Sri Lankans will be voting to elect a new parliament in elections to be held on April 25. There is hectic political activity as the Election Commission will be receiving nominations from March 12 for a week. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved the parliament on March 2 and called for the elections six months early to cash in on the wave of popular support that helped him win the presidential poll in November 2019. He aims to win two-thirds majority for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLP)-led alliance, which fielded him, to push through his political and economic agenda.
Addressing a meeting of senior media members on March 8, Gotabaya said the government remained focused on removing the 19th Amendment to the constitution. The Amendment had taken away the president’s freedom of action. This had “created confusion and imbalances of power” and commissions established under the Constitutional Council “failed to be as independent as promised”. He cited the inability of the earlier president, Maithripala Sirisena, to replace the inspector general of police after the 2019 Easter Sunday terrorist attack as an example. He said “these constitutional issues could be ironed out”, and a new constitution formulated as set out in the manifesto. His other priorities include holding provincial council elections as soon as the parliamentary election is wrapped up.
Sri Lanka’s parliament has 225 members. Out of these, 196 are to be elected from 22 multi-member electoral districts using the proportional representation system. The remaining 29 seats will be allocated to the contesting parties and independent groups based on the proportion of their vote share.
Gotabaya seems to have uncannily timed the parliamentary election when the two grand old parties—the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)—are struggling to stay relevant after his thumping victory. Their cosy world of alliances has gone topsy-turvy after the presidential poll. Their bid to preserve their distinct identity is being dramatically seen in their battle for election symbols.
The SLFP led by Sirisena is playing second fiddle in the SLPP-led SLPNS alliance cobbled together by Basil Rajapaksa, brother of Gotabaya. Sirisena had to eat humble pie when the SLPNS did not agree to his plea to allow his partymen to contest the election on the SLFP symbol. Now they will be contesting on SLPP’s pohottuwa (lotus bud) symbol. In spite of Sirisena’s statement that the SLFP would help the alliance in getting a two-thirds majority, relations between the SLPP and SLFP leaders are far from cordial. The former president’s cavalier remarks about an SLPP leader’s local campaign in Sirisena’s stronghold of Polonnaruwa have triggered verbal skirmishes between the rank and file of both parties.
“Such remarks have not added to Sirisena’s credibility with the Rajapaksas who have probably not forgotten his role in “ganging up” with the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led UNP to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2014 presidential election and in the parliamentary election a year later. The Rajapaksas are also unlikely to forget the double whammy delivered by Sirisena’s failed “constitutional coup” in November 2018, installing Mahinda as PM after sacking PM Wickremesinghe but failing to muster support in Parliament. In any case, the Supreme Court held the president’s action unconstitutional and Wickremesinghe was back as PM.
The cumulative effect of Sirisena’s poor political leadership decisions seem to be catching up with the SLFP, now left as a bystander in the Rajapaksa-led coalition. Sirisena loyalist and former minister Duminda Dissanayake remarked: “How can we obtain a two-thirds majority in Parliament? There are people who go on saying do not vote for the others.” This reflects the uneasy state of the SLFP-SLPP alliance and could affect the second preferential votes of candidates fielded by the SLFP.
The first set of nomination papers of the SLPNS was signed on March 11 at an auspicious hour at Rajapaksa’s residence. Rajapaksa is set to contest from Kurunegala constituency; other senior leaders signed the nomination papers for most of the southern districts in the south. Later, Sirisena signed his application to contest from Polonnaruwa. In the north and east, the alliance is contesting under different symbols.
The leadership struggle within the UNP between Wickremesinghe and PM aspirant and deputy leader Sajith Premadasa has continued and there was even a tussle over election symbols. Though Premadasa wanted to contest as the UNP candidate and managed to muster the support of smaller political parties like the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, All Ceylon Makkal Congress, Jathika Hela Urumaya and the National Democratic Front, his parleys with the UNP leader failed. He was left with no option but to opt for the telephone symbol before the Election Commission deadline of March 9 for switching symbols. The UNP informed the EC that it was ready to contest the election in all districts under the elephant symbol. This has left the rank and file of the UNP and its coalition allies confused. With the UNP a divided house on the eve of the election, the chances of the Sajith Premadasa-led JSB winning over the support of traditional UNP voters have diminished.
But the big question is will the SLPP alliance be able to secure two-thirds majority in the House? Rajapaksa won the presidential election with the Sinhala majority overwhelmingly voting in his favour, while minority Muslims and Tamils seem to have preferred Premadasa. The Sinhala majority preferred Gotabaya after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks. Presumably, a majority consider national security more important than other issues like structural reforms, ethnic reconciliation and good governance. With the consolidation of the Sinhala majority in favour of Gotabaya, the SLPP is likely to improve upon the 52 percent support of voters.
At the same time, Gotabaya’s negative attitude to devolution of powers and casual handling of some of the vexing issues of the Eelam war like accountability for war crimes and forcibly disappeared persons are likely to further delay the ethnic reconciliation process. Thus, ethnic polarisation appears to have gained a new lease of life. It is likely to continue to sway the voting pattern. So it is going to be difficult for the SLPP alliance to make inroads among Muslim and Tamil voters who had largely supported Premadasa.
However, Gotabaya’s style of leadership has shown him as a hands-on leader who works with clear goals and a structured approach to problems. In this respect, he is probably the most popular leader among the present crop of Sri Lanka leaders. If he can make a dent among minority voters, the SLPP alliance can manage to gain a two-thirds majority. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has demonstrated his mastery at this political game in his first tenure; but Gotabaya differs from his brother in many ways.
Can the president do it? In this context, the comment of Dumbledore in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is relevant: “It is not our abilities that show truly what we are, it is our choices.” This is true not only for the voter, but the president as well.
—The writer served as the head of intelligence of the IPKF in Sri Lanka. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies, South Asia Analysis Group and the International Law and Strategic Analysis