President’s Journey 4
Special supplement to mark four years of Rajapaksa Presidency                         HOME

Hard-won battle

By a special correspondent
President Mahinda Rajapaksa completes four years in office on Thursday. It marks the completion of two thirds of his first term as President. The speculation at present is about impending elections and this would be an opportune moment to reflect on the past four years as well as the challenges that await the President.
President Rajapaksa has his fair share of detractors but even they would readily concede that he has successfully overcome tremendous odds in the last forty eight months and well before that too.
It is an open secret that the higher echelons in his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) were not enamoured with the prospect of his candidacy at the 2005 presidential poll as the nominee of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA).

Nevertheless, then Prime Minister Rajapaksa soldiered on and won the election, cobbling together an unlikely alliance that included political forces as diverse as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) and the Eelam Peoples’ Democratic Party (EPDP).
Many felt that a key reason for President Rajapaksa’s victory was the boycott of the poll by voters in the North and East in response to a call by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who believed that a Rajapaksa presidency would be to their advantage as he was likely to pursue a militaristic approach towards them that would earn the wrath of the international community.

Even if that was so, as President, Mahinda Rajapaksa at least initially stuck to the ceasefire agreement signed by his rival Ranil Wickremesinghe and even sent his ministers to negotiate with the LTTE in Geneva.
At the outset of his tenure in office, President Rajapaksa’s first challenge was to establish himself firmly in the seat of power. This he did with a series of clever political manoeuvrings that showed how street smart a politician he was.

He began by side-lining and purging the SLFP of forces that were ultra-loyal to the Bandaranaike dynasty. Critics would say that Rajapaksa was being ungrateful but the President saw it as political necessity and didn’t hesitate to do so, for he knew that if these forces were allowed to flourish within his own party, he would eventually be undermined. Faced with this onslaught, some Bandaranaike loyalists morphed overnight into Rajapaksa devotees; others perished politically.

President Rajapaksa next sought to establish firm control over Parliament. He knew the vagaries that his predecessor Chandrika Kumaratunga had to endure because of an unstable legislature eventually having to concede governance to the United National Front (UNF). President Rajapaksa himself got a foretaste of how the lack of a stable majority in Parliament could affect his functioning when the nominee of the UNP, W.J.M. Lokubandara was elected as Speaker amidst a melee in the House.

Keen to avoid skirmishes with Parliament in the long term, the President cleverly invited and inveigled seventeen UNP members to join the Cabinet. It was a major political coup and a blow from which the UNP is yet to recover.
The President’s critics would argue that it was politically amoral to do so; President Rajapaksa would probably respond that politics is the art of the possible. Indeed, he could justifiably counter that it was the stable control he enjoyed over Parliament through this political strategy that enabled him to unwaveringly pursue the war against the LTTE and there is more than a modicum of truth in that.

Of course, the defeat of the LTTE has been President Rajapaksa’s icing on the cake. In hindsight, it was a big gamble. Four Presidents before him tried to contain the LTTE militarily, and had failed. One Prime Minister tried to negotiate with the Tigers and that ended in a dangerously one-sided ceasefire. All the while, the international community was watching, poised to intervene in whichever way they could in Sri Lanka’s conflict.
The secret of President Rajapaksa’s success on this score was his ability to grasp where his predecessors erred: they all vacillated between political expediency and military considerations and often sacrificed the latter for the former. Some of them also genuinely believed that the Tigers could not be defeated militarily, given their control of terrain, committed cadres, accumulated firepower and the unbridled support of the internationalised Tamil diaspora.

President Rajapaksa’s response was to throw all his eggs in the military basket. He gave the armed forces a free hand and picked his retired army officer brother Gotabhaya to liaise with the forces. No expense was spared and no questions were asked. The message was as simple as it was clear - defeat the LTTE, no matter what.
It is indeed unfortunate that the current political climate has given rise to a debate as to who should take credit for the defeat of the Tigers. This is only to be expected because, as Ranil Wickremesinghe will readily agree, defeat is an orphan while victory has many fathers.

Be that as it may, to give credit where it is due, the President’s crucial contribution to the conclusion of the conflict was in providing an unflinching political leadership to the military offensive, in the face of international pressure of mega proportions, the kind of which has never been experienced before by a head of state of this country.

There was a time-during the final phases of the Eelam War- when international leaders were literally at the President’s doorstep every other day demanding a halt to the war. The President did not yield for he believed firmly that winning the war and annihilating the LTTE and its leadership was the only way in which the Tigers could be dealt with and hindsight has proved him right.

Another crucial issue in the lead up to the conflict with the Tigers which President Rajapaksa read correctly-and J.R. Jayawardene before him bungled- was to get India on his side. This the President did with a diplomatic finesse few would have thought him capable of. The dividends of this are evident even now because New Delhi remains firmly on Colombo’s side while some western powers continue to be annoyed at little Sri Lanka’s spectacular success over the LTTE.

What then are the challenges ahead? The President’s task is far from over. For three decades, the unpalatable answer to the country’s economic stagnation was that the war was bleeding the country’s financial resources. That can no longer be an excuse and the voter will expect the President to deliver on this front as well.
Serendipitously or otherwi
se, some mega infrastructure projects such as the southern highway and the Hambantota port have commenced work. But such efforts take time to yield tangible dividends and the President will have to nurse his electorate carefully in the interim to ensure that his popularity does not wane because of a downturn in the economy.

Also high on the agenda must be a long term political solution to the grievances of all communities. Understandably, this has been pushed off the front pages for now because of election fever, but once the polls are done with the President must make every effort to win the peace as effectively as he won the war.
There are other issues to contend with as well. Corruption in government institutions and a cabinet of over a hundred ministers are all magnets that attract criticism which almost always is debited to the President’s political account.

As of now though, the nation will remember President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the man who delivered the country from the clutches of terrorism. It is an accolade the President richly deserves and one which even his most virulent critics will not grudge him. We must hope that the President will use that stature he now enjoys in the eyes of his countrymen to convert Sri Lanka into a peaceful and prosperous nation - a goal which has eluded this country for the past six decades.

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