The results of the recent Provincial Council elections represent both an Opportunity and a Threat. For the government it also made clear both its Strengths and its Weaknesses. Whether however government is willing to, or capable of, making the sort of SWOT analysis that will enable it to go down to history as one that brought peace and prosperity to Sri Lanka remains doubtful.
The Opportunity presented was by the Northern Province. Though the TNA swept the poll, the voters have expressed a marked preference for the moderates amongst them. The choice of Justice Wigneswaran, which was welcomed by pluralists in the South, turns out to have been entirely justified, given how overwhelmingly he topped the preferential vote.
It is true that, during the campaign, he engaged in rhetoric that seemed to suggest sympathy for terrorism. But, as I told a friend who seemed unduly worried about this, having gone out on a limb as it were in approbation of the Wigneswaran candidature, such rhetoric cannot be avoided in such elections. DBS Jeyaraj, the most perceptive of Tamil journalists, had pointed out the possible danger of this, given that Wigneswaran had been nominated against the wishes, not only of extremists, but also of those in Jaffna who would have preferred a man of the area.
Jeyaraj, I think understandably, worried about whether Wigneswaran would become a victim of his own rhetoric, something that has happened to so many politicians in Sri Lanka, including sadly Mr Bandaranaike and Mr Chelvanayakam. But the reason I remain optimistic about Wigneswaran is that, even while he was breathing fire on the campaign trail, he was enunciating a very moderate and sensible point of view internationally, as in the brave interview he gave to the ‘Hindu’. In that he made it clear that excessive interference by politicians from Tamilnadu was not at all helpful.
His forthrightness there is the more to be admired because the bane of Tamil politics has been the tendency to be influenced by outside factors. As I told the British Foreign Office in 2009 (before the Ministry of External Affairs became paranoid about me, and inhibited such contact), they had every reason to tell us to talk to the Tamils of Sri Lanka. This we ourselves needed and wanted to do. But to preach to us about talking to the TGTE was outrageous, and indicative of their own selfish electoral interests rather than the concerns of Sri Lankan Tamils. Even Mr Sambandan, who is I think a good man, but weak, has tended to follow foreign advice, with disastrous consequences, as I believe happened when he advocated support for Sarath Fonseka in the 2010 Presidential election. I don’t think Mr Wigneswaran, though he will be forthright in pushing for rights and equitable benefits for the people of the North, will make that sort of mistake.
Another reason for optimism is that finally, after two decades we have a Chief Minister – or rather two, for the other great Opportunity for Government is the outstanding performance of Dayasiri Jayasekara in the Wayamba Provincial Council election – able to innovate intelligently and use the powers Provincial Councils have to promote the interests of their people. When I noted this shortcoming over the last two decades – in promoting, at a recent discussion on Constitutional Reform held at the Marga Institute, the suggestion in the Vasantha Senanayake proposals that the Chief Minister of a Province should be directly suggested – my friend Dayan Jayatilleka, who disagreed vehemently in what seems a preposterous passion for the present preferential system of voting, claimed that I was wrong and cited Gamini Jayawickrema Perera as a counter example.
I think he proved my point for, since that very able man, we have had no Chief Minister with commensurate vision or capacity. But now both Wigneswaran and Jayasekara have the capacity to use the position to which the people have so overwhelmingly chosen them to develop their Provinces effectively.
There are risks however that both run. With the latter, the fear is that he will have foisted upon him a set of incompetent Ministers anxious only to recoup the massive amounts they spent on getting elected. If the President succumbs to pressure, and subverts the will of the people by not giving Dayasiri a free hand (as I fear he has subverted the will of the people in his own case, by not acting on the overwhelming mandate he himself received and instead delegating authority to individuals manifestly uninterested in the public welfare), then the people of Wayamba will suffer, a suffering that will be taken out subsequently on the government.
Wigneswaran has no such problem. The people of the North have provided him with enormously competent colleagues who will make admirable Ministers. His danger is that the more extreme supporters of the TNA (a minority in Sri Lanka, and I believe abroad too, though those that contribute actively from the diaspora tend to be unrepresentatively extreme) will try to push him into posturing, instead of concentrating on showing how a capable Provincial Administration can do much for the people with the powers it is able to exercise.
In this respect I have no doubt that much will be made of the lady who came second in the election in Jaffna. I have no idea of her capabilities but, if she proves confrontational, government has only itself to blame, in having permitted such blatant abuse against her. Indeed the abuse, ranging from violence to the false newspaper, were so beneficial to her, that it seems preposterous that anyone in government should have been responsible. On rational grounds, given how these actions benefited her, one would assume that she herself had initiated them – but sadly, there are people in government who are not rational, and worse, the more rational people in government seem incapable of stopping such excesses. This is yet another example of government not ensuring accountability with regard to small matters, which is why it is, to my mind unfairly, accused of massive crimes and misdemeanours.
The failure of government to have acquitted itself of the charges brought against it in 2009 will continue to haunt it, and not only in the North. The Threat that the elections have revealed to Government lies in the surprisingly good performance of Sarath Fonseka and his Democratic Alliance. He had achieved 5% of the vote without support from any major politician in this country. Though the UNP and the SLFP will claim that he did not eat into their vote base, and only took votes from the JVP and the other major party, the fact is that he has emerged as the choice of the disaffected, and this is a vote that can only grow.
I have long argued that the greatest enemy of the government is Ranil Wickremesinghe, not because he is an effective critic, but precisely because he is so ineffective. This lulls the President into complacency, just as it did Chandrika Kumaratunga, who would have been a much better President had Gamini Dissanayake not been killed.
The UNP itself has long realized how ineffective Ranil is, but it has believed that that does not matter, given how popular the President is. Its belief was, when the President finally loses popularity, or if there is any other candidate, none being a patch on the President, power would fall into the lap of the only alternative, the UNP. But now there is clearly another alternative, and if the UNP does not immediately change its leader, Sarath Fonseka – doubtless supported now by others, and not only those who have understood that the JVP is finished – will get 15% at the next Provincial Council elections.
A quarter of a century ago I wrote that J R Jayewardene brought continuing turmoil on the country because, having created three enemies, he made peace with only one. Having through his cynical manipulation of the constitution, as well as partisan and abusive conduct by the security forces, alienated the Sinhala opposition, the Tamil opposition and India, he made peace only with India – and India was at fault too in not having insisted on some sort of accommodation with the Sinhala opposition (it tried with the Tamils, but the LTTE was by then too intransigent).
Mahinda Rajapaksa has not alienated anyone, though individuals in his government have certainly done their best to alienate both India and moderate Tamil politicians. There has been no need to do anything with the UNP, because under Ranil the UNP has effectively alienated itself from the Sri Lankan people. But, now that a far greater threat than Ranil is looming, the President needs to use all his political skills to avert disaster.
This is where he must assess his Strengths and his Weaknesses. His greatest strength, apart from his personal empathy with the people, is the development he has initiated. His greatest weakness is the myopic and selfish politicians he juggles, without promoting the Constitutional changes an Executive President needs to fulfil his own potential.