Opinion: Sri Lanka elections don't translate into political will

NEW YORK — Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa has won a re-election reaping the rewards of his military victory over the Tamil Tigers. But can this wartime president lead his country in an effort to win peace?

Rajapaksa appears to have won Sri Lanka's first post-war national election, which took place Tuesday, according to state media. The president called for early polls — his term does not expire until 2011 — hoping for an easy win after he managed to defeat the Tamil Tigers last May.

The Tigers, the separatist terrorist organization formally known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), had engaged the country's armed forces in a nearly three decades-long bloody civil war. But to his surprise the president had to fight hard to validate his victory after his former army chief, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, decided to challenge him in the election. Shortly after the results were announced, Fonseka demanded a new vote even as he was holed up in a Colombo five-star hotel, surrounded by government commandoes.

Now, Rajapaksa has to prove whether he will continue to conduct himself as a wartime president or focus on rebuilding a nation ravaged by ethnic differences. Even though his government defeated the LTTE last May, there is little indication the country is no longer at war. The emergency powers remain in effect allowing for detention without charge or trial, and restrictions on civil liberties, freedom of movement and speech. So does the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act. The current political system of executive presidency concentrates too much power at the center with little authority to the provinces. The president enjoys almost unlimited power over state resources. Press freedom is restricted; last June the government reactivated the Sri Lanka Press Council Act of 1973 allowing strict control over the media. In yet another display of intolerance, just hours before the election results, the government blocked access to some independent news websites.

Sri Lanka's political culture too, mired in corruption and nepotism, remains a concern. Political parties remain fragmented and in particular, after living for decades under the shadow of the LTTE, today the Tamil community finds itself on the margins of the electorate without a unified political voice or the presence of any serious Tamil political parties.

The mudslinging between the two main contenders during the campaign highlighted the heavy costs the island nation has paid to defeat terrorism. Sri Lanka remains deeply divided between the country's majority Sinhalese and its minority Tamil communities. In the greatest irony of all, both candidates wooed the Tamil vote, each candidate accusing the other of war crimes. Meanwhile, human rights groups suspect both: Rajapaksa ordered the aggressive military offensive while Fonseka as army commander carried it out, leading to heavy casualties among the Tamil population — nearly 7,000 civilian deaths in the first five months of 2009. A United Nations human rights expert has also accused the Sri Lankan military of extrajudicial killings and has called for a war crimes probe.

Yet another massive challenge for the state are the living conditions of hundreds of thousands of Tamils displaced by war. According to the U.N., more than 280,000 people were displaced in the fighting. Nearly half of them still remain in camps and those who have returned to their villages have inadequate resources to rebuild their lives.

So far, Rajapaksa has shown little political will to introduce political reforms to heal the country's war wounds. "Eight months later, the post-war policies of President Mahinda Rajapaksa have deepened rather than resolved the grievances that generated and sustained LTTE militancy," says a new report from the independent International Crisis Group. To govern a country no longer at war, Rajapaksa must loosen his authoritarian hold and begin the process of democratization. Rights groups have called for repeal of the terrorism act as well as lifting of emergency powers. A strong military with control over politics is another concern. "Demilitarisation is perhaps the most important immediate issue the country faces," writes Ahilan Kadirgamar, a spokesman with the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, an independent body pushing for a political solution in Sri Lanka. Kadirgamar also advocates constitutional reforms that include greater devolution of power to the provinces, and power-sharing at the center that gives fair representation to the minorities.

For Sri Lanka to move toward reconciliation and a sustainable peace, international actors, too, must play a role. The International Crisis Group calls for future international development assistance to the Sri Lankan government to be made contingent upon steps taken toward reestablishing the rule of law and addressing the longstanding grievances of the Tamil-speaking minorities. Europe has already taken a lead: Last month, following a year-long investigation into Sri Lanka's human rights record, the European Commission proposed suspending a preferential trade agreement with Colombo. A recent study by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs also puts forth recommendations to put Sri Lanka on the path of greater accountability, transparency and inclusion of minorities in the political system. But it sounds a word of caution: "[S]hould this opportunity be wasted, Sri Lanka could easily backslide into conflict."

Jayshree Bajoria is a staff writer on Asia for CFR.org, the website of the Council on Foreign Relations.