Sri Lanka: Strange bedfellows

 There was jubilation in the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party on 14 December, after the Parliament passed the 2008 budget proposals on its third reading, with a majority of 47 votes. While there were 114 votes in favour and 67 against, members of the ultra-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) abstained from voting. Other notable abstentions were four members of the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance, three of whom had family members being held hostage by a pro-government militant group in the east.

Despite the victory, it has been far from smooth sailing for the ruling coalition. Even though the government's victory at the second reading of the budget, on 19 November, had been greeted by the lighting of firecrackers, the run-up to the budget vote had led to widespread speculation about the imminent downfall of the administration of Mahinda Rajapakse, possibly Sri Lanka's most nationalist government ever. Rumours were rife about an implosion within the government, whispers that gained credence when a prominent parliamentarian, heading the Public Enterprises Committee that had produced evidence of corruption in high places, suddenly decided to cross over to the opposition. But the government quickly struck back, roping in an opposition member who had been charged in court with the alleged murder of another parliamentarian several years ago.

Contrary to speculation, the decision of the JVP, the Rajapakse administration's former ally, to oppose the government in the second vote in November, did not prove decisive in the mid-December vote. The dilemma that the JVP now faces is that the current Parliament, where it has 38 out of 225 seats, may never present the party with as much leverage as it currently enjoys. For a party that has never won more than eight percent of the national vote, the JVP won this many seats due to an advantageous seat-sharing arrangement that it was able to negotiate with the ruling party in 2004.

At the same time, the JVP currently has to deal with a widespread public perception of the government being one of rampant corruption, wastage and ostentatious living. This is generating significant resentment throughout the general population, which is facing inflation rates in excess of 20 percent. In the lead-up to the budget vote, the JVP insisted that the government prune both its massive cabinet and the number of ministers, who, at the latest count, number 107. Also true to its ultra-nationalist ideology, the party insisted that the government abrogate the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement with the LTTE, and minimise the intervention of international agencies, including the UN, in Sri Lankan political affairs.
Survival strategy
For a brief moment, the government had indeed appeared to consider acceding to the JVP's nationalism – doing away with the Ceasefire Agreement, and even banning the LTTE. However, it is likely that the potential international fallout from such moves eventually deterred the government from this adventurist course. Getting the peace process back on track is the foremost priority of the international donor community, headed by Japan and including India and several Western countries. In any event, the government could not have satisfied the JVP's other condition, of reducing the number of ministers, as this could have set off a host of defections from its ranks. The government's strategy of survival has been to lure opposition parliamentarians over to its side with the reward of ministerial portfolios, as well as the inevitable personal and political benefits that accrue thereafter.

That the JVP retains an ability to destabilise the government must be the cause of singular discomfort to President Rajapakse. Indeed, JVP leaders claim that if they had gone forward and made public their decision to vote against the budget, several ruling party dissidents, as well as MPs from the smaller parties representing minorities, which are currently in the government, might have crossed over to the opposition side. Until the day of the budget vote, these fence-sitters dithered as to which side they would ultimately jump.

In the end, the irony has become fully apparent of the odd, sometimes contradictory bedfellows that politicians are forced to choose. Despite the public face-off between the JVP and the Rajapakse regime, there seems very little difference in their stances on crucial issues: the LTTE, the war, the ethnic issue and the international community. As such, there seems little justification in a party such as the JVP trying bring down the government.

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Himal Southasian