With the November 17 th Presidential elections in Sri Lanka fast approaching, attention has been focussed on the respective policy documents put out by the present Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse of the United Front People's Alliance and the Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremasinghe, also a former Prime Minister from the United National Party. Not much has been said or heard in the public domain about what the other eleven candidates have to offer except possibly from a successful Ayurvedic entrepreneur physician, Dr. Hettigoda, who has promised a high milk yielding cow for each family to supply milk-the perfect food! Although there seems to be much political debate in the south of the country, the response from the main Tamil political party- the TNA- has been cool towards both candidates because of their past experience with democracy and political failures to realise their aspirations on behalf of the majority of Tamil people in the northeast during the past 49 years. Their attitude reflects the sombre mood expressed by the LTTE, a party to the present Peace Process along with the Government, that no useful purpose would be served by associating with the present election process as it is mainly concerned with the welfare of the Sinhala people. Needless to mention that this process, particularly the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), has come increasingly under strain over the past 18 months or so in the context of well known conflict developments between two rival Tamil factions in the east resulting in trading of accusations and counter accusations between the two parties to the Agreement. To compound an already difficult ethnic situation is the abject failure of the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS) to dispense even humanitarian foreign aid to Tamil victims of the December 26, 2004 tsunami to date.
The two main candidates, on the other hand, seem to project on the surface a national image of what might lie in store should one of them win the coveted Presidency. In the difficult and altogether unpredictable world of politics in Sri Lanka it is still worth analysing and prognosticating what might be expected in the event of either candidate winning the election. At first glance their promises ring a familiar bell from what has been spouted by candidates in earlier elections. In essence, the two documents centre around two main themes – peace and the economy - except in different orders of priority. Rajapakse mentions peace first as the prelude to solving the economic problems while Wickremasinghe sees the development of the economy as the harbinger to solving what has proven to be the intractable problem of peace. Everybody will agree that both thrusts are vital and one cannot obviously be solved without the other. There was a time in the course of the 18 year old war from 1983 to 2001 to confine the problem of war (and peace) to the northeast areas alone while the central strategy appeared to be to pursue economic development in the south. But this proved abortive when the horrible effects of war spilled over into the rest of the country. A turning point was reached, or apparently so, when peace was promised in 1994 under a new President but it subsequently turned out to be the worst period of warring from 1995 to 2001 under the infamous, strange as it sounds, ‘war for peace' strategy! The realisation that everyone is the loser in war mercifully dawned on the parties to the conflict when the point of no win–no lose stalemate was reached towards the end of this period. The price paid by the Tamil people had been horrendously heavy while that paid by the Sinhala people and the state too had been very significant. To return to these conditions seems unimaginable. It seems obvious that a simultaneous twin track progression towards peace and economic development is a sine
qua non to further all people's welfare, whoever wins the election.
This would not be the first time that the ethnic question has surfaced above all else in election manifestos. The settlement of the national ethnic question had been promised ad nauseam several times before but failed miserably in terms of achievement once the elections were over or a little later. The use of ethnicity as a winsome election ‘weapon' has become an entrenched political phenomenon. This time round, however, marks a radically different scenario with the emergence of the LTTE as a national player in terms of achievement of a durable peace. Both electioneering documents acknowledge this hard fact. However, there are similarities and dissimilarities in their respective approach. What is not clear, however, is why there is so much depth given to micro-details of the economy rather than policy approach in both documents when these aspects would seem a legitimate part of the duty of the government parliamentary party in power when presenting annual budgets rather than in a Presidential election. Unless both the President and the government party in power belong to the same political persuasion such presentation could lead to possible conflict and political logjam. In fact, this occurred in 2003 when President Kumaratunge dissolved parliament and sacked the UNP government over the detail of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). It turned out that in the end, not an iota of change was made to the CFA except a change of government in parliament! In hindsight, it was a particularly costly exercise for democracy. Perhaps this may be the reason why Wickremasinghe has already indicated that he would dissolve parliament should he win the election and why there is heated debate at the present time about the presentation of the annual budget before the election by the present Rajapakse government. Clearly, there is an underlying political and constitutional problem associated with the functional roles of an Executive President and of the government political party in power. Constitutions in the
past have been tinkered from time to time to suit the fortunes and agendas of individual politicians and political parties in power.
The Similarities and Dissimilarities
Although both documents cite the importance of peace and the economy as future drivers of national unity and development, the reason why Wickremasinghe gives precedence to the economy is perhaps based on the high cost of living prevailing for some years now as a crucial factor on the minds of voters and hence deserving of higher priority. He has also expressed continuity of approach under the Peace Process from where he left off last when in power just over 18 months ago. The crucial importance of the economy, in either case, may have been reinforced by the very high level of national debt (115%) of the GDP mainly associated with the high cost of the war effort by governments which had consumed in total over 8 billion dollars (in an annual 18 billion dollar economy each year or 5.5% of GDP) from 1983 up to 1998, according to known figures. With heavy dependence on imports much stands to be gained if only available scarce resources can be diverted from guns, bombs and bullets to rice and curry issues and essentials of everyday life of all citizens provided the will to forge a durable peace dividend is forthcoming at the highest level, something unachievable to date.
Vis-à-vis The Peace Process
Prime Minister Rajapakse's ‘Chintana' has emphasised rather blandly that he will achieve peace without going to war. But how he will achieve this enviable goal is not spelt out except for mention of finding a consensus within parliament and a Head to Head Meeting with the Leader of the LTTE. Based on this premise he postulates his aim is to preserve “unity, sovereignty, security and civil rights of all ‘groups' (as distinct from citizens)”. His strategy poses the following irreconcilable difficulties in terms of what has progressed already under the Peace Process:
His criticism and promised marginalisation, if not exclusion, of Norway as the international ‘Facilitator'
His rejection of concepts held dear to the LTTE and the political Tamil National Alliance such as traditional homelands and the right to self-determination
His strong commitment to review the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) on an assumption of leaving no room for ‘terrorist acts'
His intention to let the central government take over the duties of distributing aid to Tsunami victims in place of the decentralised arrangements foreseen under the signed P-TOMS Agreement, thereby implying its abrogation despite having introduced it in parliament
His strong commitment to stick to the unitary constitution
By posturing his intention to start from scratch, one is led to the serious question whether his intention of achieving peace may not prove to be altogether a mirage. It needs no second guessing that the exclusion of Norway , the Chief Architect of the CFA endorsed by the two parties to the conflict, is bound to lead to the breakdown of the tenuous ceasefire on the ground. Even with the presence of several Scandinavian Monitors throughout the northeast, the CFA has been difficult to be upheld with reports of violations by both sides. Surely, with the potential absence of the intermediary for future communication between the two parties no second guessing is needed as to future outcomes. His insistence in sticking to the present unitary constitution, which was anyway based on a unilateral imposition in 1972 by the Sinhala political parties, an arrangement that has proved unworkable over the years along with the sum total of all negative ethnic and religious experiences, is unlikely to find the assumed consensus in parliament. Far from unity what is readily discernible is disunity along ethnic and religious divides. Neither does it respect the universal principle that sovereignty lies with the citizens (as enshrined in the Sri Lanka constitution as well) and not with individuals or parties. Nor has it paved the way for security or good governance for all citizens. Worst affected have been civil rights of minorities and human rights of all people. Rajapakse's assertion of finding a consensus in parliament is all too reminiscent of the zero outcome of the All Party Conference on the ethnic issue which took place over a few years ago. If no lessons have been learnt from the past it is quite unlikely there can be progress in the future on this score.
There is as yet an unexplored option proposed by Rajapakse, namely: the envisioned Head to Head Talks with the Leader of the LTTE. After all, nobody expected the collapse of the Cold War which had raged for decades after WWII until the Reagan-Gorbachev Talks, considered implacable foes until that time. IF Rajapakse-Prabhakaran meeting eventuates, can they pull off a similar stunning surprise? Should none of these options work, in the event of a Rajapkse win, the worst possible scenario could be a return to hostilities with no remedies in sight but with terrible consequences all round. Could this perhaps be the reason why Rajapakse mentions his intention to forge some kind of a Regional Safety Net comprising India , Pakistan and China , on top of the extant International Safety Net. It would, therefore, appear that he seems prepared to go to any extent and cost, if only to thwart the aspirations of the Tamil people in terms of denying them security, sovereignty, democracy, their just rights and livelihoods by continuing the same policies practised from 1948, more particularly from 1956 to 2005! The willingness of these countries to intervene militarily to solve what is purely an internal ethno-religious and governance conflict is, however, not known. This fact had previously dawned on the members of the International Community in Washington when they emphasised the prima facie
need for direct talks between the two parties with whatever support needed from Facilitator Norway.
Wickremasinghe's Manifesto, in comparison, is short on details on peace except, in the main, to say that he would be continuing with the Peace Process from where he left off earlier with the signing of the CFA with the LTTE and in terms of his support to P-TOMS Agreement. In order not to be outdone on sensitive ethnic issues by his rival at the hustings in the south he has emphasised that he would bring an ‘end to separatism' by citing the Tokyo and Oslo Accord/Principles, in particular the latter, by which the LTTE had agreed to give up its claim to a separate state in return for power sharing with the Centre under an agreed federal arrangement in respect of the northeast. However, further developments have taken place since he was overthrown from office in 2003. In particular:
The internal rift within the LTTE with the Karuna faction resulting in killings and counter killings in the east in government controlled areas with allegations and counter allegations between the government and the LTTE over covert support to this group (denied by the former).
The emergent Muslim Representation that their demand for a more limited power sharing in the east in Muslim dominated areas be also considered in the context of any overall federal arrangement for the northeast.
The Manifesto promise to obtain consensus with other parties, particularly the SLFP (with which they share in common a past of exploiting ethno-religious issues from 1956 to win elections in the south and by reneging on agreements signed with the chief political Tamil Party.
The Manifesto promise to establish a separate Ministry for War Displaced in the north and east, presumably to meet insufficiencies under the present Ministry for Reconstruction and Rehabilitation.
Progression with tsunami reconstruction and assistance under P-TOMS Agreement .
Overall, Wickremasinghe's approach seems less controversial for an orderly progression towards peace provided he gets the full support of the military which he might expect as C-in-C of the Armed Forces if he wins the election. His biggest challenge will be to implement in full the terms of the CFA, as insisted on previous occasions in talks with the LTTE, particularly those vital sections relating to High Security Zones which have been acting like mill stones round the necks of Tamil people in government controlled areas in respect of their security, living abodes and livelihoods for over a decade. Hopefully, the proposed creation of a separate Ministry for War displaced people for the NE will cater not only to the tens of thousands of internally displaced families but to meet the needs of many returning from Third countries. However, the question arises whether he can expect support now from the SLFP after all these years of dissent between them? What happens if this optimistic consensus building flounders, something it holds in common with the ‘Chintana' prospect? As for support from the JVP and the JHU this is unlikely to be forthcoming in view of their strong stand against any form of agreement with the LTTE except on their terms under a unitary constitution with power domination from the Centre.
Vis-à-vis The Economy
In addition to the social fabric that has taken the biggest beating is the economy which has been shattered as much by 18 years of brutal warring. With a very high national debt, with relatively low level of revenue collection as a percentage of total income earners, with burgeoning population growth and rising living standard expectations, high unemployment, high living costs with double digit inflation, an anticipated high cost of reconstruction of war ravaged areas coupled with a still high defence budget ($700 m in 2005) the over-riding importance of rapid economic expansion in the short to medium term needs no emphasis. One should also not forget checking inefficiencies and corruption in the public sector bureaucracy as noted by many commentators. One could, therefore, have looked forward to bold economic initiatives in either document. But they are both disappointingly meagre in this regard. On the other hand, they are both brimming with micro-details to outdo one another about the number of jobs promised, year by year and in the longer term, subsidies at controlled prices for fertiliser, for various kinds of food items and cash subsidies to cushion the high cost of living. They differ only in respect of minor detail. There is neither mention of what total costs are involved nor from where the resources will be forthcoming nor how the relatively high predicted economic growth rates (8% by Rajapakse, 10% by Wickremasinghe) are achievable. With these uncertainties will the cost of living not rise further or can it reasonably be expected to reduce? The gamut of short-term panaceas had been promised in the more recent past but hardly achieved in practice to reduce the cost of living. Without foreign investments, massive foreign aid input, and an expansion of export-oriented trade, employment opportunities and promotion of tourism it seems inconceivable that many of the promises made by either candidate are achievable. In this context, the a priori importance of the peace div
idend likely to affect all citizens hardly needs stressing.
Rajapakse's ‘Chintana' foresees the creation of more jobs in the public sector while the role of the private sector is likely to be limited. With some 110,000 additional jobs promised by 2007 it is not known how or where these vacancies will be created. Massive recruitment to the military is a distinct possibility but could be a self-defeating exercise when 80,000 have been acknowledged officially to have deserted its ranks over the past few years! Among the other benefits promised are salary increases (70%) yet outstanding to public officials, duty free cars to certain categories of people and public officials, pension benefits, housing benefits to the military and so on. Without mention of how the promised expenditures will be met the possibility of considerably enhanced borrowings remains a distinct possibility.
Wickremasinghe's Manifesto too has references to a number of subsidies and poverty alleviation measures but differs from the former in that reliance is placed on both the public and private sectors. It holds out a promise for a million more jobs within 5 years and even claims, albeit exaggeratedly, it can, “completely eliminate unemployment”, something unachievable even in developed economies! It promises a ‘Parakum Era' in agriculture and fisheries development, something not unachievable with the Mahaveli diversion for which his party can claim credit. If an acceptable solution to the vast extents of cultivable and fisheries areas rendered unproductive in the economically immobilised HSZs in the northeast can be found, an initiative of this kind can make the country self-sufficient in rice and other agricultural and fisheries products in a relatively short time. Besides, it can help solve to a significant extent the very high level of unemployment among Tamil people in such areas which is an obvious cause of acute political and social unrest.
Unfortunately, there is the absence of an overarching longer-term vision statement in both documents other than the many mundane references in minute details.