By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya
Sajith Premadasa’s newly formed Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) has managed to overcome the hurdles and booby-traps laid in its path ahead of the 2020 general election, and come out well ahead of its bête noir, the United National Party (UNP). It was clear from the outset that there was no likelihood of winning against the SLPP juggernaut – the immediate challenge, and the more realistic goal for the SJB, was to win over UNP constituents. This task was no doubt made easier by conduct of the UNP itself which had, for a long time, been writing its own obituary. The UNP leadership’s mean-spirited treatment of Premadasa’s camp was on full display latterly, helping to tip the scales for undecided voters.
On the face of it the SJB’s electoral performance seems to suggest a clean break with the old order, with the rebel faction outperforming the UNP comprehensively. The numbers need to be examined more closely though, to observe that some things haven’t changed. One is that seats secured by the SJB have been won with heavy dependence on parties representing minorities that contested on the SJB ticket, within the coalition. This is not immediately visible in the official election results because these candidates are listed as ‘SJB’ with no indication of their party affiliation.
The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) led by Rauff Hakeem, All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) led by Rishad Bathiudeen and Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) were SJB’s coalition partners in this election. The TPA was formed by Mano Ganesan and comprised his party – the Democratic Progressive Front (DPF), the National Union of Workers (NUW) and Up Country Peoples’ Front (UCPF). They collectively accounted for 12 seats out of the SJB’s 54 (inclusive of National List seats). This works out to 22.22% of the SJB contingent, or over 1/5 of the seats.
The SJB’s single seat from the Vanni district, was that of ACMC leader Rishad Bathiudeen in Mannar. Trincomalee was the only district won by SJB (meaning, the party got the highest number of votes district-wise). This was thanks to an SLMC candidate (contesting on SJB ticket) getting the largest number of votes, along with a (former UNP) Muslim candidate who got the second highest vote count for SJB. In Kandy, two out of SJB’s 4 seats were from SLMC and TPA respectively, while all three SJB seats in Nuwara Eliya were from TPA. The SLMC won one seat under its own banner in Batticaloa and the ACMC won one on its own ticket in Digamadulla. It may be safely assumed that in parliament, these two MPs and their respective fellow party members elected from the SJB, will work together towards their own party goals.
In the UNP-led United Front for Good Governance (or ‘Yahapalana’ government) of 2015, these same parties held 18 seats out of the coalition’s 106. That was 16.98% of the total. Still short of a majority, the UNFGG had to depend on the support of the Opposition TNA and JVP to get legislation passed. The orientation of the NUW (a trade union) and UCPF has been to work towards betterment of the lives of less-privileged plantation Tamil communities. The SLMC and ACMC on the other hand have increasingly tended to exploit communal sentiment for political gain. Analysts are of the view that the yahapalana government, being beholden to communal-oriented parties for its survival, caused disaffection among its Sinhala-Buddhist support base, which contributed to its eventual downfall.
During the 2013 Provincial Council elections this writer observed in previous columns that Muslims had voted against these parties in numbers. SLMC’s General Secretary Hasan Ali at the time acknowledged that “the Muslim vote has gone to non-Muslim candidates” (‘What happened to the Muslim vote?’ – Sunday Times 06.10.13). The results seemed to reflect the electorate’s growing disillusionment with communally oriented political parties and their leaders. This begs the question whether it is in fact the mainstream parties that perpetuate the communal tendency by embracing coalition partners for reasons of political expediency.
An over-dependence on minority parties is not the only sign of SJB’s difficulty in breaking out of the UNP mould. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has observed that Premadasa’s 2019 presidential election manifesto contained reform proposals that were identical to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s draft constitution tabled in parliament earlier that year. Listing them in a statement on 5th July the PM referred to the manifesto’s call to replace the word ‘unitary’ with the formulation ‘undivided and indivisible’ in describing the Sri Lankan state, maximum devolution of central government’s powers to the provinces, creation of a second chamber made up of PC representatives to further limit powers of the centre, abolishing the exclusive financial powers of parliament and allowing PCs to raise funds independently, placing district secretaries and divisional secretaries under the purview of the PCs and setting up a separate constitutional court to adjudicate in disputes between the central government and the PCs.
The SJB will need to re-position itself, both organizationally and policy-wise, in a way that is distinct from the UNP, if it is to assert itself as a credible political entity in its own right. That would arguably be a more productive enterprise than trying to assert ‘rightful ownership’ of the UNP brand name, and ending up being seen as a UNP clone.
Prime Minister Rajapaksa in his statement drew attention to the dangers inherent in pandering to communally oriented political parties. Referring to the Easter Sunday terror attacks, he observed how extremist groups indirectly controlled communal parties, and ‘the communal political parties in turn controlled the national political party running the government.’ He blamed the yahapalana government for failing to prevent those horrific attacks ‘because they had fallen victim to this brand of politics.’
Making a pertinent reference to the changing political culture, he mentioned how in the past, Tamil and Muslim politicians while representing their respective communities, were ‘stalwarts of the UNP or of the SLFP. “If we are to see the kind of friendship and cooperation that existed between the various communities in this country in times past, we have to ensure that those who engage in narrow minded communal politics are not able to benefit from it. It’s only then that a new generation of Ponnambalams, Duriappahs, Hameeds and Moulanas will emerge from among the younger generation,” he said.
Against the backdrop of the PM’s comments, the appointment of SLPP National List candidate Ali Sabry, PC to the important portfolio of Justice would send a positive message. Sabry has consistently spoken out against communal politics, and hopefully his appointment will have a salutary effect on the political culture both at community level and nationally.
Sri Lanka has seen too much death and destruction already at the hands of communally oriented political movements. The new threat of Islamic extremism posed by the National Thawheed Jamat, with its support base in the East, is doubly alarming on account of the global context against which it has emerged. We cannot forget that Sri Lanka is at the centre of big power rivalry on account of its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, with warships and aircraft carriers of rival powers constantly traversing the waters off Trincomalee. Naval relations with the US were deepened during the yahapalana regime, and it is unlikely the superpower will let up on its bid to gain a foothold on the island. Against this backdrop, internal sectarian strife, especially in the Eastern Province, presents conditions ripe for exploitation by external forces. It would be pertinent to ask if that process hasn’t started already.