Sri Lanka elections: A choice of no choice at all?

Sri Lanka elections: A choice of no choice at all?

The run up to Sri Lanka’s first democratic exercise in a post war environment has not proved very different from every other election conducted in the country over the recent past. The race between incumbent Mahinda Rajapakse and former army chief Sarath Fonseka has been marred by incidents of election violence (including 5 deaths), allegations of wide scale corruption, intimidation and mud slinging. This has robbed the exercise of much of its credibility as a symbol of the triumph of democracy over terrorism. And many disillusioned voters in the country say they feel they are left with little to choose between the two.

The greatest grievance against Rajapakse is the widely held perception that he is enabling his family to “rob" the country. The family allegedly bought a controlling stake in Sri Lanka’s largest hospital network Lanka hospitals through the State insurance company (Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse was since made Chairman). They also bought over a private television station and were recently said to be in negotiations to purchase a prime piece of embassy land in the heart of Colombo. Rajapakse has also never been quite able to shake off the “Helping Hambantota" controversy, where he was accused of siphoning off close to 830,000 USD meant for tsunami victims in his hometown Hambantota. Allegations of massive profit making through military deals have also hounded him, as has his blatant nepotism which has seen immediate family and close friends appointed to many of the top ministerial and government jobs in the country. (One of his brothers Gotabhaya Rajapakse is defence secretary, while his other two brothers Basil and Chamal hold the positions of Senior advisor to the President and Minister of Ports and Aviation respectively)

This widespread amassing of property and wealth has led to a lot of resentment among the middle and working classes who are struggling with a phenomenally high cost of living (inflation rates in the country are at 22.09%) and little increase in salary.

As a result Fonseka, who has been campaigning on a very “Obama-esque" platform of ‘Change’ seems to have won over many of the urban voters. However, as recent history has constantly shown, sentiment in Colombo cannot be used as a bellwether for how the elections will turn out. And even within the city there are whispers of Fonseka’s ruthlessness – how he was personally responsible for the murder of several journalists at the peak of the war, how he never even attempted to spare civilian lives in the final bloody push for military victory and how he intimidated and terrorized his own soldiers. There is also a not insignificant wariness, that given the widespread powers constitutionally enjoyed by the Executive Presidency, Fonseka will amount to a military dictator in civilian clothing.

President Rajapakse seemingly suffered a great set back on the eve of the elections with his predecessor Chandrika Kumaratunga coming out in support of Fonseka. However Rajapakse still has a strong support base in the Sinhala dominated south and opinion is divided on as to how the vote will go. Ironically enough the king makers here seem to be the minority Tamil community which has little to hope for from either candidate. Both candidates spout the suitable politically correct rhetoric on inclusiveness and equality. Yet in the months after the war, Rajapakse has done precious little to address certain fundamental issues that led to the civil war in the first place. Tamil, though legally recognized as an “official" language, is not widely spoken in government offices or police stations, leading to a continuing sense of alienation. The controversial IDP camps in the North are still a source of huge grievance and Tamils are still harassed at military checkpoints in the heart of the capital.

Fonseka has the advantage of having no track record by which he can be judged by, but was notoriously quoted as saying, “Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists and other minorities should learn to live with the Sinhalese". He has since changed his rhetoric, but the earlier tones of majoritarianism should not be completely ignored.

The increase in violence is also a clear warning sign that things are not likely to change in the next six years. Regardless of the closeness of the race and who may win in the end, one thing is very clear. The list of winners in this entire exercise is unlikely to include Sri Lankan democracy.

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