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2010 Sri Lankan Presidential Election: Post-Election Report

- February 1, 2010


In our “continuing series of election reports”:https://themonkeycage.org/election_reports/, we are pleased to have “Paul Staniland”:http://web.mit.edu/pstan/www/Welcome.html, a Pre-doctoral Research Fellow at the “Program on Order, Conflict, and Violence”:http://www.yale.edu/macmillan/ocvprogram/index.html at Yale University’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies present the following post-election analysis of the 2010 Sri Lankan presidential election:

Sri Lanka’s presidential election, the first since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, “further entrenched”:http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/28/world/asia/28lanka.html?scp=6&sq=polgreen%20sri%20lanka&st=cse the incumbent government of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa’s major opponent, General (ret.) Sarath Fonseka, was the chief of the army in the victorious struggle against the Tigers but had turned against Rajapaksa when he was stripped of real power after the war. The campaign was “ugly and sometimes violent”:http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/28/world/asia/28lanka.html, marked by charges of war crimes, coups d’etat, vote rigging, treason, and corruption. Approximately “800 violent incidents”:http://cmev.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/cmev-interim-report_25_01_2010_final_full.pdf were reported during the course of the campaign. The aftermath of the election included “government charges”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8487331.stm that Fonseka had planned a coup against his government, while Fonseka is reportedly now “considering going into exile”:http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/war-hero-sarath-fonseka-exiled-within-colombo/story-e6frg6so-1225824850249.

Rajapaksa and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led coalition ultimately took 57% of the vote while Fonseka, the common opposition candidate, won 40%. Despite expectations of a tight contest, Rajapaksa dominated in ethnic Sinhalese areas and thus overcame Fonseka’s higher levels of support in cities and ethnic Tamil and Muslim regions. This “map”:http://www.dailymirror.lk/print/index.php/component/content/article/129-front-page/2340-landslide-for-president.html shows the demographic breakdown: Rajapaksa won the Sinhalese-majority southern and western parts of the country, while Fonseka did better in less-populous Tamil and Muslim areas in the north and east. What can we draw from both the process and the outcome of the election?

First, the government and SLFP used state resources and patronage to get out the vote. Fonseka was a threat because he could undermine Rajapaksa’s credit for defeating the LTTE. In response, the Rajapaksa campaign fully exploited the advantages of incumbency, in sharp contrast to a shambolic Fonseka campaign. Organizationally, the SLFP’s patronage machine was highly effective at mobilizing rural voters and at pulling away defectors from the opposition. Crucially, Rajapaksa’s campaign “skillfully exploited its position in power”:http://www.tisrilanka.org/?p=3347. Rajapaksa was portrayed in the state media as the prime reason for the destruction of the LTTE while Fonseka’s gaffes on the campaign trail were ideal fodder for criticism and often-dubious accusations. Rajapaksa offered a clear Sinhalese nationalist political line that was linked to economic development promises. The election commissioner “publicly protested”:http://www.tisrilanka.org/?p=3161 these irregularities, but there is no evidence of massive vote rigging.

Second, the lopsided nature of the vote creates “almost no ethnic minority leverage”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8487405.stm within the new government. In a close race, like 2005’s presidential election, the approximately 25-30% of the country that is not Sinhalese Buddhist could be an essential building block of a ruling coalition. With this logic in mind, the major Tamil party (Tamil National Alliance – TNA) and one of the Muslim parties (Sri Lanka Muslim Congress – SLMC) endorsed Fonseka in the hope that they could be electoral kingmakers. Fonseka claimed that he would more aggressively address Tamil grievances and was “rewarded with minority votes”:http://beta.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/article96471.ece?homepage=true.

Rajapaksa nevertheless won without significant minority support and is now even less likely to accede to minority demands for devolution of power. The smaller Tamil parties aligned with Rajapaksa (TMVP, EPDP, PLOT) are generally led by LTTE defectors or former targets of the LTTE. They will be the government’s most-favored-Tamils in the new dispensation. A “recent International Crisis Group report”:http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=6462&l=1 tentatively speculated that Rajapaksa may pursue a Malaysian model for Sri Lanka: a dominant ethnic majority “sons of the soil” party leading a durable alliance with subordinate ethnic minority partners. These Tamil parties (most of them with a paramilitary background) may provide the subordinate partners to an SLFP-dominated regime.

Third, the Sri Lankan opposition is “shattered”:http://www.economist.com/world/asia/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15393468 The coalition supporting Fonseka was only unified by the hope of pushing Rajapaksa out of power. The center-right United National Party (UNP) was Sri Lanka’s dominant party from 1977 to 1994, but has not won a presidential election since 1988 and is facing large-scale defections, an ineffective leader in Ranil Wickremasinghe, and serious organizational deficiencies. The ultra-left-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which actually waged an intense insurgency against the UNP government in the late 1980s, has been split by the government over the last several years and lacks large-scale support. Given their enormous ideological differences and strained history, these two parties are unlikely to continue serious cooperation. Moreover, while Rajapaksa has often been portrayed in elite circles as a rural buffoon, he and his advisers (including several of his brothers) have consistently shown enormous political savvy at weakening and co-opting opposition.

The TNA was already torn by internal disagreements and these will likely accelerate. One of the legacies of LTTE rule in Tamil-majority areas was the killing or exiling of much of the Tamil political class and the suppression of organized dissent. This bodes poorly for skilled Tamil political leadership in opposition to Rajapaksa. The fact that there are a “huge number”:http://www.internal-displacement.org/countries/srilanka of Tamil Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the north makes political mobilization even more difficult. With the LTTE annihilated, the TNA marginalized, and a huge state security presence linked to pro-regime Tamil parties in the north and east, the Rajapaksa regime may be able to ignore Tamil political discontent.

Finally, there is some reason to be concerned about the “politicization of the military”:http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/1315. In the aftermath of the war, Rajapaksa apparently “feared a military coup”:http://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/srilanka/Sri-Lanka-feared-army-coup-sought-India-s-help/476194/Article1-476176.aspx and allegedly contacted India for support. During the campaign both Rajapaksa and Fonseka claimed that they had the support of the army rank-and-file and officer corps. Rajapaksa deployed military spokesmen to deal with political matters and Fonseka was surrounded by a coterie of retired military officers. Since the election, Rajapaksa has reshuffled the army command to “remove Fonseka loyalists”:http://www.dailymirror.lk/print/index.php/component/content/article/129-front-page/2567.html from positions of power. How politicians deal with the well-armed, capable 200,000+-man Sri Lankan security apparatus will be a key determinant of the country’s future: the regional examples of Pakistan, Burma, and Bangladesh show that military politics deserve careful attention.