The Sri Lankan parliamentary elections, held on August 5, the results of which were unofficially out on August 7, have sent a number of politically significant messages. These are as follows:
Getting Two Thirds Majority
The results have shown that it is possible to get two- thirds majority even under the Proportional Representation System (PRS) which facilitates the entry of a number of parties, even small ones, into parliament, preventing efforts by a big party to form a government of its own without the support of small parties.
The ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), led by Mahinda Rajapaksa, has got 145 seats, just five short of 150, which is the two-thirds mark. But it has allies like the Eelam Peoples’ Democratic Party (2 seats); the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (1 seat); the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (1 seats) and the National Congress led by Athaullah (1 seat) which will enable it to muster two thirds. Thus in total, the SLPP has got 150 in the House of 225 or two thirds. Few believed that two-thirds was possible. Party organizer Basil Rajapaksa was himself aiming only at 135.
Boost To Majoritarian Politics
The results have shown that it is possible to win with a substantial majority or even two thirds, with the support of the Sinhalese community only. The Sinhalese are 70% of the Sri Lankan population of 21 million but have typically been divided. However in the November 2019 Presidential election, the SLPP showed that the Sinhala vote could be consolidated. The party has shown that again in August 2020.
In the poll campaign, the SLPP had taken a hardline against the Tamils’ demand for a federal constitution and also against the Muslims who it alleged were silent supporters of Islamic terrorism which showed its potential in the April 21, 2019 multiple bombings in four towns including Colombo. SLPP campaigners portrayed the demands of the Tamils and Muslims as national security threats. The West’s support for the minorities only added to such a threat perception.
In many places, the Tamils and Muslims voted for the more accommodative Samagi Jathika Balawagaya (SJB), a breakaway group of the United National Party (UNP). Where they are in substantial numbers they voted for their own sectarian parties. But Muslim support did not tilt the balance in favor of the SJB because the SJB got only 24% of the votes overall as against 60% secured by the SLPP. The Tamils, who had supported the SJB in the Presidential election of 2019, deserted it this time in favor of their ethnic parties.
Decimation of United National Party
The United National Party (UNP), Sri Lanka’s oldest party, which had formed governments many times earlier, could not elect a single member this time. And its leader for more than two decades, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, was also defeated. The UNP is entitled to a single nominated seat under the PR system. But it is said that leader Wickremesinghe does not want to be nominated.
The UNP began to see a steady decline under the leadership of Wickremesinghe. A party with a rural base under the D.S.Senanayake and his son Dudley Senanayake, the UNP became too urbanized, elitist, bourgeois, and pro-West under the stewardship of Wickremesinghe. This is why the party saw defections and a major split when its Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa broke away to form the SJB ahead of the Presidential election in 2019. In the parliamentary elections, Sajith’s SJB got 54 seats while the UNP under Wickremesinghe drew a blank. The SJB’s relatively better performance shows that it had a struck a chord with the Sinhala masses to some extent. Sajith Premadasa is seen as a non-elitist leader though not in the same way as his father, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, was.
Changing Tamil Concerns
The polls in the Northern Province showed that Tamil extremism is on the wane, although some pro-LTTE radicals like Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and C.V.Wigneswaran won. The bulk of the seats was won by the moderate Tamil National Alliance (TNA) fighting under the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi’s “House” symbol. The elections in the North also showed that the Tamils now want economic development, besides federalism. This is seen in the success of the pro-government EPDP (2 seats) and the SLFP (1 seat).
The Muslims have continued their tradition of supporting national parties or religious parties which would join governments. Much of the success of the SJB this time, is due to the support it got from Muslims in non-Muslim majority electorates.
The results will definitely pave the way for a major overhaul of the Sri Lankan constitution to enable the formation of stable governments with sufficient strength in parliament. Using its two-thirds majority, the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa will either repeal or drastically prune the 19 the. Amendment (19A) introduced by the Wickremesinghe regime in 2015.
It will also modify the election system by making it a First Past the Post System (FPS), mainly, if not fully. The FPS will enable a single party to form a government and even secure two thirds of the seats. The existing Preferential Vote system (with voters ranking their preference in a list of party candidates) may also go because the system leads to competition among the candidates of a party.
The complaint against the 19A is that it weakens the Executive Presidency in a system where the Executive President is directly elected by the entire country. The 19A takes away many of his powers and hands them over to the Prime Minister or to the non-elected Independent Commissions. There is an argument that the 19A gives the non-elected/non-political Independent Commissions too much power, making a mockery of representative government.
Because of the 19A, President Maithripala Sirisena could not sack the then Inspector General of Police, Pujith Jayasundara, for failing to prevent the April 21, 2019 blasts despite the availability of intelligence about the perpetrators days in advance. As per the 19A, the President had no power to appoint, transfer or sack any official. A Head of a Department could not choose his officials without the consent of the Public Service Commission.
The Rajapaksas might allow some of the Independent Commissions to remain but with clipped wings. The general tendency will clearly be towards centralization rather than decentralization.
Fate Of Provincial Councils
Given the tendency to centralize the administration, the minority Tamils fear that the 13 th. Amendment, which set up elected Provincial Councils and devolved a modicum of power to them, might be scrapped. But this is unlikely to happen, not because India has a stake in the system, having brought them about through the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, but because the Sri Lankan political class has developed a tremendous stake in it.
The Provincial Councils system has created an intermediate governance stratum between the local bodies and the national parliament. The elected councils, with their Boards of Ministers with departments under them, give aspiring grassroots politicians instruments of power and a means to get to parliament at a later date. Mahinda Rajapaksa once said that if he abolished the Provincial Councils, Sinhalese politicians will themselves protest in front of his house.
Independent Foreign Policy
The election results will enable the Rajapaksas to pursue an independent foreign policy. The parliamentary backing they have will enable them to resist pressures from the West, India and even China to do their bidding. Key regional and foreign powers are wanting a share in the Lankan economic pie and also Colombo’s support for their regional and global strategic designs. In such a situation, a strong, well-backed government will be better able to hold its own against outside powers.
Both China and India are keen on acquiring strategic assets in Sri Lanka and the US is wanting Colombo to sign the controversial Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact and the Access and Cross Services Agreement. India considers Sri Lanka to be in its sphere of influence which China is trying to breach. And the US and India want Lanka to support the “Quad” against China, while China considers the island to be part of its Belt and Road Initiative.