So, it is now confirmed that the Provincial Council polls won’t precede the Presidential election. The Supreme Court has determined, in response to a reference from President Maithripala Sirisena, that he is not constitutionally empowered to order that the PC elections be conducted under the former electoral system or the new one because the delimitation review committee report is not yet ready.
The review committee at issue is headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and it has not cared to review the delimitation report rejected by Parliament. President Sirisena has lashed out at Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for the current situation and accused the latter of having driven the last nail into the coffin of the PC polls. He has obviously sought to settle political scores with the PM, but his statement is not totally devoid of truth.
Now, the sky is the limit for the Prime Minister, where the postponement of the PC polls is concerned. The government is sure to use the apex court determination to its advantage. Opinion is divided on the usefulness of the PC system, which is considered a white elephant, in some quarters, but the postponement of the PC polls has had an adverse impact on the people’s franchise, which is guaranteed by an entrenched provision in the Constitution. Whom can the electors turn to when their right to vote is blatantly violated?
The UNP leaders must have heaved a sigh of relief on being informed of the Supreme Court opinion, for facing the PC polls and having their electoral weaknesses exposed before the presidential election was the last thing they wanted. But their worries are not likely to go away. Politically speaking, it has been a case of swings and roundabouts for them.
The Supreme Court has, in a different judgment, ordered the Election Commission (EC) to conduct the Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha election after accepting a nomination list it rejected in the run-up to the local government polls in 2018. The EC has told the media that it is planning to hold that election next month. The Opposition fears that the government will do everything in its power to put off this election as well.
The local government elections are derisively known as bokku-kaanu chande (culvert-drain election) because it is not considered to be of much national importance and people are not influenced by national politics or issues as such when they cast their votes. But this time around, the Elpitiya PS contest will assume the importance of a presidential election, no less, with the political parties going all out to bag it as their stakes in it are extremely high. It will be a mini presidential election of sorts.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has urged the party seniors to forget about the presidential election nominations for the time being and stay focused on the Elpitiya PS election.
Worrisome proposition for UNP, SLFP
Elpitiya is a former SLFP stronghold, where the SLPP has now consolidated its power. This is a worrisome proposition for both the SLFP and the UNP; they are faced with the prospect of having to vie with the SLPP in a hostile terrain. The UNP would rather have the scheduled election put off than take the gamble of facing it, given the odds against it, but the chances are that it will not be able to do so. Running away will be as bad as or even worse than losing the election.
The government is sure to play Santa within the next few weeks, in Elpitiya, in a bid to win the PS election. The SLPP, too, will pitch camp there and keep it big guns booming. The SLFP is likely to do likewise with President Sirisena going all out to win the election, for a loss there will cause him to lose whatever bargaining power he may be having in negotiating with the SLPP.
The snap Southern Provincial Council election, in 1994, proved the forerunner of the regime change which occurred a few months later. Its outcome led to the downfall of the UNP government. The Elpitiya election will be one of the most crucial elections the country has ever had owing to its timing in that its outcome will decide what party will win the future elections.
Elpitya: Ranil and Sajith
The grapevine has it that the UNP will entrust its Deputy Leader and Minister Sajith Premadasa, who has declared himself as its presidential candidate, with the task of conducting its election campaign in Elpitiya. The pro-Ranil faction may ask Sajith to prove himself in Elpitiya, according to some social media reports. But it is highly unlikely that Sajith will take up that challenge, unconditionally, given the risks he will have to face. He might ask that he be appointed the UNP leader for him before undertaking the uphill task of leading the party’s election campaign in the SLPP stronghold.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe won’t find it that easy to palm off the responsibility for leading the UNP’s election campaign, in Elpitiya, to anyone else because all other parties will be led by their leaders in the contest.
What if Ranil leads the UNP in Elpitiya and loses with only two months to go for the presidential election? Pressure is bound to mount on him to step down and let someone else take over in such an eventuality. This is Wickremesinghe’s dilemma. If he succeeds in steering the party to victory in Elpitiya, he will emerge a hero and the UNP’s past electoral setbacks will be forgotten, and it will face the presidential election with renewed vigour.
Gotabaya’s training session
The Elpitiya PS election is not without risks for the SLPP, which trounced the SLFP, the UNP and the JVP, at the 2018 local government polls. But it could not have come at a better time for SLPP presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is a novice in politics. The SLPP’s PS election campaign will be led by its leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, the seasoned campaigner, but Gotabaya will play a major role in it.
Gotabaya will get an opportunity to learn the ropes as a politician, do some serious politicking and improve his oratorical skills. He will be able to go among the people and gain a boost for his presidential election campaign, in Elpitiya. But if the SLPP fails to score a comfortable win or loses, his presidential election campaign will suffer a setback.
President and his anti-elitism
President Sirisena makes no bones about his antipathy towards the elite, who have not been kind to him, in politics. He was a victim of elitism in the SLFP, where he was first denied the post of the party General Secretary. In 2000, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, after winning her second term in 1999, did not consider Sirisena eligible for that post. Her choice was S. B. Dissanayake, who decamped the following year, compelling her to appoint Sirisena to that post.
President Sirisena once jokingly observed, during his honeymoon with the UNP, at a public function, that he had played elle at Royal College, Polonnaruwa, and gone on to become the President, and Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had played cricket at Royal College, Colombo 07 had ended up being the Prime Minister.
A supreme irony
President Sirisena’s defence of the SLFP at its 68th Convention, in Colombo, on Tuesday, was a textbook example of irony. Winding up his speech, he said the SLFP led by him was as old as he was and he would steer it to victory at the next parliamentary election, come what may. The audience broke into a rapturous applause. Nobody present at the event apparently may have recalled that that the SLFP was in the present predicament because of the President himself.
It is Sirisena who engineered the SLFP’s downfall in 2015, when he defected to the UNP-led Opposition and, with the help of the UNP, etc., secured the executive presidency before dislodging the SLFP-led UPFA government which had a two-thirds majority in Parliament. He went on to settle scores with his former boss Mahinda Rajapaksa, who tried to return to Parliament as the PM by contesting the last general election; the President brought about the UPFA’s defeat and formed a national government with the UNP.
Four and a half years on, President Sirisena has had to shoulder the Herculean task of revitalising the SLFP and improving its electoral performance. It suffered a humiliating defeat, on his watch, at last year’s local government polls. Opposition Leader Rajapaksa, who defended the SLFP in 2015, is now leading the SLPP, which is eating into the SLFP’s support base and vote bank. There has been a role reversal.
Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga strove to have the SLFP-led UPFA defeated at two presidential elections in 2005 and 2010, but to no avail. She, however, succeeded in her third attempt, in 2015. She has undertaken to revitalise the SLFP. Sirisena’s position in the party will be extremely vulnerable when he ceases to be the President and Kumaratunga must be waiting till that time to wrest control of the SLFP.
Back to square one, Sirisena must now be ruing the day he debilitated the SLFP to achieve his presidential dream. In 2014/15, his political future was dependent on his ability to weaken the SLFP, which was in power and, today he is convinced that his future will be at stake unless he succeeds in strengthening it posthaste and ensuring its victory at 2020 general election. He declared, at Tuesday’s convention, that the SLFP would form the next government. Hope is said to spring eternal.
Sirisena left the SLFP while holding the post of its General Secretary, in 2014, because he did not want to be trifled with by the Rajapaksas, who ignored his prime ministerial ambitions. Today, he has had to negotiate with the former ruling family, having failed to destroy it politically.