I was not entirely surprised by the results of Saturday’s local government election. I had said I thought the government should be happy if it got 30% of the vote in the North. It got less in most places, but it managed at least 20% almost everywhere, which it should see as a good base on which to build. It also managed to do comparatively well in Kilinochchi, which is where it had concentrated its development efforts.

Interestingly, the TNA had allowed the TULF to context two of the three Pradeshiya Sabhas in Kilinochchi that voted last Saturday, and in both those the government got over 40% of the vote. In fact it did almost as well as the TULF in Poonakary, and had the SLMC contested together with the government, it might well have won. In Karachi on the other hand, where there were the greatest number of allegations of strong arm tactics, it did much worse. Whether or not elements in or close to government were responsible for whatever prompted the allegations, I hope this will serve to convince government that any trace of strong arm tactics can only be counter-productive.

In this context I reiterate what I told the TNA after the allegations that members of the forces had disrupted one of their meetings. They were obviously so pleased by the incident that, on the legal pcincipal of ‘Cui bono?’, it seemed that they must have been responsible. Equally obviously, though they understood how beneficial the incident had been – and indeed noted that, whereas that meeting had been poorly attended, their next meeting saw a much larger crowd – they were not behind what had happened, and I hoped that whoever had been responsible realized that the only possible beneficiaries were the TNA.

For government must realize that the electors of Jaffna are both sensitive and intelligent, and will not give in to force. They have always asserted their independence, and in that regard government should actually be pleased that they did much better in these elections than national parties have done for many decades. Except for Alfred Duraiyappa, who was killed by the LTTE as a consequence, national parties have not been in control of any local body for over half a century. Indeed we need to remember how badly the UNP did in the District Development Council elections after the burning of the Jaffna Public Library in 1981. Whereas previously it had hoped to give the TULF a good run for its money, it created such animosity by its attempt at intimidation, that if memory serves me right, it failed to win a single seat.

Government should then be satisfied that, where it concentrated on its record of service and development, it did comparatively well. It should realize therefore that this is what it should concentrate on, and that intimidation will not work. In particular it should remember what happened when the UNP got angry with the Tamil people for failing to support it in the 1981 DDC election, in the 1982 Presidential election, and most markedly in the 1982 referendum when only they resisted the intimidation that had taken place in the rest of the country. Influenced then by the nasties in his party, in particular Cyril Mathew, J R Jayewardene allowed open season on Tamils, first in the attacks on Tamils outside Colombo in August 1981 and then – even though the elite Tamils had supported him in 1982 – in the even more appalling attacks on July 1983.

Those actions have since governed perceptions of Sri Lanka internationally. This government, by its close relations with Tamil parties that resisted the LTTE, by its expeditous resettlement of those who had been displaced, by its fantastic programme of infrastructural development in which the East and the North have benefited most, have shown that the racism of the Jayewardene era has been put behind. It will be unfortunate if efforts to create disappointment with last Saturday’s result contributes to advancement of Jayewardene style reactions.

I would not indeed have thought such a reaction possible, but I noticed an extraordinary assessment by a journalist who is generally more sensible. The conclusion there was that peace and development have no bearing on the minds of Tamil voters. Apart from the fact that this is a misreading of the results insofar as Kilinochchi is concerned, for it is there that peace and development have been brought after a lapse of decades, it ignores the real progress made by government as compared with the performance of national parties previously in the North. Unfortunately people believe the rhetoric of those who cannot understand that winning an election is not the only mark of success, and who therefore engage in ridiculous predictions that are based on wishful thinking rather than observation or study of historical trends.

Government therefore should see the results of the election in the North as reasonably satisfactory and an indication of how best to move forward. It should also recognize that for Jaffna infrastructural development alone is not enough, and unless greater attention is paid to human resources development, and mechanisms to channel the energies of a sophisticated population into productive independent employment, the opportunities presented by enhanced opportunities and connectivity will be wasted.

Where government has enormous reason for satisfaction is the results in the South, which have made it crystal clear that the people have no inclination whatsoever for the United National Party. I had thought that government would do well to get 60% of the vote given recent difficulties, but the people have shown that they still repose massive confidence in the government. This in turn makes it more difficult for those who are keen on regime change to pursue that agenda. I was horrified recently when a senior official who deals with this country from a position of authority suggested that perhaps Sri Lanka needed a different leader for peacetime, even though he acknowledged the distinctive contribution of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the victory over terrorism.

I asked him then whether he remembered his Tolstoy, not sure now, so sadly has Western education declined in recent years, whether he would be familiar with what should have be basic knowledge for any learned professional. I was talking about the second epilogue to ‘War and Peace’, which it turned out he did know. There, Tolstoy explores the difference between the General who had defeated Napoleon, and Czar Alexander who then took the country forward, so that it was established as a European power.

General Kutuzov, it should be noted, was an accomplished soldier, but he always acknowledged the superiority of the Czar, and he understood when he was no longer the right person to make decisions. I had explored this question previously, in thinking of Sarath Fonseka’s ambitions, and the irony – if not the absurdity, or utter cynicism – of at least a few Westerners thinking he was the right person to lead Sri Lanka in peacetime.

I was intrigued then to find that the question of Sri Lanka needing a different leader was raised again, albeit in a less dramatic form than when the European Union Representative asserted that military men could make very good leaders. I was told afterwards that I was not the first person who had been addressed thus, which crystallized my view that those who resent President Rajapaksa’s refusal to follow the agendas of other countries are on the warpath again.

The votes cast by the Sri Lankan people however make it crystal clear that any alternative to the current government would be totally unacceptable. Whether this will be considered relevant by those who do not take seriously the democratic will of people in countries they would like to control is another question. But I suspect even they will realize that trying to enforce a change through strong arm tactics will be more trouble than it is worth, and therefore they would do better to use persuasion rather than intimidation.

It is of course possible that they may decide to resort once more to encouraging terrorism. I hope therefore that the most recent example of how appalling terrorism can be will dissuade them. But it is also important for the Sri Lankan government to refrain from anything that might help those who want to resort to violence again. An objective reading of the election results, with attention to the past as well as the present, indicates the way forward for all of us together.

Island 26 July 2011

Daily News 27 July 2011