Nation pays gratitude

On Tuesday, voters of this country handed a mandate to incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa for another term of office. The percentage of votes he received was second only to Chandrika Kumaratunga’s endorsement in 1994 and was the highest by a President seeking re-election. What then, is the story behind this success?
We believe that much of the vote that President Rajapaksa received was exactly that: A vote for President Rajapaksa and not for his government or the leading lights of his administration. It was also the country’s way of paying their gratitude to a leader who steadfastly pursued the battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and won.

The significance of these factors must not be lost as the President focuses on his next political move. Parliament needs to be dissolved by April and therefore, a General Election is a necessity. Now immune from electoral pressures himself, his last electoral test will be that election and he will be keen to emerge with flying colours.
President Rajapaksa campaigned on a platform of continuity and able leadership against his principal rival, the politically inexperienced General Sarath Fonseka who was sponsored by an assorted opposition that included the United National Party (UNP), the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and had as his main slogan the abolition of the executive presidency and re-establishing good governance.

The election campaign itself was marred by an unprecedented degree of bitterness and acrimony with personal mud-slinging being the hallmark instead of intelligent discussion of campaign issues. The opposition was also to complain about the abuse of state media and other resources, a sentiment a much tormented Commissioner of Elections seemed to agree with.

At the end of it all, we now have a victor in President Rajapaksa and it is only opportune to reflect on the challenges that confront the President. As we said in these columns last week, two major issues need urgent attention: Redressing the grievances of ‘minority’ communities and creating an economic climate conducive for development. Both these tasks are formidable hurdles.

When President Rajapaksa reflects on the election results, it is obvious that just as much as he won a convincing mandate from the South of the country, he was equally defeated in the North and East. If he looks at the map at an electoral level, he will also find that he has lost in most constituencies that have significant proportions of ‘minority’ voters, even in the South. This must indeed be food for thought for the President.

It cannot be argued that ‘minority’ communities were venting their anger and taking their revenge from President Rajapaksa for prosecuting the war because the President’s principal opponent was General Sarath Fonseka, the man who did that on the battlefield. He emerged a conclusive winner in the North and East.

Therefore, is the President who won the war in danger of losing the peace? This must be a troubling thought for the President. It is now eight months since the war against the LTTE was concluded. On the many occasions when he was questioned about a political solution to ethnic grievances, the President is on record saying it would have to await the conclusion of elections - a not unreasonable answer.

Now that the presidential elections are over and done with and General Elections will surely be concluded within the next three months, this issue must receive utmost priority on the President’s agenda. And, as the leader of the nation for the next half a dozen years, the onus is on him to formulate and implement a series of political reforms, if needed, with constitutional amendments that meet the aspirations of the minorities.

The advantage that President Mahinda Rajapaksa enjoys in this respect in stark contrast to Opposition and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, for instance, is that he has the confidence of the majority community who feel assured that they will not be betrayed by him. He is, therefore, the best man for the job of finding a just and equitable solution to ethnic grievances, for whatever he sells will be bought by the majority.

It is a luxury that no Sinhalese politician has enjoyed before. Dudley Senanayake, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, J.R. Jayewardene and Chandrika Kumaratunga all tried to sell their political solutions to the South and failed. And President Rajapaksa has an added advantage thrown in: He need not seek re-election any more. It is indeed a historic opportunity which he must not let slip.

If the President succeeds in this effort, the other issue that must be redressed – kick starting a reluctant economy - will surely fall into place because a stable and peaceful Sri Lanka with its educated labour force will be an irresistible magnet for investors. And then, the President would have achieved at least part of his stated objective of propelling this country from the Third World to the First World.

It is a tremendous challenge with formidable odds. But President Mahinda Rajapaksa, as this presidential election campaign showed, always relishes a challenge. For the sake of the nation, we hope that he can overcome them too.