Reflecting on the 21 December presidential election, Agriculture and Lands Minister D.M. Jayaratne, who is also the general secretary of the ruling People´s Alliance (PA), remarked that the country´s political agenda is written in the jungles of Wanni, where the Liberation Tigers´ supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran, is holed out. His reference was, of course, to the suicide bomb exploded on the lawns of the Colombo Town Hall in an abortive bid to assassinate President Chandrika Kumaratunga, three days before the voting.
The armoured Mercedes Benz limousine parked between the woman bomber and her intended victim, saved the president´s life, although she was hit by shrapnel in the region of the eye. Whether she will lose one eye as a result of the bomb was not clear as this was being written, but the president and her government have made it plain that she will continue to lead the country in a relentless drive to rid Sri Lanka of the scourge of Tiger ´terrorism´.
As Kumaratunga noted in a remarkably well-crafted acceptance speech after winning the presidential election, “I hold the unique distinction of being the one political leader against whom an LTTE assassination attempt had failed.” She followed up that statement by confidently declaring: “I will be the one political leader against whom the entire LTTE terror enterprise will fail.”
The vast majority of Sri Lankans, whatever their political persuasion, will certainly hope and pray that she is right. But they know only too well that Prabhakaran, who had the United National Party´s presidential candidate, Gamini Dissanayake, assassinated during the 1994 campaign, thereby assuring Kumaratunga of the plum with a massive 62 percent of the vote, will revert to the old guerrilla dictum he´s fond of often citing: “We have to be lucky only once while you have to be lucky every time.”
No doubt Kumaratunga, or for that matter opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe of the UNP, whom Prabhakaran backed for the presidency this time, will be ultra securityconscious in the future. But the fact remains that the massive apparatus employed to protect Kumaratunga was penetrated, and nearly fatally, this time.
The LTTE did everything they possibly could, including attempting to murder the incumbent, towards seeing Wickremesinghe win the election. Prabhakaran tagged the Kumaratunga government a curse on the Tamils, and said that the five years of her rule were the worst the Tamils had known. The election results amply demonstrate that the vast majority of the Tamils, whether on their own or at the LTTE´s behest, voted for Wickremesinghe, who was confident of winning the election on the back of minority votes.
So, why did the LTTE want Wickremesinghe as Sri Lanka´s new president? What Wickre esinghe had publicly promised was an interim council with LTTE representation for the predominantly Tamil northeast, de-escalation of the war and negotiations. But it has to be noted here that Kumaratunga had promised much more than that in the past (in a Time magazine interview in 1998). She had said there that the LTTE could administer the northeast for 10 years and its cadres could serve as the police force.
The president has also been open to negotiations while actively pursuing a military option called “war for peace”. The latter strategy was obviously to ensure she could negotiate from a position of military strength. But Prabhakaran, soon after the premature presidential election was announced, had turned the tables on her by seizing territory the army had painfully won from the Tigers in 19 months, in just five days. Right now, the TE is pounding on the doors of the Jaffna eninsula, the Tamil heartland from which they were ejected four years ago. If negotiations should begin, probably with third-party mediation the government had previously resisted, it is clear that the Prabhakaran will agree for talks only after he does his best to take back Jaffna.
Kumaratunga in her acceptance speech also made an eloquent plea for reconciliation between the PA and the UNP, which together command the allegiance of over 90 percent of the electorate. She abandoned her savage attack of Wickremesinghe, admitting that the UNP and its leader has “very significant support” in the country, whose people still intend him to play a major role in the effort to forge a new Sri Lanka. “I stretch out my hand to you to join the government, both you and your supporters, without compromising in any way with those who attempt to sow terror even for narrow political gains,” she said, to honour the UNP´s commitment to peace held out during the election campaign.
That was a dramatic volte face. For, even the day before the election, when the wounded Kumaratunga appeared on national television, she chose to make the preposterous allegation that the UNP was behind the conspiracy leading to the 1959 assassination of her father, prime minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. Thus, although her call for a grand alliance between the PA and the UNP has set off great expectations, particularly among the business community, of a national government, the ground realities do not seem to favour such a development.
A parliamentary election is due by August and if a national government is to take shape, it must necessarily reflect the composition of the next parliament. Dramatic developments in Sri Lanka´s peace front are therefore unlikely before a new parliament is formed. Hopefully, these will be fairer than December´s presidential race. The stakes are smaller, and the government will be under the pressure of public opinion to play with a straighter bat, in a country where straight bats are not really the style when it comes to elections. Prospects for peace will also depend on whether Kumaratunga will be large-hearted enough to negotiate with the man who tried to kill her, and whether two sides that do not trust each other can still conclude useful business.