New President: What’s in store for minorities?

Analyses of results of last Saturday’s presidential election seem to run counter to recent history. The main reason for the assumptions of political analysts seems to be the popular but wrong presumption that people always support candidates on the basis of their policies and past performances.

Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the election by a majority of 1,360,016 votes over his closest rival Sajith Premadasa from New Democratic Front (NDF). Rajapaksa mustered 6,924,255 votes or 52. 25 per cent of total valid votes while Premadasa managed to garner only 5,564,239 votes which constituted 41.99 per cent.

There was a clear pattern in people’s support to the two main contenders which also demonstrated a somewhat polarisation on ethnic lines. People in Sinhalese dominated areas in seven provinces overwhelmingly voted for former Defence Secretary Rajapaksa while almost the entirety of Northern and Eastern Provinces, a large part of the plantation areas in up-country and a section of the Western coast – all dominated by minority communities – sided with Premadasa.

Premadasa, who is also a Sinhalese Buddhist and the son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, was able to draw only 30 per cent or less Sinhalese votes in many areas.

Several analysts assume Rajapaksa won all Sinhalese dominated districts due to his Sinhalese nationalist approach and the fact that his camp overwhelmingly used race and religion for propaganda. They argue Premadasa’s camp worked against Sinhalese sentiments despite him being a nationalist.

However, in spite of some of the leaders of Premadasa’s party, the United National Party (UNP) having hurt the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalistic sentiments at times, this view cannot be corroborated in light of the defeat of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the presidential election in 2015. He used nationalistic slogans to the hilt at all elections pre-2015. He appeared more nationalistic than his brother Gotabaya and in fact has still been the hero and star in the Sinhalese nationalist camp. Yet, he who was considered invincible then was routed by a group accused of being less or anti nationalist.

If we take nationalism as the only major force decisive of election victories, we will be at a loss in explaining the humiliating defeat of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) chief Ven. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera at the parliamentary election in August 2015. Similarly, Dr. Nalin de Silva of the Sinhalese nationalist camp who contested under Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) – yet another Sinhalese nationalistic party – at the 1994 general elections was also defeated.

Hailing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s nationalistic approach when dealing with national issues, Gnanasara Thera announced on Tuesday that BBS would be dissolved subsequent to the next parliamentary election as the country was now in safe hands. Does he mean it was not in safe hands during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure during which he formed his organisation?

“Despite the ending of war having brought in a new lease of life for Tamils in war-ravaged areas, a sense of humiliation caused by the decimation of a Tamil leadership by a Sinhalese force still seems to hurt them”

Another interesting argument in respect of Premadasa’s defeat is that UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had meticulously planned the ruination of political future of his main rival in the party, Sajith Premadasa, by fielding him for last Saturday’s poll. It is astonishing to note that most of those who argue on this line of thinking accused Wickremesinghe of dragging feet in fielding Premadasa some two months ago. It was not only Premadasa who was humbled at the election but his party and Wickremesinghe as well.

In fact, Rajapaksa’s victory at last week’s election is nothing but an extension of the trend that helped the SLPP sweep the electorate at local government elections held on February 10 last year. The SLPP won more than 230 out of 340 local bodies at that election which also indicated that it is going to form the next government. The prospects of a political party matter more than its policies in persuading floating voters. Thus, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory was predetermined.

Hence, if one were to find out the factors that brought in the current regime change, one has to look for them in the downfall of the UNP at last year’s LG polls which occurred just within three years after it captured power in 2015.

Newspapers published Sri Lanka’s map with support bases of Gotabaya and Sajith in different colours when giving coverage to election results. It depicted a clear division of the country with Premadasa’s support base resembling the Tamil Eelam map used by the LTTE and other separatist groups. There seems to be an attempt to use this map to say Tamil Eelam has resurfaced after the four-year UNP-led government. However, voting pattern in the last presidential election held at the end of the Rajapaksa regime and five years after the end of the war was no different.

One may even argue that the divisive voting pattern by the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims and to some extent the Catholics could not be termed as ethnic polarisation as they have voted – almost en bloc – for a Buddhist who is also a Sinhalese nationalist. When northern Tamil parties announced their 13 demands that were to be presented to the three main candidates including JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake who contested under National People’s Power (NPP), Premadasa publicly but without naming any individual or party said he would not accept conditions set by anybody in lieu of support extended to him.

Therefore, the support extended to him by Tamils and Muslims cannot be deemed Tamil or Muslim communalism but should be seen as a protest vote against the communalist attitude rampant in the Rajapaksa camp.

“Tamil and Muslim leaders must have the courage to face their version of extremism
Prospects of a political party matter more than its policies in persuading floating voters “

Rajapaksas have been anathema to Tamils, especially those who live in the North and East, ever since LTTE fortifications started to fall like dominos in 2007. It turned into hate after the LTTE leadership was decimated by the armed forces while thousands of civilians perished before their own eyes. Despite the ending of war having brought in a new lease of life for Tamils in war-ravaged areas, a sense of humiliation caused by the decimation of a Tamil leadership by a Sinhalese force still seems to hurt them.

Besides, the unceasing triumphalist rhetoric over war victory heard from the South, especially from the Rajapaksa camp, seems to repeatedly jeopardise the healing process. The anathema was such that the Tamils even voted for the ‘General’ who spearheaded the successful last lap of the war, at the 2010 presidential election, to defeat the Rajapaksas.

The case with the Muslims was different. They overwhelmingly supported Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2010 presidential election, but the hate campaign against them started by the BBS between 2012 and 2014 distanced them from the ruling party as they felt let down by the government. National Freedom Front leader Wimal Weerawansa predicted then that the hate campaign would ultimately end up in the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa, but the government turned a deaf ear.

Again, after last year’s LG election victory by the SLPP, there was a trend among Muslims towards the SLPP, but that too reversed by the second wave of hate campaign by politicians and the media affiliated to the SLPP, after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks.

Ultimately, we now have a situation where people tend to take decisions during elections on the basis of ethnicity or religion which is counterproductive in terms of reconciliation and economic development. The remedy seems to be a two-way process, though the initiative has to be taken by the government. The southern leaders have to reach out to the minorities while bridling the extremists among them while the Tamil and Muslim leaders must have the courage to face their version of extremism and abandon the unrealistic communal demands such as the merger of provinces and creation of a South-Eastern Muslim Provincial Council.