The entry of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in to the presidential election this year, confirmed by the declaration that its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake would be its candidate, creates a new dimension into what has already become a fascinating contest.
With the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) declaring Gotabaya Rajapaksa as its candidate on August 11, The JVP’s announcement of Dissanayake followed one week later. That leaves the two major parties in the country for the last seven decades, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP), yet to declare their final intentions.
It is unlikely that the SLFP will contest. It held another round of discussions with the SLPP this week which were discussed as ‘positive’ and ‘successful’, but no definite announcement has yet been made about whether the party will support SLPP nominee Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The UNP on the other hand is still convulsing from within, in the process of finalising a candidate. Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa has publicly declared that he will ‘definitely’ contest, leading to speculation that he could run as a ‘spoiler’ candidate if he is not nominated, with the backing of a faction of the party. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya are the other potential candidates, neither having withdrawn from contention.
In an eerie turn of events, both parties took action against some of their stalwarts within days of each other, indicating the degree to which the major parties are being wracked with disunity. The SLFP removed its Treasurer S. B. Dissanayake and Media Spokesman Mahinda Samarasinghe and replaced them with Lasantha Alagiyawanna and Weerakumara Dissanayake respectively. The UNP has issued show cause notices to Ajith Perera and Sujeewa Senasinghe for making remarks in breach of party discipline.
While these are ongoing developments in a very dynamic political climate, the entry of the JVP and its potential impact on the presidential impact merit further discussion, especially in light of the ‘atypical’ presidential election this year- where a newly formed political party is being perceived as a frontrunner.
The JVP does not have a great record in presidential elections, having contested in only a few of the country’s seven presidential polls. It made its debut- and best performance- way back in the first presidential election in 1982, when its founder Rohana Wijeweera ran against then incumbent President J. R. Jayewardene in the very first presidential election held under the new Constitution.
Wijeweera had been incarcerated by the Sirima Bandaranaike government for leading the 1971 insurrection. Jayewardene engineered his release and the return of the JVP to the political milieu. In that election Wijeweera finished a respectable third in the race, polling 273,000 votes or 4.2 per cent of the vote, ahead of the much-respected Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) leader Colvin R. de Silva and others of the calibre of Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Kumar Ponnambalam.
The JVP did not contest the 1989 election that led to the election of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. At the time, the country was in the throes of the JVP’s second insurrection and the election was held in a climate of fear with the party calling for a boycott of the poll and threatening to kill voters, a threat which was carried out in some areas. As a result, that election had the lowest number of candidates, with only Premadasa, Bandaranaike and Ossie Abeygunasekara of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya contesting.
The election in 1994 that brought Chandrika Kumaratunga to power saw and interesting development. The JVP had sponsored Nihal Galappaththi as their candidate who was running as the nominee of the Sri Lanka Progressive Front. During campaigning, Kumaratunga pledged to abolish the Executive Presidency in six months and set a deadline for the task: July 15, 1995.
Based on this undertaking, Galappaththi announced his withdrawal from the election. However, his name remained on the ballot paper and he had polled just over 22,000 votes when the final tally was announced.
It was twenty years ago in 1999, also against Chandrika Kumaratunga, that the JVP last nominated its own candidate for a presidential election. That was Nandana Gunatilaka who again finished third in the contest which Kumaratunga won. He polled 340,000 votes or 4 per cent of the votes cast. Gunatilaka has had a chequered political career, quitting the JVP to join the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna with Wimal Weerawansa and later joining the SLFP and then the UNP.
Since then, the JVP has been content to pledge its loyalties to candidates that it has selected, depending on the political climate of the time. In the 2005 presidential election, when Mahinda Rajapaksa ran as the candidate of the newly formed United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the JVP supported his candidature. In an election where his majority was a wafer thin 180,000 votes, the JVP’ stable vote bank of about at least 350,000 votes would have been crucial.
Five years later however, as Rajapaksa stood for re-election on a platform of securing victory in the Eelam war, the JVP switched allegiances. It supported then General Sarath Fonseka who ran as the ‘common’ candidate against Rajapaksa as even the UNP balked at the prospect of challenging the war winning incumbent President. Rajapaksa won that contest easily, with nearly 58 per cent of the vote.
Rajapaksa decided to run for an unprecedented third term in 2015 and again, the combined opposition, along with civil society organisations sponsored a ‘common’ candidate in Maithripala Sirisena who had just defected from the SLFP.
This move was mooted mainly by the UNP which actively supported and ran the opposition campaign. While not sharing the political platform with Maithripala Sirisena during the election campaign, the JVP ran its own campaign against Rajapaksa, thereby effectively supporting the ‘common’ candidate, who recorded an unexpected and comfortable victory.
Since then however, the political climate in the country has undergone seismic changes and a drastic shift in loyalties. Last year in October President Sirisena made an attempt to oust Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the UNP government and install Mahinda Rajapaksa, who he had campaigned against, as the Premier. At the time, the JVP actively supported Wickremesinghe’s re-instatement, not because it supported the UNP but on the principles of upholding democratic ideals and parliamentary supremacy.
As of now, although the status quo in government has been restored, the SLFP of which the President is still the leader is in talks with the SLPP which Rajapaksa heads, to arrive at a consensus regarding the presidential election. For all intents and purposes, the ‘government of national unity’ between the UNP and the SLFP is dead and the two parties have parted ways.
The JVP is not in alliance with either though it may be fair to say that it has a better working relationship with the UNP than either the SLFP or the SLPP. For instance, when the UNP led a Parliamentary Select Committee to probe the Easter Sunday bomb attacks, the JVP participated through its representative Nalinda Jayatissa, although both the SLFP and the SLPP abstained.
What analysts would observe even more closely is the impact the JVP would have on the forthcoming presidential election. Election laws require that a candidate obtains at least one vote more than 50 per cent of the valid votes polled, if he or she is to be declared a winner at the first count. This has always occurred in the seven presidential elections held previously.
SLFP, UNP and SLPP
With Gotabaya Rajapaksa being a candidate with no previous political experience and there being an expectation that he wouldn’t poll well within Tamil and Muslim communities and with the UNP sponsored candidate, whoever that may be, also being heavily affected by the burdens of incumbency, there is the possibility that none of the frontrunner candidates will poll the required 50 per cent plus one vote to be elected at first count.
This is where the JVP vote would be crucial. To realistically force a second count, the JVP would have to poll about a million votes. The JVP has never done so at a presidential election. At a general election, the closest it came to this figure was in the 2001 general election when it polled 815,000 votes and secured 16 seats.
In 2004, the JVP was a partner in the UPFA. In subsequent elections in 2010 and 2015, it polled 440,000 and 540,000 votes respectively. However, there is expectation that more votes will accrue to the JVP in 2019 because there is large scale public dissatisfaction against the major parties, the SLFP, the UNP as well as the SLPP which represents the previous Rajapaksa regime.
It has also been argued that the Sri Lanka voter is not in the habit of marking second preferences at presidential elections and would therefore refrain from doing so. However, some groups are already advocating that voters mark second preferences while some SLPP stalwarts are asking voters not to do so.
The latter indicates that at least the SLPP views the prospect of a second preference as a serious threat. In any event, Sri Lankan voters are adept at adopting to new scenarios, as they did in 2010 and 2015 when they recognised and voted for the ‘swan’ symbol.
Therefore, Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s performance at the 2019 presidential election may well be critical not only for him and the JVP but also for its eventual outcome. If the JVP performs to expectations, it could play a role in its eventual outcome- via second preferences- but this thought must be tempered with the fact that the JVP has a habit of not translating the massive crowds it attracts into votes at election time.