The major lesson of the first post-war national election in Sri Lanka is that politics in the country is transforming. The debates, the challenges and the election itself were not so much about the two candidates, but rather were a response to incumbent Mahinda Rajapakse. It was a challenge that he did not expect after the war; but calling presidential elections two years ahead of schedule has indeed worked out, winning him another term. And the lesson from the defeat of his challenger, Sarath Fonseka, is that a platform purely of opposition and calls for change, without a serious political vision, do not necessarily translate into votes.
During the last three decades, war politics has undermined other forms of politics in Sri Lanka, whether it be class, gender, the rural-urban divide or, for that matter, democratisation. This national election, held 26 January, triggered unexpected mobilisation and a clear deepening of the debates in society – ultimately pointing to a break with war politics. It is now clear that the end of the war has put ,and will continue to put, political leaders through greater scrutiny by the people. If, during the decades of war, the economic and political grievances of the exploited classes and minorities were deflected and put on hold, there are now higher expectations, coupled with mobilisation, to challenge the politicians and their political parties.
This break in post-war politics reflects simmering changes within Lankan society, and the ongoing process of reconsolidation of social and political forces. In that context, four themes will continue to gain importance in the years to come, as the island’s politics – both in the Sinhalese south and among the minorities – goes through a major transformation. First is a process of democratisation that has already struck a chord in the context of the increasingly authoritarian regimes and blatant abuse of state power. Second are the economic issues, particularly characterised by unemployment, increasing income inequality and rising cost of living. Third is the political problem of the minorities, which despite decades of work and draft proposals on devolution of power and power-sharing at the Centre continues to be undermined by lack of vision and leadership – aggravating the political situation and undermining the country’s overall prosperity. Fourth are the challenges of demilitarisation, including reducing the size and presence of the military, a pressing need now that the war has ended. In particular, the latter two challenges were neglected in the election debates, and are likely to surface again in the future.
It is now up to the re-elected President Rajapakse, during his second term, to address the serious challenges facing the country. How Lankan society will respond to the president – and the office of the executive presidency itself, including the inherent centralisation of power – is what will play out in the next few years. Guarding against abuse of democratic institutions and ensuring rule of law will neccessarily have to be the first step. Yet time and again, Lankan society has shown its potential for democratic mobilisation, and the people’s ability to challenge regimes – even when the leaders in power thought they were at their strongest.