From crisis to crisis

Pondering their future? President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe

Vishvanath

All three tiers of government are in a severe crisis. Differences between the SLFP and the UNP in the national government have burst forth and taken their toll on the fragile unity of the ruling coalition following the Feb. 10 local government polls. The power struggle between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has come into the open and their parties are all out to oust each other.  The two leaders are under pressure from their MPs to part company at this juncture so much so that the President has had to seek an opinion from the Supreme Court as to whether he could remove the Prime Minister, who insists that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution doesn’t’ provide for his ouster. The Supreme Court decision was not known at the time of writing.

President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are believed to be under pressure from their well-wishers, both local and foreign, not to upset the apple cart. On the other hand, the President is wary of accepting the conditions put forth by the victorious Joint Opposition (JO) which fielded its candidates at the LG polls under the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) banner, for backing the SLFP as they are constricting. The JO demands that the government’s constitution-making project aimed at devolving more powers to the provinces, divestiture programme and efforts to carry out its Geneva commitments be abandoned forthwith. The President is in a dilemma. He finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Now that his real electoral strength has been exposed, the UNP will go on undermining his position as never before; he will be a lame-duck president as the UNP has already expressed its desire to contest the next presidential election. He will lose the sympathy of the western governments if he agrees to the JO’s conditions. He seems to have adopted a fatalistic attitude.

Waiting to cast their votes at the just concluded Local Government election
Waiting to cast their votes at the just concluded Local Government election

The JO’s battle plan is clear. Its aim is to divide the yahapalana camp and make the SLFP dependent on SLFP dissidents. It is similar to the strategy the JVP adopted in 2001, when it offered conditional support to the beleaguered Chandrika Kumaratunga government following mass defections. Then the JVP heavyweight Wimal Weerawansa boasted that the JVP was remote-controlling that administration, which the JVP called a ‘probationary’ government. It, however, did not last long and Parliament had to be dissolved. The UNP made a comeback albeit with a razor thin majority at the 2001 general election. If President Sirisena agrees to the JO’s conditions he will become a prisoner of the SLFP dissident group to all intents and purposes.

President Sirisena is bound to realise, before long, that the debacle he is reeling from is the least of his problems if he remains in the yahapalana government. He campaigned for the LG polls on an anti-UNP platform while taking on the SLPP. He flayed the UNP for corruption and economic mismanagement among other things and went to the extent of promising to manage the economy himself after the polls. Thus, he will be left with no slogans when the Provincial Council (PC) elections come around in a few months. A volte-face on his part will lead to a massive erosion of the SLFP’s vote bank and his loss will be the SLPP’s gain.

The UNP raised the expectations of its rank and file during it LG polls campaign. It undertook to form a government of its own and contest the next presidential election. It has failed to secure the executive presidency for nearly 25 years. Having taken on the SLFP and laid the blame for the failure of the unity government at President Sirisena’s doorstep, the UNP won’t be able to justify sharing power with the SLFP further. But, adversity, they say, make strange bedfellows.

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It is being argued in some quarters that though the SLPP has won the majority of the local government institutions (231 as opposed to the UNP’s 34 and the SLFP/UPFA combine’s 7) the anti-Rajapaksa camp which emerged victorious at the last presidential election has retained its vote base; the SLPP has polled about 45%of the total number of votes—the UNP 33%, the SLFP/UPFA 13 %, the JVP 4% and ITAK 3%.

The proponents of this argument are of the view that the LG polls final result is similar to that of the last presidential election percentage wise. However, what they have not factored in is that the SLFP/UPF led by President Sirisena campaigned on an anti-UNP platform. He sounded fiercely nationalistic. He declared that he would never allow war heroes to be tried for war crimes. A few days before the election, he intervened to reinstate Sri Lanka’s military attaché in London, Brig. Priyanka Fernando, who had been recalled for making a ‘throat slitting’ gesture in front of a group of LTTE protesters. That move helped him score some political points over the UNP, which ordered action against the Brigadier. President Sirisena’s agenda was at variance with that of the UNP. There is a remarkable overlap between that and the SLPP’s. Therefore, those who voted for the SLFP/UPFA are not likely to back a UNP-led coalition at a future presidential election; they may support an alliance opposed to the UNP’s agenda instead.

The JVP, too, condemned the UNP’s agenda while taking on the UPFA and the SLPP. It opposed the ongoing privatisation programme and the sale of state land to foreigners. It has been fighting for the rights of the workers who have lost their jobs due to the leasing of the Hambantota Port. So, it is not likely the JVP leaders will be able to deliver all the votes their party polled on Feb. 10 to a UNP-led alliance once again.

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The crisis at the apex of the power pyramid has eclipsed that at the base. Serious flaws in new local government election laws have plunged the administration at the grassroots level into chaos. More than 160 out of 340 local government bodies are hung. About 70 of the councils won by the SLPP are hung according to JO firebrand Wimal Weerawansa. This problem has cropped up because of the additional list, which is believed to favour the losing parties instead of helping bring about stability of the councils. The electoral reforms have doubled the number of councillors. There are about 8,000 of them at present.

Friends for just a short while!
Friends for just a short while!

The provision for allocated 25 percent of seats in local government bodies for women is commendable in that they account for more than one half of the population and their representation in political institutions has to be guaranteed if their rights are to be safeguarded. But, the mechanism devised to achieve this end is faulty. Issues concerning constitutionally prescribed women’s quota has not only led to unforeseen problems but also prevented some local councils being formed.

Member of the National Election Commission Prof. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole has explained this situation very succinctly in a recent newspaper article. Here is an excerpt:

“What then is the problem today? As seen by many, it is twofold. First, it is that the methodology specified by Parliament is unlike what one would expect – that 60% of seats are filled from the wards and 40% from PR. To explain, let me take the Ambalangoda UC results that all three Commission Members sat down together to check the method employed by our staff:

AMBALANGOA UC - FINAL

After the eligible PR eligibility list is computed by the method prescribed, the numbers earned from the wards are taken off. Thus the Podujana Peramuna with 10 from wards and 9 eligible for PR gets no PR seat (that extra seat is what is called an overhang).So it gets no PR seat and since all 10 of its representatives are directly elected, any contribution from it to the women’s quota can be only if any of the 10 elected /returned persons happens to be a woman.

The second alleged problem is that small groupings in a chamber (with less than 20% of the vote and fewer than 3 members) are exempted from having to nominate women. Thus in Amabalangoda, the Podujana Peramuna cannot contribute to the women’s quota, the PLF [JVP] cannot be asked to contribute because they have only 2 members and 7.5% of the vote, and the UNFF has no seat. So the women’s quota (with the exception of any women elected to wards from the Podujana Peramuna) will have to come only from the UNP and UPFA. In Batticaloa, the ITAK with the most seats by far had all its ward winners men with no PR member.

This might be unfair only insofar as the parties that need to contribute have less choice than the smaller groupings in choosing whom to nominate from among the pool of men and women on their lists. To call that a burden or unfair is a stretch. It is an insult to women – recall strong and determined women who ruled us effectively (if not always justly) such as from Queen Victoria to Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. It would never be a burden if the parties had chosen their best women and not their relatives.”

Our politicians and their bureaucrats are calculating but they are not adept at calculations and statistics. They made a mess of the Z-Score rankings some years ago when the results of students who had sat two GEC A/L examinations under the old and new syllabi were combined for scaling purposes to prepare a common list of university entrants. The issue ended up in courts. A similar situation is sure to arise in respect of the quota of female representation as well.

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Meanwhile, a lot of horse-trading is going on to muster majorities in the hung councils. It is doubtful whether the UPFA/SLFP members will back the UNP in those institutions. They won’t be able to resist the SLPP’s pull. For, they are now convinced that the SLFP/UPFA won’t be able to win an election in the foreseeable future under the present leadership. President Sirisena has warned that the newly elected councillors who step out of line will be sacked. Whether his warning will be able to prevent a realignment of political forces at the grassroots level remains to be seen. Some deals have already been struck in some of the hung councils, according to our information.

Former President jubilant after the SLPP he backed won a majority of the Local government authorities at elections held earlier this month.
Former President jubilant after the SLPP he backed won a majority of the Local government authorities at elections held earlier this month.

One way of solving the problem of hung councils at least in the future is to reintroduce the cut-off point and bonus seats and reduce the number of additional list members while an effective mechanism is devised to ensure that the 25 percent quota for women remains intact.

Polls monitoring outfits have blamed last minute changes to the electoral reforms for the present mess. They accuse some members of parliament of having increased the percentage of local councillors to be elected from the additional list from 30 to 40 thus reducing the percentage of members to be elected to represent wards from 70 to 60.

Unless the problems that have cropped at the local government level are sorted out they are sure to manifest themselves in a far worse manner at the provincial level as the next provincial council elections will be held under the same electoral system, mutatis mutandis.

 

 

 

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