Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa has a reputation for toughness and decisiveness, and his latest actions only confirm it. By dissolving parliament yesterday, he has cleared the way for early elections, which his Sri Lanka Freedom Party is likely to win handsomely. The move will thus further strengthen his grip on the country after his clear-cut win in the presidential election last month. It is, however, perfectly legitimate.
The outgoing parliament's term only ran until April, and a new one is needed to push through the reforms that Mr Rajapaksa has promised – both to improve the economic lot of ordinary Sri Lankans, and to use the opportunity provided by last year's conclusive military defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers to heal the country's enduring ethnic tensions. Far more disturbing is the arrest of Sarath Fonseka, the commander who led the victorious campaign against the Tigers and who was Mr Rajapaksa's election opponent last month. The retired general could now face a court martial, apparently on the grounds that by meeting with opposition politicians while still in uniform he had, in the words of a government spokesman, committed "treason to some extent."
The arrest is utterly unjustified. Mr Rajapaksa won re-election by a convincing margin, and General Fonseka has shown no sign of being able to make parliament his new powerbase. The most charitable explanation is that the arrest is part of the long feud between the two men that a bitter election campaign only exacerbated. But it could equally portend a crackdown on the opposition. Last month's result underlined the depth of the divide between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority, as the Tamil National Alliance, the moderate grouping that urged a negotiated peace to the 25-year civil war, actually backed General Fonseka, a Sinhalese, as a lesser evil.
In his victory statement, Mr Rajapaksa spoke of the need to overcome "the violence and division of the past." The way to achieve that is to devolve power, as the constitution prescribes, to the provinces, including Tamil provinces, and by building a genuinely multi-ethnic military and police – and not by arresting the political candidate whom Tamils overwhelmingly supported barely a fortnight ago.