The results of the second phase of the 2011 local government elections reveal a north/ south divide with the ruling UPFA winning comfortably outside of the north and east and the TNA capturing the overwhelming majority of local bodies in those areas. These results need serious analysis by all political parties as an indication of the trajectory of politics to come. For the UNP and the JVP in particular, deep soul searching and political strategizing is in order. They failed miserably and may well claim that local bodies invariably go to the party in government. However, there has been enough out there in the public realm to latch on to and capitalize upon in respect of corruption and financial mismanagement to mount a fight back in earnest. Were they to ignore the message of the electorate, there is the danger that the elections to municipal and urban councils to come, could spell their irrelevance as political forces to be reckoned with.
Given the crucial requirement of moving from post-war to post-conflict – that is to a situation in which the sources of conflict are not sustained or reproduced- and given the arguments about reconciliation and the prioritization of economic development in the face of the Advisory Panel Report and the Channel 4 documentary, the electoral result in the north and east is surely a stinging rebuke to the regime, its rhetoric and propaganda. Moreover, given the time and energy invested by the leading lights of the regime, the results must surely be seen as a repudiation of what they stand for and what they have done. And what they have been offering in the last weeks of the campaign has also clearly failed to translate into votes. Surely it was messenger more than message, even though message too was clearly insufficiently pertinent and/or attractive. One non- TNA Tamil politician quipped to this columnist that had the campaign lasted longer islands too could have been lost!
As the cliché goes, the people have spoken and in the north and east they have not relegated political rights for the promise of economic development. The Panel Report and Channel 4 documentary also played their part as did the TNA argument that in these circumstances they needed a political show of strength to underpin their hand in any negotiations for a political settlement, if indeed any are to be entered into in earnest. The regime needs to heed this message or else as the cliché goes, peace is in danger of being lost. It has insisted that there is a process of reconciliation. In the election campaign it stands accused, apart from the usual abuse of state resources, of threat and intimidation of political opponents. The election was conducted in a heavily militarized context. There was the report of polling cards on a considerable scale being snatched and yet people did go and poll and poll against the regime. Intimidation and threat were followed as carrot follows stick with promises of economic largesse- it is worth remembering that the executive invested his personal popularity in this campaign, which after all is for elections to local bodies.
Surely the message of the election result in the north and east is that economic development or the promise thereof, cannot be divorced or substituted for political rights. There is a deficit not just in terms of democracy and accountability, but also in terms of sincere commitment with respect to a political settlement. Were it to be the case, and this columnist has never been convinced that it is – that the president cannot act on his better judgement and political instincts to prioritise action on a political settlement because his JHU and NFF allies will not allow him to do so, perhaps he should spell it out to them that the regime is in danger of taking us back to the future in respect of ethnic conflict. They may counter that the UPFA hold on the electorate outside of the north and east is a vindication of their stand and that it could be lost if the regime was to go down the road of a political settlement with the TNA along the lines of meaningful devolution. This is the point at which the president as messenger will have greater resonance with his audience – the masses in the south. Courage and statesmanship are required over ideological blinkers and perceived narrow political gain.
A word of caution is in order for the TNA. This electoral victory should not breed complacency in terms of a vote bank or obduracy in terms of negotiations. The scale of the mandate should be seen in the context of the current circumstances and not be taken for granted. On the heels of this victory, it is time to make public the framework of principles it will stand by with regard to a political settlement and consolidate unity within the Tamil polity around it. The Diaspora groups still obsessed with the secessionist project should take heed of these results and allow the TNA to set the agenda of Tamil political aspirations. The majority of the Tamil Diaspora who do not subscribe to the secessionist project should act to facilitate this.
The local government elections in the north and east have constituted the first opportunity for the people of these areas to register their opinion on what passes for rehabilitation, development and reconciliation there. In a previous column, this columnist referred to the remark by a resident of Jaffna about things there looking better but feeling worse.
That seems to be the verdict of the people. Sadly, unfortunately. It is time the Rajapaksa regime got its act together as far as national unity and reconciliation are concerned. It is time too for Mr Devananda to tell them what’s what and in no uncertain terms.