By Vishvanath

An election season is in the air as another year is drawing to a close. Political parties are shifting gears. They are likely to go into overdrive in mid-2024. Elections are a Dickensian paradox in this country. They are the best of times. They are also the worst of times. They yield some benefits for the public in the form of relief measures, handouts and an opportunity to re-elect or reject governments. The economic cost of the election-related relief, and the fact that the Sri Lankans do not make informed decisions at elections and are swayed by blind party allegiances, caste, promises and freebies offset the benefits of elections. So, in the final analysis it is usually a case of swings and roundabouts for the public, or even a deterioration of their lot. 

The coming year is bound to be different, though. Its dawn will see the increases in Value Added Tax (VAT) taking effect.

Elections tend to have a corrosive effect on coalition governments due to a host of factors such as internal competition, policy differences and compromises, divergent priorities, electoral outcomes, changing power dynamics and public expectations. Paradoxically, they also bring about coalitions, especially in the countries that have adopted the Proportional Representation (PR).

Sri Lanka used to have a two-party system with the UNP and the SLFP forming governments almost alternately, until the 1970s. There were electoral alliances and no-contest pacts among political parties, but the first-past-the-post system enabled parties to go it alone at elections and secure parliamentary majorities on their own. Since the advent of the PR system, the situation has changed and coalitions have become the order of the day. In the current parliament, there are only a handful of MPs who did not contest the last general election as candidates of electoral alliances. Even the JVP, which jealously guards its ideological identity has entered into a coalition—the National People’s Power (NPP).

Cracks have already developed in the SLPP-UNP alliance, again, ahead of an election year. The presidential and general elections are expected in 2024. President Ranil Wickremesinghe himself has said so in the parliament, and his announcement on Thursday (Dec. 21) that Rs. 11,250 million would be allocated through the decentralized budget to the District Secretaries after a lapse of three years is an indication that he is serious about holding national elections next year. Claiming that there are no plans in place for the utilization of those funds, the Opposition has accused the government of using public funds to gain political mileage in an election year.

The SLPP’s second national convention held on Dec. 15 was also considered the unofficial launch of its election campaign. Both SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa have said the SLPP needs to form a new government. They seem to think that President Wickremesinghe and the UNP are recovering lost ground at the expense of the SLPP.

Gratitude is a rarity in Sri Lankan politics. President Maithripala Sirisena turned hostile towards the UNP, which enabled him to realize his presidential dream. The SLPP leaders seem to fear that they will receive the same treatment from President Wickremesinghe come the next election and are trying to prepare themselves for such an eventuality.  

The unity of the yahapalana government did not survive the first election it faced. It managed to avoid the Provincial Council (PC) elections by amending the PC Elections Act in 2017, but had to face the local government elections in April 2018. The UNP and the SLFP-led UPFA contested the local government polls separately, and their defeats led to a split in the yahapalana government and brought them on a collision course. President Sirisena went so far as to sack Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe but had to reinstate the latter following a court order. A similar fate would have befallen the current SLPP-UNP administration if the local government polls had been held this year. President Wickremesinghe used his executive powers to undermine the Election Commission and postpone the mini polls and thereby ward off a threat to the government’s unity, which, however, is not likely to survive the next election, presidential or parliamentary.

Political observers are of the view that President Wickremesinghe is likely to opt for a presidential election instead of an early parliamentary polls so that he can leverage the role he has played in stabilizing the economy to mobilize popular support rather than taking a bigger gamble by having the UNP face a general election.

The SLPP dissidents have chosen to realign themselves with different political forces. Some of them have rejoined the government. Others remain independent in the parliament, but speculation is rife that some of them will close ranks with the SJB. They are not politically strong enough as a dissident group to face an election under their own steam. They seem to think they will have a better chance of being re-elected if they contest on the SJB ticket.

The SLPP finds itself in a dilemma. It will have to decide whether to field its own candidate or support President Wickremesinghe in case of a presidential election being held first. If it throws in its lot with Wickremesinghe and he wins, it might be able to ride on his coattails, enter into an electoral alliance with the UNP and obtain some seats at the next general election; but in such a case, the Rajapaksas will have to go on playing second fiddle to Wickremesinghe—something they are averse to—and the SLPP will be reduced to a mere appendage of the UNP. This is an unwelcome proposition for the Rajapaksas, who seek the perpetuation of their political dynasty.  

The Rajapaksas’ game plan is not clear. Maybe they do not have one. But they have sought to win back popular support at the expense of the UNP and President Wickremesinghe. They would have the public believe that certain things the government is doing are beyond their control.

The unprecedented VAT increases could not have come at a worse time for the government. The SLPP leaders are trying to absolve themselves of the blame for the unpopular measures the government has adopted at the behest of the IMF to revive the economy; they include tax and tariff hikes, the expansion of VAT application, and fuel price increases. But it is doubtful whether anyone will buy into their claims because the SLPP has enabled the passage of laws to increase taxes and fully endorsed tariff hikes. The entire Cabinet consists of SLPP members, and the President’s party has only a single MP; all his actions have the blessings of the SLPP parliamentary group.

SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam has said there are four presidential hopefuls in the party, and one of them will be picked in time to come. When journalists asked SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa where that was true, he jokingly said the number could be even higher. He added in answer to another question that he considered Dhammika Perera a formidable contender.

The SLPP leaders remain noncommittal when they are asked whether they would support President Wickremesinghe’s candidature, which the UNP has already announced. It will be surprising if the SLPP fields anyone other than a member of the Rajapaksa family as its presidential candidate, but the possibility of it opting to back a popular outsider who, they think, can outperform President Wickremesinghe, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake in the presidential race so that it will be able to win a general election in case of his victory cannot be ruled out.

All political parties except the SLPP seem confident of improving their electoral performance come the next election. What is more disconcerting than anything else for the SLPP is the fact that some of its parliamentary group members have gravitated towards President Wickremesinghe. They are full of praise for the President, who ensured their protection and arrested the economic decline notwithstanding the methods used for that purpose.