Sri Lanka’s just concluded general election has proved, if any proof was necessary, that as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew once told then president J.R. Jayewardene, democracy in the island nation is “an auction of non-existent resources”.
The run-up to the poll saw the incumbent Chandrika Kumaratunga administration raise the wages of members of the country’s bloated public service; increase the non-contributory pensions that retired government servants enjoy; and increase the monthly samurdhi dole to the poor with full knowledge that the scheme is badly flawed. Those were only some of the vote-catching carrots that were tossed by Kumaratunga to the electorate, despite a cash-strapped exchequer, and a debilitating war which is gobbling resources in an ever-escalating defence expenditure.
The results was the widely predicted hung Parliament with neither the ruling People’s Alliance (PA) nor the main opposition United National Party (UNP) able to manage a majority. With thousands of armed military deserters roaming the countryside, and politicians who use state-provided security squads as private armies, the election was neither free nor fair. Although Sri Lanka has no T.N. Seshan, Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake tried his best. He was to later comment that in a Third World context, the poll may be considered satisfactory. Though the leader of the 77-member team of monitors from the European Union, Irish parliamentarian John Cushnahan, said that the conclusion “reasonably reflected the will of the Sri Lankan people”, he also made it clear that it was not possible to issue a verdict of “free and fair” on the election given the “level of violence, intimidation and attempted electoral abuse”.
The tragedy is that for the second time, President Chandrika Kumaratunga is not living up to her word that those who engaged in electoral malpractice will not be rewarded with office. (The first time was following the controversial provincial council election of last year.) Considerations of realpolitik seemed to take precedence, as was demonstrated when the president formed what the local press has described as the “world’s biggest cabinet” of 44 ministers. Well-known election cheats have retained their plumes and feathers, and live politically to fight another day.
But a glimmer of hope remains, as the PA is showing signs of being open to cooperating with the UNP, whose leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is pushing for the implementation of a so-called democratic agenda. The UNP wants four independent commissions, one each for elections, the police, the public service and the judiciary. He has also demanded a de-politicising of the dominant state media, which was flagrantly abused during the poll campaign.
There are indications that Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, who replaced the late Sirima Bandaranaike just before the Tenth Parliament was dissolved, has seen the light of the need for consensual politics. Wickramanayake, it is said, had even been prepared to forego the prime ministership to UNP’s Wickremesinghe, if a national government that is widely being urged by the professional and business community, could be put in place. However, a powerful grouping within the PA with whom Kumaratunga is aligned, resisted that proposal.
A movement towards bridging differences between the PA and the UNP was made with the unanimous election of Anura Bandaranaike, Kumaratunga’s estranged brother, as the speaker of Parliament—the country’s number three hierarchical position. Brother and sister were seen to be united in grief on the loss of their mother on election day, and the local media showed them holding hands at Sirima’s funeral. Eldest sister, Sunethra who is not in politics, played peacemaker.
As for Wickremesinghe, he understands too well that without the independent commissions
he sought before the last election, there is no hope of the UNP winning power. The business community who are the financiers of both the PA and the UNP, are acutely conscious of the need for these two parties to get together if serious bipartisan negotiations with the Tamil Tigers are to begin, and the economy revived. Despite his defeat both at the presidential election last December and at the 10 October parliamentary poll, the UNP’s newly elected MPs have unanimously endorsed Wickremesinghe’s continued leadership of their party. In her cabinet making, Kumaratunga made some subtle changes that may, through a consensual approach, pave the way for a national government at a later stage.
But the Tigers remain the major imponderable factor in the equation. Their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is widely believed to have favoured Wickremesinghe over Kumaratunga at the polls. What will be his reaction to a combination of the two, is anybody’s guess.