It would not be incorrect to say that that this local government election is all about the Sri Lanka Podujana Party and very little else. Everyone is waiting to see how the SLPP performs as that will define the future of Sri Lankan politics. One may say that that the party that had the most difficult time in finalizing nominations was also the SLPP because of its numerous partners. The UNP would have had an even more difficult time but they seem to have managed to avoid that by dropping some potential partners. It appears as if the parties led by Mano Ganesan and Rishard Baithiudeen will not be a part of the grand coalition under the UNP as envisaged earlier. At the last parliamentary election in August 2015, the SLMC, ACMC, DPF, NUW and UCPF all contested together in one list under the UNP but that does not seem to be possible at this election and two or three of these partners have decided to go their own way.
The SLPP however is in no position to drop any partners. The political parties that make up the Joint Opposition are in fact one for all practical purposes and for any of the partners to drop out will be unthinkable. After the defeat of 8 January 2015, it was leaders like Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Wimal Weerawansa who fired the first salvos in the reorganization beginning with the famous Nugegoda rally that led to the formation of the Joint Opposition under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s leadership. There was never any doubt that the vast majority of the Joint Opposition rank and file was made up of members of the SLFP but the leaders of the minor parties were in fact a major driving force in the coalition; so much so that it is now a fiction to say that these are separate entities. They are not separate on the ground yet there are multiple command structures within the Joint Opposition. So the effect seen at nomination time was that of a sack full of cats. The beseiged Battaramulla headquarters of the SLPP was more akin to a raucous fish market than a party headquarters after the election was declared with party activists demanding nomination.
One of the reasons why so many SLPP nomination lists were rejected was because of this pressure with arguments continuing all night and into the morning of the day on which nominations closed. One of the reasons for this demand is that there is a palpable anti-government trend in the country and the SLPP has a virtual monopoly over the anti-government vote. However if the SLPP continues make these amateurish mistakes leading to the rejection of their lists that anti-government trend will be of no avail to them. Lists do get rejected in all parties. One of the best known upsets of this kind was the 2006 rejection of the UNP’s list in Colombo when Sirisena Cooray himself was contesting as the Mayoral candidate. Cooray was hardly an amateur. He had been Mayor of Colombo for a decade and was a veteran of many election campaigns. Yet even he made a mistake in submitting nominations in an election in which he was set to make a political come back. If it can happen to Cooray, it can happen to anybody.
Profound embarrassment for SLPP
We learn that in one or two of the instances the rejection was due to the returning officers insisting on requirements that were not in the law and the rejection was due to an error on the part of the official. In such instances, it will be possible to get the rejections reversed. However, any repetition of this abysmal performance in handing in nominations in the next round will do immense damage to the new party’s image. The fact that a nomination paper of the Joint Opposition was rejected because the wrong date was written on it or that the signature of the candidate was taken but his name was not written in front of it, is not going to motivate any anti-government voter to vote for the government. But it will deprive the people of that local government area of the opportunity to vote for the Joint Opposition.
This rejection of SLPP nominations lists also provides an opportunity for an interesting experiment. In the absence of the SLPP, will the anti-government votes in that local government area gravitate towards the SLFP which is a part of the government? Or will they vote for the JVP which is not a apart of the government but a part of the yahapalana coalition which cooperates with this government on certain matters? Or will the anti-government voters in that area vote for the independent lists? In 2006, the UNP supported an independent group to prevent their voters from gravitating towards their main rivals and the UNP voters of Colombo preferred to vote in a trishaw driver as Mayor rather than voting for their rivals.
With the rejection of the SLPP nominations lists in Maharagama and Badulla, the SLFP chief ministers were cock a hoop bellowing that they were going to win the two local government institutions. This will need watching. What has to be observed now is whether their anti-government sentiments will be strong enough to prevent them from voting for the SLFP even though that was their original political party. If the SLFP fails to win in the local government areas where the SLPP lists have been rejected, that will be the clearest sign yet of the SLFP’s demise as a viable political party.
UNP’s prospects at the LG elections
The most recent election that gave us an indication of the UNP’s standing among voters was the parliamentary election of August 2015. At that election, the UNP got 5,098,916 votes (45.6% of the total votes cast) The UPFA got 4,732,664 votes which works out to 42.4% of the total votes cast. This time however, both sides will be going to the polls with splits in their ranks. At the last parliamentary election, the votes received by the UNP was not just that of the UNP proper, but including those of its allies like the SLMC, Rishard Baithiudeen’s ACMC, V.Radhakrishnan’s Up Country Peoples’s Front, Mano Ganesan’s Democratic People’s Front, P.Digambanram’s National Union of Workers all combined. All these parties contested together in all districts of the North and East as well. As a result not less than 17 of the UNP’s 106 MPs in parliament are from these minority based political parties.
The minority party MPs elected on the UNP list at the August 2015 parliamentary election are as follows: Ameer Ali ACMC, Rishard Baithiudeen ACMC, Cassim Faizal SLMC, A.R.A.Hafeez SLMC, Rauff Haleem SLMC, M.H.M. Harees SLMC, Abdul Rahuman Izak ACMC, M.A.M. Maharoof ACMC, M.I.M.Mansoor SLMC, M.H.M.Navavi ACMC, Velusami Radhakrishnan UCPF, M.H.M. Salman SLMC, M.S.Towfeek SLMC, M.Tilakarajah NUW, M.Velukumar DPF, Mano Ganesan DPF, Palani Digambaram NUW. We have not counted the Sirisena loyalists who allied with the UNP for that election because these people now have little choice but to make the UNP their permanent home and there is little likelihood of them leaving. They may have brought some votes into the UNP as well. For instance in Attanagalla, Chandrika Kumaratunga was openly canvassing for Arjuna Ranatunga who was contesting on the UNP list. The Sirisena loyalists in the UNP are as follows: Arjuna Ranatunga, Chathura Senaratne, Rajitha Senaratne, Champika Ranawaka, Athureliye Rathana Thera, Jayampathy Wickremeratne, Hirunika Premachandra, S.B.Nawinna, M.K.A.D.S.Gunawardena and his replacement Sarath Fonseka.
Of the UNP’s minority allies however, all except Mano Ganesan have a history of seeking office under any government that may happen to be in power and it is a certainty that they will all dump the UNP if the latter loses power. Hence none of these minority party allies can be considered to be a part of the UNP. Besides, at the forthcoming local government elections, the SLMC has decided to contest together with the UNP in all districts outside the north and east while they will contest in the north and east under their own symbol. Digambaram and Radhakrishnan will contest on the UNP list in the Nuwara Eliya and other districts. The ACMC is to go it alone throughout the country. Mano Ganesan is to contest separately. All this will take huge chunks out of the UNP’s vote bank.
In contrast, the Mahinda Rajapaksa camp will lose only Mutu Sivalingam (CWC), and Arumugam Thondaman (CWC) who both contested on the UPFA ticket at the 2015 parliamentary election. In fact nobody will really gain from the CWC not contesting with the Mahinda Rajapaksa camp because the CWC will contest the Nuwara Eliya district under its own symbol. (The CWC will however contest together with the UPFA in the Badulla district and that will add some votes to the SLFP camp.) While the UNP will lose a large number of votes when its minority party allies go their separate ways at this local government election, the Rajapaksa camp will not lose that many votes when the CWC goes its own way. What the Rajapaksa camp will have to watch out for however is the number of votes that the SLFP will be able to siphon off from them. The SLFP group in the government has the Presidency and the best ministries. There will definitely be a proportion of the SLFP vote that they can command.
Even though the Rajapaksa camp will lose the CWC’s votes and those going to the SLFP Sirisena camp, the biggest advantage that Joint Opposition has is that they have a near monopoly of the anti-government vote in a situation where the pro-government vote will be split between the UNP and the SLFP Sirisena camp. Even though the UNP got just over five million votes with the SLMC, ACMC, UCPF, DPF, NUW all contesting under its banner at the last parliamentary election, this time the UNP is not going to get anywhere near that number of votes with their allies contesting separately. Furthermore much water has flown under the bridge since August 2015. Between January and August 2015, the UNP was generally on a good wicket because they had the best ministries in the government. Furthermore, that was the period in which the new UNP led government had increased government servants salaries by Rs. 10,000 and reduced the prices of fuel, electricity, gas and several essential foodstuffs.
After the parliamentary election however, things have gone downhill for the UNP they have got only the leftovers after President Sirisena gave the best ministries to his SLFP loyalists and in the past two years, the UNP rank and file has been complaining that they cannot contact or meet any UNP minister quite apart from getting anything done. In this respect the situation today is much worse for the UNP than it was back in 2004. For most UNP activists and rank and file members, there is no difference in being in government or the opposition. So for all the reasons stated above, it is highly unlikely that the UNP will be able to get anywhere near the number of votes they got at the August 2015 parliamentary election. The likelihood is that even a section of the UNP’s hardcore vote will abstain from voting this time. As far as the Podujana Peramuna is concerned, The thing to watch out for is how many votes the Rajapaksa camp will lose because of the SLFP fielding separate lists and how much they will gain by being able to have a near monopoly over the anti-government vote. Whichever way one looks at this, the centre of attention in this whole election is the Podujana Peramuna.
Disciplinary action against JO a pie in the sky
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement issued after nominations closed on Thursday was specifically aimed at rallying the anti-government vote across all party lines. In this statement, the former President explained why the Podujana Peramuna was going it alone this time without an alliance with the SLFP. When the group supporting him contested the August 2015 Parliamentary election under the UPFA which was effectively controlled by the President through his control over the SLFP, that placed the President in a position of power over the Mahinda group. MR’s statement drew attention to the manner in which this power was abused by President Maithripala Sirisena to destablise Mahinda’s election campaign firstly by writing an open letter to him saying more or less that he will not be appointed Prime Minister even if he wins the election and then sacking the general secretaries of the SLFP and the UPFA on the eve of the poll.
The former President stated, “Thereby the message that was conveyed to the whole country was that since it is the President who calls the shots, the UNP will ultimately end up triumphant even if they lose the election. That was the manner in which the present leader of the SLFP ensured the victory of the UNP at the last parliamentary election. This is why the Joint Opposition is contesting this local government election under a different symbol and a different political alliance. The objective of the Joint Opposition is to provide all those opposed to this government with a political alternative.”
Having thus explained why he decided to go it alone at this election, the former President pitched into both the SLFP Sirisena faction and the JVP stating that while the SLFP group in the government criticizes the UNP, they serve in the same Cabinet and keep the coalition government going. They unfailingly vote for the UNP’s Budget. They had voted in favour of the UNP’s 2018 Budget as well just days ago. The SLFP and the UNP had cooperated in selling off the Hambantota Port as well. When the UNP minister of ports and shipping objected to the Hambantota port deal, the President removed him and appointed an SLFP minister to that position to push through the unfavourable deal entered into by the UNP. The two partners in government cooperate with one another in the constitutional reform process aimed at creating nine semi-independent federal states.
For the first time President Rajapaksa publicly criticized the JVP as well, accusing them of being an integral part of the yahapalana collective and cooperating in running the FCID, helping the government to change the electoral system to avoid holding the provincial council elections, helping the government to pass amendments to the local government elections law in contravention of the Constitution and the Standing Orders of Parliament etc. MR said that back in 2005, the JVP which was then under the leadership of Somawansa Amarasinghe threw its weight behind him in order to prevent Ranil Wickremesinghe from coming into power but today, under a different leadership, the JVP has become a cat’s paw of the UNP. Therefore, the voting public should be mindful of the fact that the only real opposition to this government is the Joint Opposition.
The most important part of MR’s statement was the section where he pointed out that the next presidential election process will begin just 18 months after the dust settles on the local government election which is to be held in February 2018. The former President’s statement made the following observations: “According to the change effected by the 19th Amendment to Article 30(2) of the Constitution, the term of office of the President was reduced to five years. By the provisions of Section 49(1)(b) of the 19th Amendment, that change has been made specifically applicable to the incumbent President as well. Hence the term of office of the incumbent President ends on 9 January 2020.According to Article 31(3) of our Constitution, a Presidential election has to be held not more than two months and not less than one month before the incumbent President’s term of office expires. Hence the next presidential election will have to be held between 9 November and 9 December 2019. When the mandatory periods between the declaration of the election, calling for nominations and the subsequent period up to the poll laid down in the Presidential Elections Act of 1981 are taken into account, the next presidential election process will have to begin by October 2019.Hence there will only be around 18 months between the local government elections of February 2018 and the beginning of the next Presidential elections process in 2019.”
What this means is that after the local government elections next February, jockeying for the presidency will begin in earnest. Even though some members of the SLFP have been trying to intimidate parliamentarians of the Joint Opposition by saying that disciplinary action will be taken against them for supporting a different political party at the local government elections, that’s hardly likely to happen for many reasons. In the first place the disciplinary process and the inevitable court procedures together will take more than 18 months. Furthermore, after the local government elections, there will be renewed moves being made for reunification of all SLFP factions for the Presidential election. Even though re-unification moves failed at the LG level for many reasons such as not being able to carry out a joint election campaign against the government with a partner of that same government, and because the Joint Opposition could not possibly accommodate any outsiders as there was not enough even for the partners of the JO itself. Reunification becomes easier the higher the level of the election.
Even the UNP was able to get everyone on board for the last parliamentary elections as recounted above, it was compelled to drop some at the LG level because of their inability to accommodate all the candidates. But joining up will become marginally easier at the provincial council level and easier still at the parliamentary level; with it being easiest at the presidential level. If at the level of the presidential candidacy, some members of the government either as individuals or as organized groups are willing to support the Joint Opposition candidate, nobody is going to object to that. In such an instance, the very act of supporting the opposition candidate will constitute a parting of ways with the government.