The Challenge to reunify a divided polity
One of the main reasons given for supporting the institution of the executive presidency was that it enabled the minorities to have a say in the election of the president and thereby induce the president to be more sensitive to their interests. But President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election campaign, and the election result itself, demonstrated how appealing to the ethnic majority’s sense of being threatened and of being sidelined due to the dominance of other interests could unify the ethnic majority population to vote cohesively. President Rajapaksa scored an impressive victory at the presidential election winning 52.5 percent of the vote when the general expectation was that a second preference count would be necessary as no candidate could get more than 50 percent of the vote.
President Rajapaksa’s victory has not only debunked the theory that victory at a presidential election necessarily requires the support of the ethnic and religious minorities. It has at the same time shown the existence of an acute polarization, and wound, in the body politic that needs healing. The election results showed that the ethnic and religious minorities voted against the new president in higher proportion than the ethnic majority voted in favour of him. The challenge to him would be to heal this division that has grown wider since the Easter Sunday bomb attacks six months ago. But this ethnic and religious divide is not a new or recent phenomenon. Like in many other countries such as in Northern Ireland, Serbia and Israel, these divisions go back several hundred years if not more.
The Mahavamsa, the great chronicle of Sinhalese history, records as one of its central themes, the protection of Buddhism and the Sinhalese race from Tamil invasions originating from South India. This memory would be re-invoked by the oath taking of President Rajapaksa at the Ruvanvaliseya in Anuradhapura, which is the sacred Buddhist temple built by the hero king of the Sinhalese, Dutugemunu, nearly two thousand years ago, following his defeat of the Tamil king, Elara. As the Defense Secretary at the time of the defeat of the LTTE in 2009, the oath taking of President Rajapaksa at this sacred religious site has a symbolic resonance with the past which could also be used for the purposes of furthering national reconcilaition. The Mahavamsa records that after winning the war, Dutugemunu treated his dead foe’s remains with respect and ordered the building of a tomb which no one should pass except on foot.
The prioritization of national security in the election campaign of President Rajapaksa had popular support in the context of the Easter Sunday bombing which signified a massive security failure on the part of the government and its leadership. This attack gave renewed life to the existential fears of the ethnic majority who saw the problem of Islamic extremism, and its violence, as extending beyond the shores of Sri Lanka and relegating them to the status of a threatened minority, albeit in international terms. President Rajapaksa’s election campaign gave reassurance to this sense of insecurity on the part of the Sinhalese majority, and that they would be protected. However, this also enabled the president’s political opponents to evoke fear in the ethnic and religious minorities that this priority to national security would translate into oppression against them.
One of the urgent tasks for President Rajapaksa would be to shape and implement policies that will give confidence to the ethnic and religious minorities that they will be treated as equal citizens without discrimination and protected accordingly. Many of them, especially Tamils, have a memory of the period of war when national security considerations took priority over other considerations in the face of LTTE attacks and the possibility of terrorism. The post-war period saw organized attacks on Muslims, which the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa failed to prevent or to take action against those who engaged in the violence. Indeed it was believed to have been supportive of some of the Sinhalese extremist groups that behaved violently. During the election campaign these memories were brought to the fore by the election propaganda on both sides of the political divide.
President Rajapaksa is to be complimented for his victory speech, where he said he was the president not only of those who voted for him but also those who voted against him, irrespective of which race or religion they belonged to. There are two major concerns that the minorities will have that need to be addressed. The first is their fear for their personal security and their security as a community. This is reflected in SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem’s congratulatory message to the new president. He said, “The most urgent priority would be to maintain law and order, respect rule of law and nurture the country’s pluralistic and democratic values.” Apart from their security concerns, the minorities also want the democratic space to further their political rights, which the Tamil people in particular have been doing for the past seven decades since Independence.
The issue of personal and community security will be easier to ensure today than it was in the past. The war is now ten years into the past. During the past five years the people enjoyed a great improvement in their freedom from fear which was partly due to the restraint of former President Maithripala SIrisena and the government, which led to the strengthening of institutions including the police, Human Rights Commission and judiciary. This needs to continue by ensuring that the rule of law functions and the police and judiciary act independently without political interference. These actions at the higher levels can be supplemented by actions at the community level, such as the strengthening of district and local level inter-religious councils, which are supported by the police along with support of the local government officials and community leaders.
With regard to the two issues of political rights and justice for past violations the new president will need more time for consultations to develop the solutions that are acceptable to both the ethnic and religious majority and minority. The inability of the present government to resolve these problems was primarily due to its inability to take the ethnic and religious majority along with it, which ultimately led to its defeat at the presidential election. With his overwhelming support from the ethnic majority, President Rajapaksa is well positioned to make a difference this time.
President Rajapaksa’s first pronouncements have been reassuring to the country at large. He has requested government officers to only place the seal of the republic on the walls of their offices and not his photograph. This is a new tradition, followed in developed countries, but not in Sri Lanka until now. It gives a symbolic indication of the modernizing vision of the new president, which is to draw a distinction between the state and government. The challenge will be to implement this rules-based approach to all levels of the polity. In addition, President Rajapaksa asked his supporters to celebrate the victory peacefully. Violence is not only physical. There is currently a spate of hate speech against the ethnic and religious minorities who are seen by those who supported the president as traitors to the country. President Rajapaksa needs to call for an end to this as one of his first steps in reassuring the ethnic and religious minorities and in reuniting the divided polity.