Sri Lanka 2010
A presidential election was held in Sri Lanka on January 26. These are the first elections held after the Sri Lankan Civil War opposing the island’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority to its Tamil Hindu minority in the north and east of the island. The war, which started in 1973, killed over 80,000 people and ended only in 2009 with the Sri Lankan army’s defeat of the Tamil Tigers. The election, originally scheduled for 2011, the incumbent President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, first elected in 2005, sought a fresh mandate in the midst of his his party’s high popularity due to the victory in the civil war.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, a member of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), the largest member of the governing United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Founded in 1951, the SLFP is a left-wing but staunchly Sinhalese nationalist party. Under the leadership of two of the SLFP’s most famous figures, SWRD Bandaranaike and his widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the island’s official language became Sinhalese and later became a republic outside the Commonwealth, a republic known as Sri Lanka (the old name being Ceylon). Rajapaksa, who had served as Prime Minister between 2004 (when the UPFA-SLFP won the legislative elections) and 2005, was narrowly elected and his election signaled a ‘hard-line’ towards Tamil nationalists.
The main opposition in Sri Lanka’s two-party system is the neoliberal United National Party (UNP), historically dominated by the Senanayake family. While it less nationalist (meaning, in this case, more pro-American or pro-British), the UNP still maintained a hard line towards the Tamil rebels while in government. However, under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP attempted to engage a peace process with the Tamils, which eventually failed. Ranil Wickremesinghe was narrowly defeated by Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2005 election, with 48.4% against 50.3% for his rival. Most of Wickremesinghe’s support came from the Indian Tamil (called ‘estate Tamils’ – Tamils brought in by Britain from India to work on tea plantations in the middle of the island) and Muslims, but the Tamil Tigers had called on Sri Lankan Tamils to boycott the polls, dooming Wickremesinghe.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, riding on a wave of popularity since the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, did face a tough opponent from the opposition. The National Democratic Front, which included the UNP but also the communist Janatha Vikmuni Peramuna (JVP, a former rebel group), nominated General Sarath Fonseka, who led the final charge against the Tigers can claim credit for the Sri Lankan victory. During the campaigns, there allegedly was a lot of violence directed towards the opposition and the opposition claimed they were strongly concerned about fraud.
Mahinda Rajapaksa (UPFA-SLFP) 57.88%
Sarath Fonseka (NDF-UNP) 40.15%
Turnout was 74.50%.
Predictably but amusingly, there was a stark ethnic division again. Despite being a hard-line General during the Civil War, Fonseka apparently managed to appeal more to Tamils than Rajapaksa could (though Rajapaksa managed a very good showing, comparatively, even in the hard-line Tamil stronghold of Jaffna in the far north). All of Fonseka’s victories came in districts with a non-Sinhalese majority of plurality, either Sri Lankan Tamil, Muslims or Indian Tamils (the green island in the middle of the blue sea of Rajapaksa). However, it is worth noting that turnout in Tamil areas remained very low – 25% in Jaffna for example (though turnout there in 2005% was 1%).
Fonseka has, as all opposition candidates do, denounced fraud.