Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Postcard from Colombo: Minorities could decide tight race

Monday, 25 January 2010 21:06 Sein Win

Colombo - Shortly after I installed my Sri Lanka SIM card, my phone beeped with a short but alarming message in the inbox. The message carried the countrywide survey results compiled by the University of Kelaniya for the forthcoming election – projecting current President Rajapaksa at 60 percent with opposition candidate Fonseka polling a distant 40 percent.

After receiving the SMS I asked journalist friends attending a press conference at the Center for Monitoring Election Violence, or CMEV, in Colombo about the findings, but none seemed ready to accept the results.

Sri Lanka will conduct a presidential election tomorrow between the current President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and former army commander General Sarath Fonseka.

About 14 million of the country’s 20 million people are eligible to cast votes, and election commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake has predicted an 80 percent turnout rate.

Both candidates enjoy popularity associated with the vanquishing of the Timil Tiger separatists, but Fonseka supporters believe a tight race is ahead. And many people fear more violence could occur after results are announced on Wednesday morning in a winner-take-all preferential vote system.

Violence has beset Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Jewel of the Indian Ocean’ for the better part of a month leading up to the polling. According to CMEV, five people have been murdered and there have been 365 major incidents, including assaults, threats and intimidation in a period of 34 days.

Speculation is rife that Rajapaksa’s call to hold elections two years ahead of his six-year term mandate is a calculated gamble, as he is faced with growing questions from Western backers and the United Nations over how he waged his war against the Tamil separatists. Meanwhile, Fonseka believes he was given the ceremonial post of Chief of Defense as a means of deterring his growing popularity.

Rajapaksa’s victory over the Tamil Tigers was followed by a loss in confidence suffered at the hands accusations of nepotism, cronyism and corruption in his administration, especially among the urban population, accounting for 25 percent of the island’s total, who have expressed their disappointment with seeing relatives and friends of Rajapaksa in powerful positions and making money because of it. For its part, the government is quoting economic growth greater than corresponding figures four years previously.

The president has wooed Sinhalese nationalists in rural and urban regions by taking credit for unifying and stabilizing the country.

However, the younger generation has been vocal in calling for change, and there seems a chance that a majority will vote for Fonseka.

The incumbent has been taken to task for spending an estimated US$ 2 billion for military spending in 2008 alone, with the government allocating nearly three times more per person for defense than education in the present year alone.

Untested though he is as a politician, General Fonseka is supported by the capitalist United National Party (UNP), the Marxist Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) as well as a block of Tamil and Muslim parties.

Nonetheless, accounting for 18 percent of the population, the minority Tamil along with their Muslim counterparts, 9 percent of the population, could very well tomorrow decide who will be the next president of Sri Lanka.

Leave a Reply