Landside victory for Rajapaksa
After a tumultuous buildup to last Tuesday’s presidential vote, the re-election of Mahinda Rajapaksa marks a defining moment for Sri Lanka as the country navigates through the unclear waters of its post-war era.
Rajapaksa’s victory earns him his second six-year term in office.
Many view the win as an endorsement of the executive action which officially brought Sri Lanka’s decade-long civil war to an end in 2009.
As the architect of last year’s aggressive military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) controlled northeast provinces, Rajapaksa earned tremendous support from Sri Lankan voters.
Only four years into his term, it was on the basis of this support that Rajapaksa chose to hold an election two years premature.
As opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka enjoyed a similar degree of popularity after the conclusion of the war, many expected a close race.
While lacking political experience, Fonseka, the former general of Sri Lanka’s armed forces, was considered to have a high degree of momentum going into last week’s election. In this context, Rajapaksa’s commanding 57 per cent win comes as a surprise to many.
However, Rajapaksa’s support is not unanimous. Since the end of British rule in 1948, the island nation has been defined by the tensions between ethnic Sinhalese and Tamils and the deep divisions between the two.
Rudhramoorthy Cheran, a professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Windsor, believes that demographic voting patterns reflect this long standing divergence.
He explained that “in the northeast, the joint opposition candidates garnered more than 60 per cent of the vote, so it clearly tells us that the country is still politically and ethnically divided.”
According to Cheran, the voting disparity reflects an opposition to the ideological basis of Rajapaksa’s presidency.
“If you look at the pattern of voting, the minorities, namely the Tamils and Muslims, have clearly rejected his leadership and his policies.”
Perhaps most controversial amongst President Rajapaksa’s policies is his solution to Sri Lanka’s civil conflict.
The defeat and dissolution of the LTTE rebel militia and their leadership last May came only after several months of bombing and military strikes against the almost exclusively Tamil-populated eastern and northern provinces.
The attacks drew criticism for their unprecedented ferocity; UN estimates placed civilian casualties at upwards of 7,000 with 300,000 more left displaced from their homes and trapped within war zones.
These totals have prompted some critics to label the military action an abuse of human rights and even an outright genocide.
They are accusations Rajapaksa vehemently denies. In an interview with Time magazine, the president articulated his defence, stating, “I reject that totally.
“There was no violation of human rights. There were no civilian casualties. If I did that, it wouldn’t have taken two and a half years to finish this. I would have done this in a few hours. These are all propaganda.”
The invectives leveled against the president are not limited to war zones.
Under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency, the Sri Lankan government has been labeled responsible for widespread and systemic political abductions and executions.
Anna Niestat of the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) alludes to the severity of the problem in footage available on the organization’s website.
Sarath Fonseka echoed similar sentiments of government intimidation after the election.
The former close ally of Rajapaksa accused the president of vote tampering and threatening his life during a press conference from his hotel, claiming, “There is no democracy; this government is behaving like murderers.”
Despite the turmoil following the the elections, Rajapaksa maintains the legitimacy of his presidency; however, critics like Cheran remain skeptical.
“The Sri Lankan government has succeeded in defeating the military face of the Tamil.
However, the underlying political factors and political questions still simmer … there is no Tamil question, there is no Tamil problem and everything else is settled and that is one of the most troubling factors for anyone who is worried about collective rights and minority rights.”