Victors and vanquished

The "green sweep" was how Mr. Nanda Godage, a retired ambassador who writes frequently to our columns, saw the election result. Not even diehard PA loyalists can fault him on that description because, despite the constraints of proportional representation (PR), Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe and his United National Front (UNF), together with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, crossed the magic number of 113 seats in the 225-member legislature - a result that most pundits, including those confident of a UNP lead over the PA, did not expect.

Wickremesinghe who had been derided by President Kumaratunga as the man who lost eleven elections in a row, and destined to lose the twelfth, pulled the rabbit out of the tophat with a truly amazing result given the odds. The PA shamelessly abused state resources, resorted to violence and thuggery, bribed the electorate with a plethora of inducements a crisis ridden economy could ill afford and still finished very poorly that even a JVP prop could not have enabled it to form a government. CBK must thank J. R. Jayewardene and his "bahubootha" constitution that helped her party to win the 77 seats it did. But for PR, it would have been 1977 all over again.

The election result has clearly demonstrated that the mandate Kumaratunga got in 1999 is no more. Her presidency no longer has any legitimacy and this reality, however hard it is to stomach, must be digested by Her Excellency whose term still has four clear years to run. If the president can live by those sentiments she expressed two years ago when she lost an eye and narrowly escaped with her life when an LTTE suicide bomber attempted to assassinate her at the Town Hall grounds, then this beleaguered country has a chance of coming out of the morass - economic, military and social - that we are bogged down in. As Ranil Wickremesinghe said on election eve, their reading of the message the voter was going to give was that the country wanted a UNP government to work with a PA president. He is willing to do that, but is she is the question that remains to be answered.

Wickremesinghe has made the right noises in the wake of the victory of his party. He has chosen the right path of co-operation and conciliation towards the government of national reconciliation he seeks. All but the blind would see the wisdom of this thinking. It is up to the president to co-operate in this endeavour. Doing otherwise would only harm Sri Lanka and all its people. Obviously, peace and the economy are the major issues that must be urgently addressed. Given the fact that the UNP took all the Sinhalese districts except Moneragala is proof enough that the massive ali koti havula tub thump has been rejected by the vast majority of the Sinhala people. This is endorsed by the drubbing the Sihala Urumaya suffered at this election.

It is important that the Tamil National Alliance, accused of being an LTTE proxy, does not push the new government into any settlement of the gravest problem this country has faced in its post-Independence history on terms that are unfair to the majority. It is its right and duty to seek the best deal for the Tamils. There is no quarrel that justice must be done to the Tamil people and it is necessary that the Sinhalese are at their generous best in negotiating a settlement. There is no better way than for the UNF and the PA to be united in such negotiations with the LTTE that must begin as quickly as possible, hopefully with an almost instant ceasefire. This must be the top priority on the national agenda.

Given the tensions of the campaign and the ill will and enmity generated as a result of the government’s desire to hang on to power at any cost, it will be difficult for the victor to be generous to the vanquished at this point of time. But a hoary Sinhalese idiom says that just because the stick is strong, you must not beat your enemy until it breaks. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s track record is a clear indicator that he will not be such a stick-wielder. Hopefully, the meeting between him and the president that was scheduled for last evening would have laid the foundation for the co-operation and conciliation that would best serve the country.

The way the stock market reacted on Friday to the UNF victory was an accurate reflection of the confidence of the business community of the UNP’s ability to do a much better job managing the economy than the PA. While it is true that punters on the bourse are a minuscule minority, and also that none of the garment manufacturing companies that dominate the industrial sector are quoted on the Colombo Stock Exchange, markets in their own way are indicators of sorts of the health of the economy and of business confidence. The pre-poll surveys also displayed an unmistakable majority perception that the UNP can manage the economy much better than the PA. And, as Mr. Ronnie de Mel was fond of often saying when he was UNP finance minister, the magic is in the management.

A number of internal and external economic factors are stacked against the Sri Lankan economy today. Most of the external problems, including the US recession, the slowing of global tourism and oil prices when they rise etc. are beyond our control. But what we can do with the necessary political will and co-operation between the new administration and the President is to achieve peace and that can mean a tremendous economic resurgence not only in military expenditure savings, but also in the rehabilitation of the war-torn areas for which substantial foreign aid is assured.

The issues are clear and what is necessary is the political will to tackle them in an efficient and determined manner. Wickremesinghe must be given the opportunity of utilizing his considerable skills and experience to good purpose and the president must not stand in the way of the new administration doing what it has been mandated to do by the people. The personal chemistry between her and the new prime minister-designate was never the best. Hopefully this will improve if Kumaratunga will see the light and acknowledge by deed more than word that the presidency and the government will pull in tandem in working for the benefit of the country and all its people rather than this party or that.

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