Election fever running high amidst viral infections
All political parties and independent groups in the parliamentary election fray are calling for a mandate to control the next Parliament. The SLPP has gone a step ahead of others; it is seeking a two-thirds majority not only to form a strong government but also to amend the Constitution.
The UPFA led by war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had scored an impressive win at the January 2010 presidential election with a majority of over 1.8 million votes, could not obtain 150 seats at the parliamentary election that followed three months later. It obtained 144 seats. That was no mean achievement, though. It is, therefore, unlikely that the SLPP, with no major achievements like a war victory to flaunt, will be able to win 150 seats in the next Parliament.
The SLPP cannot be unaware that two-thirds majorities are well-nigh impossible under the Proportional Representation (PR) system. If so, why do its leaders and candidates keep telling the public that they will achieve that goal? They are pretending to be confident of a hands-down victory. The government seems to be having some good campaign strategists and propagandists, capable of distracting its opponents. The SLPP has not only raised the bar for itself to prevent its candidates from being complacent but also distracted the Opposition, which is now all out to prevent the SLPP from securing a two-thirds majority instead of focusing on the issues that are already troubling the public, pecuniary woes due to the economic slowdown caused by Covid-19 being prominent among them.
The SLPP is ahead in the race due to its presidential election victory, which is still fresh, and the debilitation of the UNP. It will benefit from the UNP’s division as regards the allocation of district bonus seats and the National List slots. The challenge before the Opposition is to present itself as an alternative to the SLPP again after suffering a huge electoral setback. The warring factions of the UNP are condemning each other, and one is going it alone at the forthcoming election.
The UNP’s performance, especially the handling of the economy and several crises from January 2015 to Nov. 2019 was far from impressive. The argument that the UNP-led government could not live up to the people’s expectations because the UPFA/SLFP was pulling in a different direction is only partially true; the political marriage between the UNP and the SLFP remained intact until early 2018, when they finally had to campaign for the local government elections separately before breaking ranks a few months later. The UNP was busy consolidating its power in Parliament at the expense of the SLFP and President Maithripala Sirisena and succeeded in doing so as can be seen from the humiliating defeat the Joint Opposition (JO) led by Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Sirisena suffered both on legal and judicial fronts after grabbing power in Parliament. The JO took the battle to the streets and had a meteoric rise in national politics in the form of the SLPP while the UNP was doing precious little to arrest the erosion of its support base.
What really caused the popularity of the UNP-led UNF government with the SLFP/UPFA to plummet was its involvement in the Treasury bond scam, which became its undoing. The Easter Sunday attacks ruined the yahapalana government’s chances of making a comeback and helped the SLPP present itself as a saviour to the electorate and conduct its presidential election on a national security platform.
The UNP government was dependent on its strategy to destroy the former rulers politically through judicial means, to retain its hold on power and to win future election, but it failed in its endeavour as it could not have any of them convicted for bribery and corruption or abuse of power or any other serious offences despite having sought and obtained two popular mandates in January and August 2015 to do so. Meanwhile, the UNP had to go on the defensive due to the bond scam and the attendant public outcry. The split and the emergence of Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) led by its former Deputy Leader and unsuccessful presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa has worsened the UNP’s predicament. The UNP has had to compete with the SJB more than the SLPP. The battle between the UNP and its offshoot has got ugly much to the benefit of the government.
The SJB is at war with the UNP and its aim seems to be wresting control of the UNP headquarters, Sirikotha, rather than winning the upcoming election and forming the next government. It has failed to offer anything new to the people by way of election promises. Sajith keeps repeating the pledges he made during his presidential election campaign.
Sajith, who has pitted himself against Ranil in the Colombo District, will have to poll more preferential votes than the latter besides winning a higher number of seats than the UNP if he is to consolidate his power at Sirikotha. The fact that he is contesting from a separate political party will be held against him if he tries to return to the UNP’s fold. The UNP has already sacked 99 of its dissidents.
The TNA is all out to better its performance this time around and increase the number of its seats to 22 in the next Parliament, but given the political vicissitudes and the divisions it has suffered it will be lucky if can retain the 16 seats it had in the last Parliament. Attractive as its devolution-based agenda may be to the Tamil electorate, the question is whether the TNA, which is a collective Tamil political parties, will be able to have monopoly over that cause in the long-run; it has had to compete with former Northern Chief Minister C. V. Vigneswaran’s political outfit, the Tamil People’s National Alliance, and other parties such as the EPDP in the North and the East. Political coalitions are like edifices standing in earthquake prone regions; there is no guarantee of their stability as can be seen from the disintegration of the UPFA and the UNF.
Raising a two-thirds majority through crossovers
No party or coalition will be able to secure a two-thirds majority at the upcoming election as it stands, but the winner may be able to achieve that goal by engineering crossovers from other parties if it falls short of only 15-20 seats. It is doubtful whether the ruling party will be able to muster more than that number of seats through defections.
Financial inducements alone will not help effect crossovers; defectors will demand ministerial positions. The 19th Amendment does not allow the appointment of more than 30 Cabinet Ministers unless there is a national government. But this hurdle can be removed through a constitutional amendment if the next government succeeds in raising the requisite numbers. If the winning party succeeds in doing so, the country will be burdened with a jumbo Cabinet again.
There are two dominant views in the SLPP about the 19th Amendment. One is that it should be amended and its salutary provisions retained, and the other is that it should be abolished and the powers of the President restored. There are also two competing power centres in the SLPP, one represented by the President and the other by the Prime Minister, and they will have to reach agreement on what is to be done with the 19th Amendment in case of being able to muster a two-thirds majority.
Impact of Covid-19 crisis on election campaigns
That the Opposition desires another polls postponement is obvious. What the UNP feared most, following last year’s regime change, was an early general election. It expected the new government and the new President to experience problems and the so-called anti-incumbency factor to set in with the passage of time. It welcomed the Election Commission’s decision to postpone the polls due to the spread of COVID-19, and so did other Opposition parties which left no stone unturned in their efforts to have the dissolved Parliament, where they had a majority, reconvened in the hope that the government would have to depend on them to have financial bills ratified and, thereby, seen to be a force to be reckoned with.
Little did the Opposition realise that its attempts to have polls postponed through legal battles were seen in some quarters as a sign of its weakness. It may have expected a judicial decision similar to the landmark one in 2018 during the constitutional crisis caused by President Sirisena and the Joint Opposition by sacking the UNP government. But its plan went pear-shaped with the Supreme Court refusing to declare the presidential order that dissolved Parliament null and void. The UNP did not join forces with those who moved the Supreme Court against the government on those grounds, but would have been more than happy if the dissolved Parliament had been reconvened. It, however, filed a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court challenging the dissolution of Parliament as the new Parliament would not be able meet by 2 July, 2020. According to the Constitution, Parliament cannot remain closed for more than three months. This petition also fell through, and the Election Commission decided to have the general election on 5 August.
The UNP has warned of a second wave of coronavirus infections, and calls have been made in some quarters for another polls postponement, but the Election Commission is determined to conduct the much-delayed general election and be done with it.
Extremely high stakes
The stakes are extremely high for all political parties in the upcoming election. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will have his work cut out if the SLPP fails to form the next government. The 19th Amendment has taken full effect since the exit of President Sirisena, who benefited from the transitional provisions in it and retained some of the vital executive powers. President Rajapaksa cannot even hold a Cabinet position, and the Prime Minister will call the shots in the next government; he will not be able to sack the government until it has completed four and a half years. He will be safe only if the SLPP wins the forthcoming election. The SLPP will also lose its magic in case of suffering an early electoral setback. Prime Minister Rajapaksa will lose his appeal to the electorate and not be able to fight back again if he fails to secure the premiership in the next Parliament. Others will overtake him in such an eventuality.
It will be the end of the road for the current UNP leadership in the event of the SJB being able to upstage it. Such a turn of events may even precipitate UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s retirement from politics. The SJB will go the same way as the previous UNP offshoot, the Democratic United National Front, which faded away, if it cannot secure more seats than the UNP. The TNA will have to retain its 16 seats or secure more if it is to ward off threats to its dominance in Tamil politics. The JVP will face the same fate as the traditional left if it fails to retain its six seats in Parliament. This is an extremely difficult goal. Its electoral weakness was exposed at the last presidential election, where its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake polled only a little over 3% of the total number of valid votes, the lowest ever the JVP has ever polled at a presidential election.
Covid-19 seems to be the least of problems for all political parties and their leaders engaged in a battle for survival.