x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Poll rivals focus on war and minority

Former general says his aim is to establish a society free of corruption, while president promises development in war-torn areas.

The former general Sarath Fonseka, centre, arrives in Kandy for his election campaign.
The former general Sarath Fonseka, centre, arrives in Kandy for his election campaign.

COLOMBO // Taking credit for winning the war against Tamil separatist rebels and garnering the minority vote are expected to dominate the efforts of the campaigns of the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his main challenger, the former general Sarath Fonseka, before next month's presidential election.

Lacking political experience, Mr Fonseka's reputation as a disciplined and strong military leader has thrust him into the limelight as a formidable challenger to Mr Rajapaksa in the January 26, 2010 election. For the first time, Sri Lankans are being asked to vote into power a political outsider, who until a few months ago was a commander fighting against the rebels. Mr Fonseka vows to restore law and order in a country where corruption and crime are rampant.

"People have got tired of politicians and their promises and see in the general a breath of fresh air who is honest and can make a radical change in the lives of the people," said Visaka Dharmadasa, who heads an association that represents mothers and wives of soldiers who have died in combat or been declared missing in action. Mrs Dharmadasa said that in a string of provincial-level elections to local bodies over the past 12 to 18 months, the government won on the campaign cry of persisting with the war and succeeding in the end.

"Now the real war hero is contesting and the people can see who won the war," she said. The retired general, who quit two weeks ago as chief of defence staff and earlier as army commander, fell out with Mr Rajapaksa and the president's brother, the defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, over the war credit issue. The president, backed by his brother, has said it was his leadership that led to the defeat in May of the Tamil Tigers, while Mr Fonseka says the credit should be given to his leadership and the soldiers under him. The rebels had been fighting for more autonomy for Tamils in areas in the north and the east, where they live in large numbers, before they lost to government troops.

Mr Fonseka is the first military personality to contest a presidential election in Sri Lanka, a move that resonates in the South Asian region where military strongmen have ruled in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The two main opposition parties, the United National Party and the People's Liberation Front (known as JVP), along with a string of smaller parties are backing Mr Fonseka as the common opposition candidate. Minority Tamils, who could become the decisive factor in the election, have not yet united behind a candidate.

"One [Rajapaksa] directed the war; the other [Fonseka] executed it," said a senior editor at a Tamil-language newspaper in Colombo. Tamils, the country's largest minority group, constitute nearly two million eligible voters out a total of 14 million. During the battles between Sri Lankan troops and Tamil rebels, the government faced a barrage of criticism from western governments and human rights groups over civilians dying or being injured in the fighting. Mr Rajapaksa and Mr Fonseka faced the brunt of the criticism. A senior journalist based in the northern city of Jaffna where most of the country's Tamils live, said Tamils were preoccupied with getting back to their lives after the conflict and elections did not interest them right now. "This is also particularly because both candidates are responsible for civilian casualties," he said.

Rohan Gunaratne, the head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanayang Technological University in Singapore, said both candidates were arguing about the past, reliving the rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran's legacy. "They must build a vision about how to win the peace by building permanent bridges to the Tamil community and how to economically develop Sri Lanka and make it a first-world country in a decade," he wrote in an e-mail.

At his first campaign press conference last Sunday, Mr Fonseka said he wanted to build a society that was pluralistic, just and equal and without corruption. Mr Rajapaksa has said he wanted to get cracking with the development of war-torn areas and is seeking a second term for this purpose. Jehan Perera, a political commentator for the English-language Island newspaper, said the government has been moving swiftly to appease the Tamil minority. "It has virtually overnight given displaced Tamils the freedom to move freely and reduced the checking of people at security checkpoints," he said, adding that "the same government that defied Tamil opinion and international criticism has started to undo the structures of war with amazing speed".

Perera said Mr Rajapaksa's worst fear would be that apart from splitting the majority Sinhalese vote, the general will also be able to attract minority voters by virtue of being the candidate of the joint opposition, which includes strong ethnic minority parties. "In his first public appearance as a contestant for the presidency, General Fonseka came across as a sober and rational personality who spoke in a matter-of-fact way," Perera said.

With huge posters of the president appearing on the streets, and Mr Fonseka preparing for dozens of public rallies, one thing is certain: It is going to be a bruising battle for public support and sympathy and the most interesting Sri Lankan election in recent times. @Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae