To say that the resounding electoral defeat of the governing coalition at the recent local government elections has set the cat among the canaries is an understatement. Up to the point when this article goes to press, the political aftershocks of the pohottuwa tsunami of February 10 continues with no end in sight. In the immediate aftermath of the defeat apologists for the government have been trying to say that the SLPP got only 45% of the vote and that the votes of all the yahapalana partners of January 2015, still outnumber the votes that Mahinda Rajapaksa got and that therefore, MR would have lost again if the February 10 poll had been a presidential election. The very crisis that shook the political establishment in the aftermath of this election shows that no one, not even the persons mouthing them, was convinced by such arguments. At the 2000, 2001 and 2004 parliamentary elections, governments were formed by political parties that got 45% of the vote. Besides, a local government election is very different to a presidential election. At a presidential election the vote gets polarized between the two main contestants and the others are rendered irrelevant.
But at a local government election, the vote tends to get distributed among a large number of political groups, thus reducing the percentages that the two main political forces get. Furthermore at a local government election, large numbers of people tend to vote on the basis of personal connections rather than strictly on party lines. As there are many thousands of candidates at LG elections, this factor has a major impact on voting patterns. Thus, the 45% that the pohottuwa got at this election could easily translate into a 50% plus vote at a presidential election. Besides the percentage of the SLPP is calculated without the votes they would otherwise have got from the eleven local government institutions where the SLPP nomination papers were rejected. At least six of those were sure wins for the SLPP. In fact in at least four of these institutions where the SLPP nominations were rejected, the phottuwa party did support independent groups and they all won. Those votes have not been counted as belonging to the SLPP in the final count. Furthermore, the mere fact that the pohottuwa won this election at all was as much of a shock as the Brexit vote in the UK where the Brexit camp managed to prevail against the combined party strength of the Conservative, Labour and Social Democratic parties.
In this instance too, the SLPP which emerged as the third force outside the two established parties (UNP and SLFP), managed to soundly defeat both and emerge as Sri Lanka’s most formidable political force. For the SLPP to break away and to contest alone at this election was fraught with danger. The people in this country have been used to a two party system for more than half a century. Party loyalties were strong. This was why the rhetoric of ‘not creating splits in the SLFP’ prevailed in 2015 and the Mahinda Rajapaksa loyalists decided to contest together with the Sirisena led SLFP/UPFA at the last parliamentary elections instead of fielding a separate list. That however led to a kind of Babaylonian captivity of the Rajapaksa camp within the SLFP. Firstly President Sirisena took about 44 MPs who had been elected to parliament under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s leadership on a platform opposed to the yahapalana government and the UNP and used them to prop up the yahapalana government.
The addition of these 44 opposition MPs enabled the government to have a two thirds majority in parliament which had not been given to the yahapalana government by the people. Then the Rajapaksa-led UPFA group in parliament which had over 50 MPs was not given the opposition leadership on the argument that they were a a part of the government under President Maithripala Sirisena’s leadership. On that basis the opposition leadership was given to the TNA and the position of chief opposition whip to the JVP. This led to the situation where both the government and the opposition in parliament were shared between the yahapalana partners who had been on the same side at the 2015 presidential election. This in turn resulted in a situation where the 10-member constitutional council which was in charge of recommending appointments to high state posts and the independent commissions being completely dominated by yahapalanites. Needless to say all the so called independent commissions filled all high positions with yahapalanites during the past three years. What was taking shape was a Third Reich style state. The Joint Opposition was deprived of time to speak in parliament with the JVP with six MPs getting more time to speak than the JO with over 50 MPs.
Massive gamble that paid off
On top of all this was the relentless persecution of opposition politicians with opposition members of parliament being arrested and jailed on the flimsiest of excuses. MPs and even Buddhist monks have been arrested and jailed for participating in protests and they are then released on bail which means if they participate in protests again they will be jailed automatically for violating bail conditions. Never in the history of this country, has there been such draconian suppression of the legitimate opposition in this country. It was in the middle of all this that the Joint Opposition made the decision to contest separately at this local government election. When this decision was announced, the leaders of the SLFP and UPFA openly threatened members of the JO with disciplinary action and expulsion from their parliamentary seats. In fact disciplinary action had already been initiated with regard to MP Sanath Nishantha from the Puttalam District.
In such circumstances, the decision of the Joint Opposition to contest separately was a massive gamble. The only thing the Joint Opposition had going in its favour was the wave of anti-government sentiment building up in the country. That and an unshakable faith in Mahinda Rajapakasa’s public appeal were the only things that sustained the Joint Opposition. The Maithripala Sirisena-led SLFP tried to deprive the Joint Opposition of a part of this as well by masquerading as a part of the opposition to the UNP. SLFP ministers in the government were among the most strident critics of the UNP over the bond scam. Then the President bolstered his anti-UNP credentials by instituting the bond commission which laid bare the entire scam in a way never before been seen in this country with regard to a criminal investigation. After the local government election campaign began, the President himself became more and more strident in his criticism of the UNP which led even some otherwise sensible people to suggest that the JO should strengthen the hands of the President in order to bring the UNP to heel.
It was in this background that the UPFA began negotiations with the Joint Opposition to field one list. The argument in favour of not taking a risk and contesting together with the UPFA was strong. No one knew how the party loyalty factor would play out. Besides, the UPFA representatives were pleading and even trying to worship Prof. Peiris to persuade them to field a single list. It was the decision made by Prof. Peiris and the de facto national organizer of the SLPP Basil Rajapaksa to walk away from that final meeting with the UPFA representatives that enabled them to score what was arguably Sri Lanka’s most sensational election victory. The way it was described by Dilan Perera was that as the discussion dragged on, Professor Peiris had declared that he was literally falling asleep and needed rest and he walked out, and was followed by Basil Rajapaksa. It is because BR and GLP made good their escape that day, that this historic victory was possible. It was Basil Rajapaksa who banded the local government representatives together as a political force supporting the Joint Opposition. The LG representatives of the UPFA could hold their heads high in their villages because of BR’s emphasis on developing village infrastructure. This election result at an organizational level is BR’s victory as much as it is Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory at leadership level.
Even though the President Sirisena’s representatives wanted to be taken in on to the Joint Opposition list, there was the simple practical impossibility of accommodating them because loud and acrimonious arguments had already broken out among the partners of the Joint Opposition as to who gets how many slots. Nomination time is always full of conflict. To hear obscenities being uttered is not unusual. Even in defeat, nominations are always contentious. In 2015, the then general secretary of the UPFA Susil Premajayantha had to pretend to have a heart attack in order to escape from his office which was surrounded. Even so he was pursued to hospital and made to enlist a candidate while in bed. This time, the unusually fierce scramble for nominations from the SLPP was one of the early signs of the public mood at the ground level. There was the feeling getting nominations from the SLPP was a sure ticket into the local council and this hunch for the most part proved to be right.
One of the main considerations behind the decision to contest separately was that the JO could not appear on the same stage and filed a list with a partner in the very government they were opposing. Having been forced to contest alone, the Sirisena faction of the SLFP threw everything they had into the campaign. Defections from the Joint Opposition were engineered, their biggest catch being parliamentarian Weerakumara Dissanayake of the JNP. Defections even of some candidates who had got nomination from the SLPP were engineered. All the meetings of the UPFA were well attended with what looked like enthusiastic crowds. In the fact the UPFA rallies were far bigger than anything that the UNP could organize. So much so that MR was asked on TV interviews whether he thinks the UPFA is really with him. The fact that the UPFA had the presidency and the most powerful ministries in the government combined with the other factors mentioned above made some people feel that they would be able to put on a better show than expected.
On top of all that was the fact that Sirisena was furiously attacking the UNP so as to convey the impression to the UPFA voter that he was going to ditch the UNP and form a UPFA led government. In the run up to the election, Arjun Aloysius and Kasun Palisena of Perpetual Treasuries were arrested to bolster Sirisena’s anti-corruption credentials. There was nothing else that Sirisena could do other than arresting and jailing Ranil Wickremesinghe himself. With all that President Sirisena failed and came a poor third. If he was not able to prevail over Mahinda Rajapaksa with all of the above, then he is a political write off. To say that the yahapalana partners are reeling with shock at the result of this election would be an understatement. For the past week after the conclusion of that election, there has been literally no government in the country with both the Sirisena faction and the UNP thrashing around in their search for survival strategies. For Sirisena, the only survival strategy available is to seek an accommodation with the SLPP.
Finishing off one adversary at a time
The whole of the past week, Sirisena was engaged in an open struggle to dump Ranil Wickremesinghe and to have Nimal Siripala de Silva appointed as the prime minister with the support of the Joint Opposition, the Muslim parties and some defectors from the UNP. That such a thought would have even crossed Sirisena’s mind shows what his character is like. The Joint Opposition for its part would of course be happy to avail themselves of the opportunity to get rid of their main rival. In the yahapalana camp, it’s still the UNP that has the votes. If Sirisena ejects the UNP from the government, there will be a massive collapse in the party and the main rival of the SLPP would have been finished off and they can later have the Sirisena faction for desert. Besides, the Joint Opposition needs to be able to tell the public that they have fully cooperated in all attempts to get rid of the UNP. So now the Joint Opposition has given an open assurance of support if the SLFP wants to oust the UNP.
As we go to press, an uneasy calm prevails after the prime minister addressed the nation and said he is staying on. According to the 19th Amendment, the President cannot simply dismiss the prime Minister the way he dismissed the UPFA ‘s Prime Minister D.M.Jayaratne in January 2015 to make way for Ranil Wickremesinghe. Now a vote of no confidence will have to be passed to get rid of the PM. This will be messier than simply sacking the PM. If they fail to sack the PM, the present government will continue but one wonders how Sirisena and Ranil can sit in the same cabinet after the events of the past week. The fate of the SLFP ministers in the government also hangs in the balance. If their attempted coup against Ranil Wickremesinghe fails, will they be able to serve in the same cabinet under Ranil for the next two years? These SLFP ministers were very keen to enjoy their ministerial perks especially because they had the best ministries which is why they refused to give up their positions and to join the opposition before the elections. Today, even though they make noises about going into the opposition if Ranil Wickremesinghe remains as PM, it is unlikely that they will do so.
As for the joint opposition, they too are treading a fine line in all this. When the UPFA asks them for help to oust Ranil, they are obliged to offer their support because defeating the proposed new constitution, ECTA and the halting of the privatization of state assets are nationally important goals. To say that they will provide the numbers necessary to overthrow the UNP but will not accept any portfolios in the SLFP government that is to be set up is also the correct thing to do because the Podujana Peramuna should not get tainted with the doings of this extremely unpopular government. With the highest ever annual repayments of foreign loans due this year and the next, due to the 15.1 billion USD foreign currency commercial loans that this government recklessly took over the past three years, these are going to be trying times even in the best of circumstances. Today without a properly functioning government in place, things are going to be really bad. For the SLPP to go and jump into the saddle at this stage will be suicidal. However they cannot avoid helping any party that is seeking to oust the UNP from power.
Sirisena’s moral fiber
That the SLPP would want to oust the UNP by helping the SLFP to show a majority in parliament is understandable. The SLPP is not under any kind of obligation to the UNP. Indeed the latter has been persecuting the former for the past three years and anything that the SLPP does to oust the UNP can be justified. Even in his address to the nation last Friday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was talking about establishing special courts to try members of the former regime. This in a situation where his closest associates have been implicated in the bond scam which is infinitely greater than anything that can be ascribed to the former regime. Two top business figures have already been jailed and Arjuna Mahendran is facing arrest the moment he sets foot in Sri Lanka. Despite all this, RW is still talking about putting his political opponents in jail. So anything that the SLPP does to undermine the UNP is fully justified. However the same cannot be said of the UNP’s partner in crime, Maithripala Sirisena who was elected largely on a UNP vote.
According to the calculations of this writer, about 67% of the votes that he received were from the UNP with the rest being from allies ranging from Mano Ganesan, P.Digambaram to the Muslim parties, the TNA and the JVP. Having become president largely on UNP votes, he thought nothing against doing his best to undermine the UNP at the local government elections. Now after it has once again been proved that the majority of yahapalana votes are with the UNP, Sirisena is attempting to expel the UNP from the government. These are not the kind of maneuvers that one expects from a head of state especially after a national election which has clearly shown that the people desire a change of government. It is certainly true that if Sirisena does nothing and continues with the UNP-SLFP coalition government, he will be faced with a humiliating defeat in 2019 and beyond. That however is going to be his fate anyway. By first betraying Mahinda Rajapaksa and then betraying Ranil Wickremesinghe, he has shown himself to be devoid of any principles or scruples.
The person squarely responsible for the present situation of the country is finally Ranil Wickremesinghe himself who allowed himself to be persuaded to ‘lend out’ the presidential candidateship of the UNP to unprincipled backstabbers even though in 2014 there was a visible trend in favour of the UNP at the provincial council elections held that year. That trend has now gone in the opposite direction after the people were given a clear demonstration that the present day UNP is not the UNP of old. Nobody in his right mind will now say that the UNP can run the government or the economy.
Courtesy: Sunday Island