The August 5, 2020 Sri Lankan parliamentary elections are likely to be a one-horse race with the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) being streets ahead of its rivals in popular estimation. Nevertheless, the election campaigns of the various parties have thrown up key issues which will determine what Sri Lanka will be like in the immediate and mid-term future.
The SLPP’s unassailable position is partly because of the splintered opposition and partly because of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s success in containing COVID-19. Given the manifest failure of the previous Yahapalanaya government, the United National Party (UNP) led by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Samagi Jana Balawewgaya (SJB), led by the former Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa, are on a weak wicket.
The SLPP is hoping and working for a two-thirds majority to bring about vital and far-reaching constitutional changes. But this is not easy to attain under the present election system. However, as in 2010, the government could make for any shortfall by getting opposition MPs to crossover. The on-going poll campaign has thrown up critical issues which could determine Sri Lanka’s future.
Empowered Executive Presidency
The SLPP’s predilection for centralization with a strong government in Colombo with an elected Executive President at the head is well known. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is spearheading the SLPP’s campaign, is calling for a new constitution without the 19 th.,Amendment (19A) which curtails the powers of the President and gives significant powers over recruitment, promotion, transfer and dismissal to a number of Independent Commissions.
For example, the Public Service Commission is vested with the power of appointment, promotion, transfer, disciplinary control and dismissal of public officers, subject to the provisions of the Constitution.
Since the introduction of the Constitutional Council and the Independent Commission in 2001 by the 17th.Amendment, every government and President has faced obstacles placed by these non-elected bodies. The latest to suffer was President Mathripala Sirisena who could not sack or punish the Inspector General of Police, Pujith Jayasundara, even though the officer had manifestly failed to prevent the Easter Sunday carnage despite getting accurate intelligence from India. As per 19A the IGP too cannot appoint, transfer or sack officers even though he has first-hand knowledge of the candidates’ capabilities and performance.
One of the major grievances against that 19A is that it ties the hands of the Executive President, who is directly elected by the people. It also curtails the powers of the Prime Minister who enjoys majority support in an elected parliament. Thus the 19A negates the popular mandates of the President and parliament.
As the experience of the 2015-2019 Yahapalanaya government showed, the 19 A is bundle of confusion and contradictions as regards the powers of the President, the Prime Minister and parliament with one institution made to over-ride the other.
The SLPP wants the 19A severely amended if not scrapped. There could be a proposal to revive the 18 th.,Amendment (18A) which Mahinda Rajapaksa had inducted in 2010 when he was President. The 18A scrapped the 17 th.Amendment (17A) of 2001, which had introduced the Constitutional Council and Independent Commissions to curb the powers of the Executive Presidency which was then with Chandrika Kumaratunga. The 18A replaced the Constitutional Council by a Parliamentary Council thus transferring power from an non-elected to an elected body.
Any SLPP move to abolish or severely curtail 19A will be resisted by the UNP and SJB and also the TNA as they had been its authors. However, as hinted by TNA’s spokesman, M.A.Sumanthiran, these parties might be game for amending some of the dysfunctional aspects of the 19A. It is also said that when it comes to the crunch, the SLPP will get some UNP, SJB and some Muslim MPs to cross over to its side to enable it to get the two thirds majority required for the constitutional amendment.
Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim Issues
The SLPP had won the November 2019 Presidential election comfortably without the vote of the minority Tamils and Muslims. The party depended primarily on its appeal to the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. This time too, it is banking on the same strategy. After winning the Presidential election, many expected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to reach out to the Tamils and Muslims for the sake of national unity and efficient governance. But he has kept up the divide in the belief that it will give him a similarly good dividend in the parliamentary elections.
Since it was in his interest to go for early elections, he brushed aside the opposition’s plea that in view of the threat from COVID-19, the polls should be postponed indefinitely and that the dissolved parliament should be resurrected. However, the President’s tough measures to contain COVID-19 using the military, helped him contain the virus. Thus the opposition’s charge of militarization came unstuck.
As part of the same strategy ,the SLPP regime chose to re-investigate the April 21, 2019 serial bombings by Islamic extremists, thus keeping alive the Sinhala-Buddhists’ fears about a violent Islamic resurgence. Popular Muslim leader Rishad Bathiyudeen was hauled up before the investigating agencies against the plea of the Election Commission that the probe be postponed until after the elections. Meanwhile the regime refrained from appointing any Muslim to the cabinet, which, for the first time in the history of post-independence Sri Lanka, does not have a Muslim.
The Tamils’ demand for a federal constitution with maximum devolution for a united Tamil-dominated North and East, has beene summarily rejected by the SLPP. In fact, the SLPP proposes to revisit the India-inspired 13 th.Amendment which created elected provincial council with a modicum of autonomy. SLPP leaders have been saying that powers could be delegated to grassroots level local bodies rather than provincial councils. The utter failure of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to run the Northern Provincial Council meaningfully is cited as an example of the failure of provincial councils.
The SLPP’s outright rejection of their long-standing demands has resulted in the Tamils pitching their demands high. All Tamil parties have made a federal constitution with maximum devolution to a unified North and East as their principal demand. But the Tamil Peoples’ National Alliance (TPNA) led by C.V.Wigneswaran, former Chief Minister of the Northern Province, is demanding a UN-supervised referendum among the Tamils on the kind of solution they want for the ethnic issue. The TPNA’s manifesto also said that it will drag the Lankan government before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged genocide. The moderate TNA has demanded federalism and a partly international judicial mechanism to adjudicate cases of human rights violations during the war.
But none these demands is acceptable to the ruling SLPP. The SLPP, which is explicitly pro-military, considers the demands anti-national and sacrilegious. The UNP and SJB are for more devolution but only under a unitary constitution. While the Tamil parties insist that foreign intervention is a must to solve the ethnic question, SLPP considers it anti-national. The UNP and SJB are on paper for a mixed Lankan-international judicial system but not in reality as their conduct in power showed. Therefore, there is a Sinhala-Tamil divide on the ethnic issue.
The Muslims do not demand territorial autonomy but want their communal and religious rights protected. They also seek a place in the political High Table. But the majority Sinhala-Buddhists and the SLPP look upon these demands as a prelude to Islamic exclusivism, separatism and even terrorism, especially after the Easter Sunday bombings in 2019.The Muslims are not voicing their demands stridently but it is no secret that they will not vote for the SLPP.
It is expected that a post-poll SLPP regime will try to consolidate its Sinhala-Buddhist voter base by primarily servicing the latter’s material, political and ideological needs.
Ticklish Foreign Policy Issues
There are sharp differences between the SLPP and the opposition on foreign policy. The SLPP is publicly confronting the US and the Western Bloc on land issues in the proposed Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact, and the question of alleged war crimes. The incumbent regime is also at odds with India on Indian investments and projects such as the Eastern Terminal in Colombo port and the Trincomalee oil tanks. But the UNP and SJB are for a more accommodative approach on these issues. While the SLPP is undoubtedly pro-China, the others are somewhat wary of Beijing, being basically pro-West. Foreign powers are quietly observing the elections hoping that the winning party will be friendly to them as it settles downs to face the realities of governing a country amidst the comity of nations.