By Vishvanath

Another International Workers’ Day has come and gone. Sri Lankan political parties held colorful events to mark the occasion on a grand-scale on 01 May. 

May Day rallies in this country are always shows of strength put on by various political parties, which overshadow trade unions including those affiliated with them. This became especially evident this year with only a few months to go before the next presidential election, which is expected to be followed by parliamentary polls. 

All political parties whose leaders have already declared their intention to run for president are bragging of having held well-attended May Day events. Such rallies, however, do not accurately indicate an increase in popular support for those who organize them. 

Nobody said anything new at Wednesday’s May Day rallies. In fact, they have nothing new to say. They have already said what they have got to say and made all pledges. President Ranil Wickremesinghe, at a May Day rally in a plantation area, declared that a wage hike would be granted to the plantation workers, who, he said, would receive Rs. 1,700 a day. However, speculation had been rife, for a week or so, that he would make such a pledge to estate workers to secure their votes at the upcoming presidential election. His offer has run into stiff resistance from the plantation owners, who insist that given the escalating production costs, such a pay hike is not feasible; they have also threatened legal action against the government decision. So, a showdown between the plantation companies and the government as well as estate workers’ trade unions is likely. 

Opposition and SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa also thundered at his party’s May Day rally in Colombo Fort, repeating much of what he had said previously. JVP/NPP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake also did likewise elsewhere in the city. 

Former President Maithripala Sirisena, who has been debarred by a court order from functioning as the SLFP Chairman, declared on May Day that Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa would be the SLFP’s presidential candidate. He also said nothing new. He was careful not to make his statement at issue sound official. When he recently invited Wijeyadasa to an internal party meeting as a special guest to deliver a lecture on how to revitalize the SLFP and enable it to win elections, it was obvious that he was promoting Wijedasa as the party’s presidential candidate. 

All in all, what the public witnessed on May Day was a replay of old shows put on by various political parties that are eyeing the executive presidency. But Sirisena’s declaration that the SLFP would field Wijeyadasa in the upcoming presidential election could be considered significant enough to warrant a discussion. 

It may be asked whether Sirisena can decide who the SLFP’s presidential candidate will be, because the Colombo District Court has, through an interim injunction, prevented him from functioning as the SLFP Chairman. The SLFP is now splitbetween Sirisena and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who is all out to wrest control of the party with the help of Nimal Siripala de Silva, Mahinda Amaraweera, Duminda Dissanayake, Lasantha Alagiyawanna and others. If the Kumaratunga faction raises objections to the nomination of Rajapakshe as the SLFP’s presidential candidate and succeeds in scuttling it by means of political or legal action, Rajapakshe will have to contest as an independent candidate with the backing of the Sirisena faction. 

The Kumaratunga faction stands accused of trying to make the SLFP enter into an electoral alliance with the UNP in support of President Wickremesinghe’s presidential candidacy. The faction-ridden SLFP, which is already too weak electorally, will be of little use to the candidates supported by the Sirisena and Kumaratunga factions in terms of votes.  

What’s Wijeyadasa’s game plan? He cannot be unaware that odds will be stacked against him in the upcoming presidential election, with no strong political party to back him in the race or government support for him. His is likely to lose his Cabinet post, and if what the SLPP leaders are saying about him is anything to go by, then the SLPP is going to sack him. So, it is very likely that he will be a candidate backed by a section of the SLFP. 

Does Wijeyadasa think, like Dilith Jayaweera of the Deranafame, that the number of floating votes has increased owing to the disillusionment of the public with the political parties and their leaders, and therefore, he will be able to muster enough swing votes to secure the presidency? If so, he is being overoptimistic. True, public disillusionment with the political establishment is palpable, and one need not be surprised if the voter turnout drops drastically at the upcoming elections due to public resentment at the main political parties and their leaders. However, there is no guarantee that floating votes willoverwhelmingly swing to the candidates who are not identified with the main political parties. 

An increase in the number of prominent figures with the wherewithal to conduct expensive poll campaigns will increase the possibility of none of the presidential candidates being able to secure the presidency in the first round. This is a matter for concern in view of the current economic situation. The country needs a stable government capable of making tough decisions to sort out the economy. The fear being expressed in political circles that the upcoming elections could lead to political uncertainty, adversely impacting the economic recovery plans, is not totally unfounded. 

SLPP founder Basil Rajapaksa has sought to justify his efforts to have a general election held first by claiming that the people do not think rationally and therefore tend to vote overwhelmingly for the party of the winner of the presidency if a general election follows a presidential contest. But there have been some exceptions. In October 2000, the SLFP-led People’s Alliance could obtain only 107 seats in the 225-member parliament despite its leader Chandrika Kumaratunga’s victory at a presidential election about ten months back. The UNP, which together with others, ensured Maithripala Sirisena’s victory in the January 2015 presidential election, could win only 106 seats at the general election held about seven months later.

The presidential election itself will not lead to political uncertainty. The candidate who polls the highest number of votes overall will become the President even if he or she fails to obtain more than 50% of the total number of valid votes in the first round, with counting going into second and third rounds. However, if he or her fails to score an impressive win by clearing the 50% hurdle in the first round, his or her party will not be able to gain a turbo boost from the outcome of the presidential election to be able to secure a comfortable parliamentary majority. The next parliament may be hung in such an eventuality, which will take its toll on economic recovery efforts. The situation will be even worse if a party other than the new President’s forms the next government by any chance, as in 2001, when the UNP defeated President Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance and captured power in the parliament. That administration was characterized by frequent clashes between the President and the Prime Minister, and national security suffered during the war, as a result. President Kumaratunga sacked the UNP-led government in 2004, and regained power in the parliament by holding a general election. A similar situation prevailed during the latter part of 2018 and 2019, with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Sirisena being at loggerheads. That government became dysfunctional, national security was neglected, and the Easter Sunday attacks happened as a result.

One can only hope that what is feared will not come to pass, and the outcomes of both presidential and parliamentary elections will not lead to political uncertainty. 


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