the People, the octogenarian Tamil leader urged him to spearhead the move for a new constitution. “Sri Lanka as a Country faces serious unresolved problems.
The country direly needs a new Constitution, the supreme Law of the country….A strong Leader with the support of the people is required to fulfil this urgent and compulsory need. Hon. Mahinda Rajapaksa is undoubtedly in that position. Hon. Mahinda Rajapaksa should rise to greater heights by undertaking and accomplishing that task. This should raise him to the level of a statesman and give him not merely national but international recognition and stature. He can be assured of our fullest support in this matter.”
The rival Tamil Makkal Tesiya Kuttani (TMTK) led by former Chief Minister CV Wigneswaran seems to have taken cue from the TNA and written a letter to the President seeking the release of 91 Tamil political prisoners. The former CM is said to have hinted of his readiness to talk to the President, after the elections on “national question”, according to well known Sri Lanka analyst Sathiyamoorthy.
But a new constitution by itself is no panacea for Tamils, as Federalism is a “no go” area for President Rajapaksa. But there are a host of other doables like the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, release of Tamil political prisoners and bringing to a closure of the vexing issue of forcibly disappeared persons if the Tamil parties manage to improve their working relations with the President and the PM. This is more easily said than done, as lack of unity is a unique feature of Tamil politics in Sri Lanka.
Col R Hariharan, a retired MI officer, served as the head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 90. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and South Asia Analysis.