A classic power struggle turns ugly with wild allegations

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” – Bertolt Brecht

Sri Lanka’s first historic post-war presidential election is over and done with, and the victor, with an unassailable lead in the vote count, has been hailed. The generous 1.8 million margin of votes by which the election was won should have been a cause for relief, allowing the nation to resume its day-to-day life with hopes renewed, and confidence braced, in a leadership to which it has given a decisive mandate. But events in the immediate aftermath of the election seem to suggest that this is not to be. At any rate, not so fast as many would have hoped.

A jubilant President Mahinda Rajapaksa

The high drama at the Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel, where opposition candidate General (retd) Sarath Fonseka and his political partners voluntarily took up residence shortly after the voting ended, has led to a string of incidents accompanied by extreme allegations and counter-allegations. With each party now alleging that the other is trying to assassinate him, the scenario seems to be developing into one of mutual paranoia. Neither side has produced credible evidence to support their case, and the allegations get wilder and wilder.

This situation has created an unprecedented climate of unease for the people, with sinister overtones that have not been experienced in previous elections despite the country’s history of election-related violence.

The General’s move of booking a large number of hotel rooms and moving in along with Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and other supporters was itself unprecedented. So was the government’s counter-move of surrounding the Hotel with troops. The General held a press conference at the Hotel where he alleged there were plans to arrest him.

He protested at the government’s withdrawal of his security detail, suggesting it was part of a plot to kill him and then “blame the terrorists.” SLMC leader and UNF partner Rauff Hakeem went on record saying Sarath Fonseka’s freedom of movement had been curtailed. The government denied these charges, stating that the stationing of troops was to arrest a number of army deserters who were inside the Hotel with the General. Nine men were reportedly handed over to the military, with the opposition camp insisting they were not deserters but part of the General’s official security contingent.

Sarath Fonseka has now written to the Elections Commissioner not only alleging election malpractices but also appealing for security as he believes his life is in danger. Meanwhile the government’s Media Centre for National Security in turn has reportedly charged that General Fonseka had planned a coup in which Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family members were to be assassinated. The Ministry of Defence website quotes MCNS director Lakshman Hulugalle saying that “Army deserters and the retired military personnel, arrested from a five star hotel in Colombo, had planned to assassinate the President and top government officers."

With regard to the allegation of election malpractices and/or vote-rigging, the Opposition camp would seem to have spoilt its case, with Ranil Wickremesinghe having gone on record saying that the exercise had been ‘free and fair.’ They appeared at the time to be confident of winning. As for the allegations of planned assassinations, while they may sound fanciful to many, the mutual fear and suspicion underlying them appears to be very real in the minds of the protagonists. Here was an election where, unlike in any other, the battle was fought on competing claims to qualities of leadership – both men heroes in the popular perception, both competing for exclusive ownership of the honour and glory attendant on winning the war. Many observers have remarked on how the election issues – the subjects that should have merited attention at the campaign stage - got obscured in a tide of mudslinging. The target of attack was more often than not, the person and not the policies he stood for.

In this context, the psycho-drama within the minds of the two main protagonists has emerged as a significant but unacknowledged factor in this unusual landmark election. The ‘psycho-element’ has certainly been evident throughout the (still unfolding) post-election drama. While the developments may be great entertainment for those with a taste for soap-opera, it’s unlikely to be good news for the new turn of events in Sri Lankan politics.

It may be relevant to recall that one of the questions as yet unexplained to the people is, what made president Rajapaksa so anxious to make former army commander General Fonseka give up his command in the first place? What caused the abrupt change in the President’s attitude, which initially seemed one of unreserved respect for him? We still don’t know. The General in his letter of resignation said the “strong mistrust” in him was something he found “most depressing” in view of all he had done. The sense of regret and feeling of being unappreciated were threads that ran throughout the letter. The sidelining that followed – the transfer of his senior officers etc. – seemed to stem from the initial issue of mistrust.

The rumoured “coup threat” at that stage, also appeared to have been imaginary, with India denying that its military was placed on alert on account of developments in Sri Lanka. The tradition of Sri Lanka’s armed forces has, by and large, been one of loyalty to the state, with the 1962 incident looking like a blip, in retrospect. Observers may now ask whether recent developments, where it appears as if sections of the military are being set up against one another, point to increasing politicization of the armed forces. If so this would represent a new tendency that would be unfortunate, posing a risk to the stability of the state.

Sarath Fonseka contested Mahinda Rajapaksa in this election from the unenviable position of a candidate whose personal security was in the hands of his rival. Given his status as a key target of the LTTE (and therefore in need of extra protection), and given the country’s record of election-related violence, it was a daring move on his part to contest. The election battle is over now, the victory has been decisive, and it would be more reassuring to the people if the victors showed magnanimity rather than vindictiveness in the aftermath.

Nobody knows where the seeds of dissension were sown, which first created the mistrust between President Rajapaksa and his top general. In an establishment riddled with intrigues, both real and imagined, it may remain forever an unsolved mystery in Sri Lankan politics. In the absence of an explanation, could the germ of mistrust appear to have originated nowhere but in the mind of Mahinda Rajapaksa himself. It takes on the complexion of the inevitable nagging doubt that torments the mind of the ‘triumphant hero’ in any historic war, who typically becomes mistrustful of his closest lieutenants. The anatomy of power hasn’t changed much, down the ages and across cultures. As Bertolt Brecht wrote, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”

(The writer is a freelance journalist)

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