COLOMBO: The political campaign for the presidential elections will begin in earnest after nominations close on December 8. With a close contest expected the ethnic minority vote can be decisive. However, the main Tamil and Muslim parties have yet to make formal decisions regarding which candidate they will support. They have said that they await the respective political programmes of the rival candidates before making their choice. Those parties that have been in the government coalition would hesitate to make their choice in favour of the opposition. Not only would it lead to an immediate loss of their positions in the government. The sense of betrayal on the part of the government could lead to retaliation especially in the aftermath of a victory.

However, the position of the TNA which is the main Tamil party is more nuanced. They have been in the opposition and been totally sidelined by the government during the past ten years. There is little that they have been able to do for the people who voted for them and this is visible in the rural areas of the North and East. Some leaders of the TNA have explained their delay in taking a stance due to concern that the government will use any public support given by them to the opposition to discredit the Opposition Common Candidate amongst the Sinhalese voters. But there is another reason that may explain the delay in taking a stance. This is the concern amongst sections of Tamil opinion that a victory for the opposition will be a setback to the gains that the Tamil nationalist cause has been making internationally in recent times.

At the present time the reputation and credibility of the Sri Lankan government with the international community is at a low point. It is facing a war crimes investigation led by the UN. The results of this investigation will be publicised next year in the month of March at the next session of the UN Human Rights Council. It could lead to sanctions being taken against the country, and particularly against the government members. However, if a new government is elected, this build up of international pressure might subside, and it may prove difficult to revive again in the short term. The anxiety of Tamil nationalists such as those found in the Diaspora and even within Sri Lanka is that the election of a new government will buy time for the Sri Lankan government. They fear that even a new government will do nothing to provide justice to the Tamil people. Therefore, they would prefer the international process of accountability to continue without a break.

The thinking that it is better to let a situation get worse, before it can get better is sometimes rooted in repeated failure to achieve success by cooperation. In the past there were many efforts by Tamil political parties to cooperate with governments and achieve a just solution for the Tamil people and ethnic minorities in general. There was such cooperation in 1957 through the Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam pact, again in 1965 through the Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact, in 1987 through the Indo-Lanka Agreement and finally in 2000 with the constitutional package of Chandrika Kumaratunga. But all these agreements came to nought. The fear is that history will repeat itself once again if the opposition wins the election with Tamil support.

However, the experience of 2005 shows that non-cooperation can lead to worse results. At that time the LTTE urged the Tamil people to boycott the presidential election that pitted the government candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa against opposition leader Ranil Wickrmesinghe. The reason that the LTTE gave publicly for their call was that the Tamil nation had no role to play in the political power struggles of the Sinhalese nation. But the ulterior motive was different. They did not say it out aloud, and so used the power of the gun to impose their ideas upon the Tamil people. They hoped that the victory of the government would lose it international support due to its advocacy of Sinhalese nationalism, and this would benefit the Tamil cause. This turned out to be a fateful mistake.

It is understandable that not all issues will be canvassed openly during the election campaign as some of them will felt to be too politically controversial. However, two issues in particular need some agreement within the contesting political groupings, at least at the level of principle, prior to the establishment of a new government. After the election there are bound to be a host of new and unexpected issues that will emerge to capture the attention of the new government. At that point of time there will be no time for reflection, only for action. The two issues of critical importance to the country's future but which are likely to remain in the background of the election campaign are the political resolution of the ethnic conflict and the international probe into war crimes.

A positive development at this early stage of the election campaign is the statement by the JHU leadership inviting the TNA to join the common opposition campaign. JHU General Secretary, Champika Ranawaka has requested the TNA to support the Common Opposition. He has said that "All the Parties in the Opposition are uniting to form a national alliance government. This is not a Sinhala Buddhist government. The issues we are confronting right now in this country are common to Sinhalese, Tamils and the Muslims." This is a position that needs to be taken forward within the opposition alliance if it is to become truly broad-based. The opposition needs to come together to identify the principles on which a political solution to the Tamil and minority issue is to be found and pledge that they will implement the solution they agree upon soon.

The second issue that needs to be discussed is the UN-led probe into war crimes. This investigation is advancing to its conclusion. Opposition parties, including the Common Opposition Candidate, have given public commitments that they will do their utmost to protect Sri Lanka's governmental leaders and military from international war crimes processes. Their pledges recognise the sentiments of the majority of the people who continue to believe that the military victory over the LTTE even at high cost was necessary for the country to move forward. However, those who were directly victimised by the war, and who lost their loved ones and lost their livelihoods remain deeply dissatisfied by the present condition where the past is sought to be buried. The TNA represents many of these people.

There is a need to find a middle path, that is not merely a compromise, but a higher path than the two extremes of an international war crimes probe on the one hand, and a denial of the past on the other hand. What happened during the war period in Sri Lanka needs to be dealt with.