Now - statesmanship

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been re-elected for a second term. Though the President said publicly that he would be re-elected with a "comfortable majority", there were no doubt, anxious moments for him and his supporters until the count came trickling in.

From what was essentially a 'walk in the park' in the afterglow of the crushing military defeat of the LTTE last May, the combined Opposition sprang a surprise by putting forward the just retired Army Commander as its common candidate. This energized its otherwise dejected and depleted ranks, but the novelty of the alliance and the candidate seems to have tapered off.

At the highest levels of the Rajapaksa administration, expectations ranged from 51% to 59%. That it was as low as 51% is a moot point. They were worried about the Northern and Eastern vote and concerned that the Opposition might succeed in splitting the Southern vote. The end result of 57.88% therefore must be greatly gratifying.

Whether the Presidential Election was 'free and fair' is arguable, to say the least. Any election is only 'free and fair' when the playing fields are level. In a vacuum where there are no laws to ensure such a level playing field, as one would find in advanced democracies like India, to expect the ruling party to provide a level playing field is unreal.

There were several lapses on the part of the elections officials in providing facilities for the Internally Displaced People and an element of intimidation of the Northern voter. An election is not merely what occurs on polling day and the count that follows, but is an entire process. The most blatant abuse of all has been the misuse of the national (read State/Government) media and the men and machines in the payroll of the Government. Today, one rarely finds public servants; they are forced to be government's servants or party servants.

To say that where there is a State-funded media, the Government will exploit it, or that the Opposition would have done no different are not arguments that have merit in a broader national context.

There may not be a 'perfect world', but as we suspected the Commissioner of Elections meekly issued his certificate that the election was "successfully concluded" despite all his own complaints. It may have been more convincing and seen in better light had he used his office more effectively.

He portrayed himself as a lame duck Commissioner. Yet, he could, for instance, have summoned the contestants and demanded they abide by the pre-poll rules or threatened to annul the election. Instead, all he did was to sigh and moan that he could not take the pressure at his age.

In the meantime, the Opposition has been making vague, unsubstantiated accusations and claims that the election was rigged. The margin of victory seems to have stunned the opposition, as it did much of the country. However, as a worthy Opposition it should have anticipated vote rigging, if any, at polling centres, counting centres and the Elections Department. Until now the Opposition has been unable to make out even a prima facie case that will convince the public that there was fiddling with the count. The opposition parties say they are collating the evidence, but they might need to concede that overall, the Southern (majority) voter voted for Gratitude vs. Change, and without much ado, they voted for the incumbent for having eliminated the scourge of terrorism from their midst.

Political analysts may no doubt come to different conclusions. Some might say that the voter was left with Hobson's choice. Some Ministers have come out of the woodwork (many were not to be seen during the campaign) to make claims that the accusations of corruption or nepotism against the Rajapaksa Administration have been rejected wholesale, and that the people don't want the Executive Presidency abolished or the 17th Amendment implemented. Simply put, these are unwise suggestions. One Minister has been quick to win brownie points by saying the President is still on his first term even though the President himself publicly said when he called for early elections that he was willingly sacrificing two years of his first term.

Even before the results were announced, the Government seemed to have embarked on what would appear to be a ham-fisted bid to restrain the movements of the Opposition's main candidate. There must have been genuine fears that he would try to incite supportive elements in the military to manhandle the President. The retired General on the other hand felt that moves were afoot to neutralize him, should he have won.

Mercifully, Sri Lanka was spared a test of brinkmanship that could have seen units in the Armed Forces loyal to either side, eyeball to eyeball on the streets of Colombo.

In a sense, both the main candidates were responsible for maximizing the profile of the armed forces following the defeat of the LTTE. While the Security Forces deserved the admiration of a grateful public, they were used as a political tool to grind the then Opposition to the ground. The resultant fallout of this hype was that the President was challenged by the then Army Commander himself for the top job in the country. Fortunately for Sri Lanka, a prevailing democratic structure ensured the contest was fought in an election and not with tanks and men.

One analyst referred to this as the 'militarization of politics and the politicization of the military". It would be wise to ensure that this process of military involvement is de-escalated sooner than later. The armed forces are best in barracks in peace times and when it comes to politics before they come to bite their handlers. The Government may consider itself once bitten already.

There is clearly some bad blood due to the vituperative allegations made during the campaign, and the onus is now on the victor to calm things down. The President did not get the mandate he wanted from the people living in the North and East, the very people whom he liberated from the clutches of the LTTE; nor did he get the support of cosmopolitan Colombo city. So much so, that his camp famously said that this was a contest between the sausage eating and the bada iringu (corn on the cob) classes.

He need not entertain such hang-ups, which was the undoing of one of his predecessors. That attitude got under his skin so much that he behaved in a way that led to an impeachment motion against him. Surely the President knows how some of them would eat out of his hand, however much they may privately resent him; and the nation is divided enough, already.

Next week we celebrate the 62nd anniversary of Independence -- a time when all Sri Lankans stand united against a common foe. The President is not a 57.88% Head of State; he is President of the entire nation. He must be a unifier. He is no longer a politician; he is expected to be a statesman.

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