The Sri Lankan parliamentary elections to be held on August 5 looks like a one-horse race with the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by the redoubtable Rajapaksa brothers on its way to getting a comfortable majority in the House of 225.
Partly because of such an expectation or estimation, there is a palpable lack of public enthusiasm about the polls, in contrast with past polls in which political activity was manifest, noisy, colorful, and in places, violent.
However, notwithstanding the ennui, the expected results indicate major systemic and political changes and challenges in the island nation.
The style and nature of governance under a regime led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and backed by a strong SLPP presence in parliament, will be markedly different from the preceding Yahapalanaya regime which was marked by inactivity stemming from internal ideological and political differences between President Matripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. At least partly, these conflicts stemmed from the infirmities in the 19th.Amedment (19A) brought in by the Yahapalanaya government soon after it assumed office in 2015.
Fate Of 19th.Amendment
Given such a chaotic past, small wonder, the Rajapaksas want decisions to be taken in coordination, and the decisions taken to be effectively implemented through a bureaucracy totally under the control. Therefore, the first thing that the President and the Prime Minister will do is to drastically change or even jettison the 19A. But for this, the SLPP has to secure a two thirds majority in parliament by engineering crossovers from the opposition.
But this is not going to be an easy task this time, unlike in the past. The ruling party will not be able to seek the support of the Muslim parties without losing face. The Muslim parties may be ready to bury the hatchet and join the government, but the Rajapaksas may find it difficult to seek their support after publicly shunning Muslims as a community and branding popular Muslim leaders like Rishad Bathiyudeen as accomplices of Islamic terrorists.
The marginalization/isolation of Muslim parties could either give impetus to Islamic radicalization or to the Muslim masses throwing in their lot with the mainstream Sinhala-Buddhist parties for their survival as they did in the past. They could go back to the 1950s, 60s, 70s and up to the end of the 1980s, when Muslim leaders were part of mainstream Sinhala parties, had occupied key positions in the UNP and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and secured privileges to the Muslim masses. The Rajapaksas, who abhor communal Tamil and Muslim parties, have been urging Muslims to abandon them.
As usual, the Tamil parties will be out of reach for the Rajapaksas, with the small Eelam Peoples’ Democratic Party (EPDP) led by Douglas Devananda being an exception. Almost all other Tamil groups are demanding federalism. Some, like the Tamil Makkal Thesiya Koottani (TMTK) led by C.V.Wigneswaran, are demanding an internationally-supervised referendum on the Tamil question and seeking to file a case against the Lankan government in the International Criminal Court (ICC) for “genocide”. On his part, Mahinda Rajapaksa would not even envisage a federal constitution as he equates it with LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s concept of an independent Tamil Eelam.
The August 5 election could lead to two kinds of scenarios. If the moderate Tamil National Alliance (TNA) wins, there is a possibility of a détente with an SLPP government with the Rajapaksas which shows eagerness to economically develop the Northern Province. But if the Tamil radicals come on top, there will be conflicts, even violence. Violence would lead to calls for international intervention.
Crossovers From Sinhala Parties
Therefore, the Rajapaksas will be left with the Sinhala opposition parties like the United National Party (UNP) led by Ranil Wickremesinghe and the breakaway UNP group, the Samagi Jathika Balawegaya (SJB) led by Sajith Premadasa to manipulate to get a two-thirds majority.
Both the the UNP and the SJB are expected to lose the polls as neither has a good recent record to show. Both lack a charismatic leader to match the SLPP. Sajith Premadasa’s second successive failure to capture power could lead to a split in the SJB, with a disillusioned group joining the ruling SLPP just to be on the side of the more promising leader and election winner.
The SLPP hopes that with the crossovers of a sufficient number of Sinhala MPs, it will be able to push through the repeal of 19A as Mahinda Rajapaksa repealed 17A and replaced it with the 18A in 2010 when he was President. The 18A (repealed and replaced by 19A in 2015) should be ideal for the Rajapaksas as it divides power between a directly elected Executive President (in the present case, Gotabaya Rajapaksa) and the Prime Minister (Gotabaya’s elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa) through the establishment of a “Parliamentary Council”. The 18A had replaced the appointed and non-elected “Constitutional Council” by a “Parliamentary Council” comprising MPs.
The 18A had retained the Independent Commissions set by the 17A but had curtailed their powers to give the Cabinet of Ministers a greater say. For example, the Public Service Commission lost the power to appoint and deal with heads of departments. The Police Commission could only go into complaints.
However, the Parliamentary Council was not as powerful as the President, as the latter was not duty bound to go by its recommendations. Thus, there is scope of friction in 18A too. Smooth decision making will still depend on personal rapport between the President and the Prime Minister. The current and time-tested rapport between the Rajapaksa brothers is expected to continue in the post-election phase, especially with Mahinda taking a backseat with advancing age.
Many sections of the opposition, especially in the UNP and SJB, are not ideologically committed to the 19A. Many had had bad experiences with the working of 19A. These may have no compunction about supporting the Rajapaksa’s project to do away with it or modify it.
Keen on clearing the path for the formation of strong governments, enjoying two thirds majority, the Rajapaksas would go for electoral reform to replace, at least partially, the Proportional Representation System by the First Past the Post System. They would also jettison the preference votes system (manape) which fosters intra-party conflicts during elections. The mainstream parties would welcome this but the smaller and ethno-religious small parties will oppose it tooth and nail. But given the current trend, it appears that the small and minority parties may not have enough MPs to tilt the proceedings.
Eclipse of Old Parties
The August 5 elections may also throw up the prospect of the demise or a manifest weakening of old parties like the UNP and the SLFP. Both parties lack a charismatic leader like Mahinda or Gotabaya Rajapaksa, SWRD Bandaranaike, Sirima Bandarnaike, Chandrika Kumaratunga, J.R.Jayewardene or Ranasinghe Premadasa.
When the above mentioned leaders emerged, they were a clear and credible alternative to the incumbent leaders. But when Ranil Wickremesinghe emerged as leader of the UNP, he was no match to Chandra Kumaratunga, both in terms of personality and political program. When Sajith Premadasa staked his claims to be leader, he was no challenge to Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He still remains an “also ran” vis-à-vis the Rajapaksas, lacking in clarity of thought, an appealing political program and personal appeal.
Wickremesinghe still hopes that after the expected electoral defeat, SJBers will return to the UNP, which despite another electoral rout, will still be the holder of a well-known brand with many past achievements to its credit. The elections will drive the last nail in the SLFP’s coffin as it’s current bid to re-emerge from the failures of the recent past by getting the SLPP to resurrect it, will fail. Mahinda Rajapaksa has built up his SLPP as a distinct brand bearing his individual stamp. He would loathe to give it up to revive a discredited and defunct SLFP.