On the edge

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory provides him with another six years to address the multiple problems that confront Sri Lanka. He has won the elections by a huge margin. Still, given the bitterness that accompanied the campaign and the deep political polarisation in the country, it is likely that the emphatic mandate will not automatically translate into unquestioned political authority for Rajapaksa during the second term in office. So much so, the combined opposition has even started questioning the poll verdict. There are also fears of post-election violence between supporters of Rajapaksa and his main rival and former army chief Sarath Fonseka. The drama that unfolded in Colombo on Wednesday morning, with heavily armed troops surrounding a hotel where Fonseka was staying is reason for more concern. There are dangerous signs of the Lankan army getting increasingly politicised. A defeated Fonseka immediately made known his lack of confidence in the army that he once led as one of his close aides sought protection from ‘a neighbouring country.’

In his first term, Rajapaksa chose to pursue a military solution to the ethnic conflict. While he was successful in defeating the LTTE on the battlefield, the ethnic question remains. It is eight months now since the Tigers were defeated, yet the President has taken no steps towards a political settlement of the problem. He cannot afford to drag his feet any longer, as Tamil alienation from the state, evident from the low voter turnout in Tuesday’s polling, remains almost complete.

The political polarisation in the island nation can go out of hand unless Rajapaksa extends a reconciliatory hand to the opposition. General elections to parliament are due by April. The political divide and stirring of ethnic and political sentiments might help his party win votes but it can lead to unprecedented violence. Sri Lanka is justifiably proud of its democratic tradition and the successful conclusion of the presidential election is undoubtedly a significant achievement. Yet, elections alone do not make a democracy. Sri Lanka’s democracy has been steadily weakened over the years by a trend of the militarisation of society. The press has been muzzled and political dissent is not tolerated. Rajapaksa too has a role in this. The resounding mandate gives him an opportunity to restore these democratic rights as indeed another chance to find a lasting solution to the ethic question.

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