Feature Article

Sri Lanka, a divided nation

[TamilNet, Tuesday, 22 November 2005, 02:21 GMT]
Predicting that if parliamentary elections were held and the LTTE encouraged Tamils to vote, the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) will likely lose the elections, and the United National Party (UNP) wll be able to form a coalition government with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Robert C Oberst, Professor of Political Science at Nebraska Wesleyan University says Sri Lanka remains a divided nation, divided, not only between the Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims, but also divided among the Sinhalese. He adds that renegade LTTE commander, Mr. Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan (Karuna), is the biggest loser in the elections.

Prof. Robert OberstProf Oberst's observations on the results of the 17 November Sri Lanka's Presidential elections follow:

"Mahinda Rajapakse’s election as President of Sri Lanka has led to a great deal of speculation about the future of the peace process in Sri Lanka. There are a number of observations which can be made about the victory.

  1. The Liberation Tigers (LTTE) proved to be the balance of power in the election. Without their enforced boycott of the election, Mr Wickremesinghe would have been elected President. In the Tamil areas of the north and east, the UNP lost over 517,000 votes from the totals received by the TNA, UNP and SLMC in the 2004 parliamentary elections.

  2. The election should not be seen as a victory for the hard line taken by Mr Rajapakse or his JVP allies. In the non-Tamil areas of the country there was a swing of over 800 thousand votes to the UNP from the 2004 parliamentary elections. The UNP gain on the UPFA was national in scope. The UNP gained votes in about 80% of the Sinhalese electoral constituencies. Mahinda Rajapakse's electoral victory coalition included both hard line nationalists as well as traditional leftists who support the peace process but were uncomfortable with Mr Wickremesinghe’s uncontrolled capitalist policies. The presidential results would indicate that the vote, while not an unambiguous endorsement of the peace process was a repudiation of the hard line Sinhalese position.

  3. The irony of Mr Rajapakse's election is that he will become president because of the LTTE. This offers a unique opportunity for Mr Rajapakse. As indicated above, the vote results shows a shift to more support for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. The hard line shown by Mr Rajapakse since his election is a very ominous sign about the future of the ceasefire. It may also be a sign that Mr Rajapakse has rejected the opportunity to use the election to resolve the conflict.

    It would appear that Mr Rajapakse has rejected the possibility of creating a new coalition similar to Chandrika’s winning coalition in 1994. Mr Rajapakse is faced with a choice of historic proportions. He could make appropriate accommodations with the LTTE to achieve peace and perhaps create a new coalition to support that peace process. These actions would alienate his Sinhalese nationalist and extremist base, but he would have the opportunity to create a new alliance with the TNA, the Muslim parties and UNP and SLFP members who support a peaceful resolution of the ethnic conflict.

  4. If Mahinda pursues the extremist position supported by the JVP, he will risk alienating Muslim support in his parliamentary majority. This would open the door for new elections, which according to the presidential results, would very likely result in an opposition victory.

  5. The unanswered question about the election is the response of the LTTE. They have expressed impatience with the lack of movement in the peace process and the breakdown of the ceasefire in the east. It is uncertain how long they will continue with the ceasefire. This is especially the case if Mr Rajapakse does not take forceful action to end the “shadow war” in the east or abandon his position on a political settlement. Mr Rajapakse’s refusal to devolve adequate power to the Tamils has returned the country to the pre-Chandrika period when J.R.Jeyawardene steadfastly refused to open the political system up to the Tamils.

  6. Perhaps the biggest loser in the election was Karuna. Despite his endorsement of Mr Rajapakse, it appears that Tamils who voted in the east did not vote for Mr Rajapakse. This result raises questions about the popular support for Karuna and should raise further questions about the role of the government in the eastern “shadow war.”
The sad reality of the November 17 election is that Sri Lanka, a nation so desperately in need of strong, decisive leadership now must wait a few more weeks to see if Mr Rajapakse will make a decisive and courageous move to end the war or continue on his electoral strategy to appease extremist Sinhalese who will accept no reasonable solution to the ethnic problem."

Professor Robert C.Oberst is a Professor of Political Science at Nebraska Wesleyan University in the US. He was a honorary visiting professor of political science, 1996-'97, University of Peradeniya and has authored several books including "Government and Politics in South Asia" and "Legislators, Development and Representation in Sri Lanka."

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