Polls Chief Gives Govt. A Scare
Gota Returns, But His Problems Remain
The National Election Commission (NEC), which is under fire for the inordinate delay in conducting the Provincial Council (PC) elections, has made a last ditch attempt to bring pressure to bear on the government leaders to clear the legal barriers in its path. It has written to President Maithripala Sirisena, urging him to call for the report that a five-member committee, tasked with reviewing the National Delimitation Committee (NDRC) report, which was rejected by Parliament, last year, and gazette it without further delay. The NEC, on the eve of the traditional New Year, also called upon Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to submit the report of the review committee headed by him to the President. He must have spoilt the New Year for the UNP.
The five-member committee, headed by the PM, had ample time to review the NDC report before the ouster of the UNF government in late October last year. The government has dragged its feet on that task as it is wary of facing elections.
The NEC is either actually keen to ensure that the people’s franchise is respected or trying to remind the public that it should not be blamed for the delay in conducting the PC polls, and that the blame should go to the government. Whatever the NEC’s motive may be, the government is now under pressure to respond to its request.
The government has run out of its excuses for not holding the PC polls. Its claim that it is planning to conduct elections to all PCs, on a single day, following the expiration of the term of the Uva PC in October is not convincing, at all; never have the PC polls been held simultaneously. On the other hand, if the government had been genuinely desirous of doing so, it could have dissolved all the PCs much earlier and held elections to them on a single day.
The electoral shock that the UNP and the SLFP received at the last Local Government (LG) polls in February 2018 made elections a scary proposition for the government. Having done everything in their power to avoid the LG elections, they had to face the people in the end; the disastrous outcome of those polls prompted them to devise ways and means of postponing the PC polls in a bid to avert another electoral debacle before the next presidential election.
The UNP has managed to hold on to power in Parliament with the help of the TNA, but whether it has been able to regain the lost ground on the political front is in serious doubt. The Sirisena-Mahinda duo blundered by making an abortive attempt to grab power last October, and the UNP received a massive boost as a result.
The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has suffered a considerable political setback owing to the October debacle, and there are no signs of the SLFP/UPFA recovering from it, either. But the UNP does not seem ready to face the people and have its real strength exposed before the next presidential election. Another electoral loss, before the next presidential election, will seal its fate.
The NDC report was presented to Parliament, in March 2018. It should have been taken up for debate and put to the vote immediately, as a matter of national priority, but it was put on hold. Not even the SLPP made a serious attempt to pressure the government to have it debated. It was finally taken up for debate, in August 2018, and rejected by all political parties on the grounds that it was flawed much to the delight of the government. A five-member review committee was appointed thereafter under the chairmanship of the PM to study and recommend amendments to the NDC report.
True, there are flaws in the NDC report and the new electoral system has proved to be a disaster. The number of LG members has doubled to over 8,000 much to the consternation of the public. Defeated parties have been able to secure more than their fair share of seats under the mixed representation system, and most councils are hung as a result. If the PC polls are held under the same system, there will be another disaster. These are, no doubt, serious problems, but they can be sorted out if laws are brought in to enable the NEC to hold the PC polls under the Proportional Representation (PR) system. If the five-member review committee, headed by the PM, submits its report, as requested by the NEC, the PC polls can be held within a couple of months.
The NEC will have to start making preparations for the presidential election, shortly, and its exhortation to Parliament to make new laws latest by April 05 to clear the legal impediments to the conduct of the PC polls in August went unheeded. Parliament is currently on vacation following the final budget vote.
The consternation of the NEC is understandable. The blame for the polls postponement has been placed squarely at its doorstep though there is no way it can hold the PC polls without the help of Parliament, the President and the Prime Minister. But that is the way the cookie crumbles; the people expect the NEC to ensure that elections are conducted on schedule.
The NEC’s latest call for presidential and prime ministerial interventions to clear the way for the PC polls must be really embarrassing to Sirisena and Wickremesinghe in that their fear of elections has come to light, once again. But whether they will care to overcome embarrassment by helping the NEC hold the polls remains to be seen. They are lucky that the SLPP, which is led by former President Rajapaksa, to all intents and purposes, is not taking to the streets, demanding the PC polls. The Rajapaksa camp is trying to shore up its image which suffered heavy damage thanks to its abortive power grab. The coming together of the SLPP and the SLFP had an adverse effect on the morale of the anti-Sirisena faction of the SLFP. The SLPP’s Enough-Is-Enough rally in Kandy, last month, was not as successful as its previous events had been.
President Sirisena may not have been able to oust Ranil with the help of Mahinda Rajapaksa, but he succeeded in retarding the progress of the SLPP by joining forces with it. Has he given the new party the kiss of death?
Former Secretary of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa gained a lot of propaganda mileage the other day when he returned from the US, where two civil cases were recently filed against him, after a lapse of nearly a decade, while he was in that country. The SLPP heavyweights and rank and file, supportive of him, turned his return into a mega media event. They thronged the BIA premises and accorded him a hero’s welcome.
Making a speech, at the event, Rajapaksa gave the public the impression that the two law suits, one by the daughter of slain Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga and the other by a Tamil civilian, were aimed at placing a legal hurdle in his path in view of the next presidential election. He minced no words when he accused a government hand in the cases against him. He blamed Sri Lankan Consul General’s office in Los Angeles for its involvement in action against him. Minister Rajitha Senaratne, while making a public speech, sought to deny the allegation.
If Gotabaya’s claim that the government and the pro-LTTE members of the Tamil Diaspora are responsible for the two cases against him and trying to prevent him from contesting the next presidential election is true, they have taken a huge gamble, quite unnecessarily. He says he has been to the US several times since 2009, but no cases were filed against him until his intention to contest the presidential election was made known. The only way he can be prevented from running for President is to thwart his attempt to renounce his US citizenship, which debars him from contesting. He is confident that he will be able to achieve his objective. If he succeeds in clearing the constitutional hurdle, the alleged attempts by his rivals to prevent him from doing so will only give a turbo boots to his political campaign.
Minister Senaratne also claimed, last week, that Gotabaya would be doing the UNP a big favour by coming forward as the SLPP’s presidential candidate because the latter would never get the minority votes. The general consensus is that the minorities are not well disposed towards the Rajapaksas, especially Gotabaya. Moreover, if the SLFP fields President Sirisena as its presidential candidate, there will be a split in the anti-UNP vote and Gotabaya will have his work cut out to muster enough votes to win the presidency. Sirisena seems to have regained some lost ground with the help of his war on drugs, which has gone down well with the public. This presages trouble for the SLPP.
However, trouble for the SLPP and the SLFP does not mean that it will be a cakewalk for the UNP candidate. Anti-incumbency factor is weighing heavily on the UNP in spite of its attempts to win over the voting public with the help of an election budget and an accelerated development drive. Sirisena won the last presidential election because he polled the anti-Rajapaksa votes en bloc including those of the JVP. A UNP candidate will not be able to do so because the JVP members will not vote for him though their leaders are well disposed towards the UNP. It looks very likely that the JVP will have to contest the next presidential election to fortify its vote bank, which has suffered considerable erosion as evident from the results of the 2018 LG polls. It is believed that Mahinda would have been able to secure a third term if he had succeeded in polling about 250,000 more votes in the 2015 presidential race; one of the main reason he failed to do so was because some SLFP top guns did not put their heart and soul into his campaign.
If UNP leader Wickremesinghe throws his hat into the ring, as expected, the nominee for premiership will have to be made known fairly in advance. The UNP, like all other political parties, is full of ambitious men. Sirisena left the SLFP, in late 2014, to run for President because he had not been allowed to realise his prime ministerial dream. If Wickremesinghe wins the presidency, the ambitious UNP seniors will have to wait, at least, another 10 years to lead the party, let alone the country; he will seek a second term.
Mahinda wanted his family members to take over presidency after him and Wickremesinghe stands accused of grooming his confidants in a similar manner. Are the UNP heavyweights who are not in their leader’s good books ready to wait that long? Their dreams will be shattered if Wickremesinghe appoints someone from his kitchen Cabinet as the PM in case he wins the presidency. It may be recalled that most Presidents were careful not to appoint ambitious men as Prime Ministers so as to prevent the emergence of a an alternative power centre within the party. They handpicked malleable persons. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was compelled to appoint Mahinda PM only to regret her decision later. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution has greatly enhanced the position of the PM unlike in the past. President Sirisena is struggling to get rid of Wickremesinghe he appointed PM.
Speculation is rife in political circles that the UNP might consider nominating either Speaker Karu Jayasuriya or Minister Sajith Premadasa to contest the presidential election. However, it is also highly unlikely that Wickremesinghe will let anyone else contest the presidential election because he runs the risk of losing his party leadership in such an eventuality regardless of the outcome of the election. He has already lost two presidential elections (in 1999 and 2005) and skipped two (in 2010 and 2015), and the party will not take kindly to its leader running away again.
Meanwhile, what if the PC elections happen to be held earlier by any chance? If the UNP fails to accomplish that uphill task of winning them, it will be ruining its chances of winning the presidential election.