President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity among Sinhala and Muslim people in Sri Lanka shot up following the military victory over the LTTE in 2009. He won the presidential election in 2010 with 57.88 percent of the votes cast, about a seven percent increase from what he obtained in 2005. The President’s confidence was such that he modified the Constitution to remove the two-term limit through the 18th Amendment. The underlying assumption was that he was popular enough to win more elections and could continue in power for a long time. In fact, Rajapaksa looked certain to win the third term and was making behind the door arrangements to go for the next presidential election early next year as the Amendment allows the President to conduct the election “at any time after the expiration of four years from the commencement of his current term of office.”
One of the factors which boosted the President’s confidence, and which could encourage an early election, is the feeble opposition. The United National Party (UNP), the main opposition party, is divided and unable to capitalize on any of the flaws of the government. Many people, not without reason, believe that opposition leader Ranil Wickremasinghe cannot win national level elections, especially against the powerful Mahinda Rajapaksa. Moreover, an absence of a clear alternative candidate to President Rajapaksa helps keep the morale of the detractors of the government low.
It is against this backdrop, that some of the leading political and civil society leaders convened in Colombo last week to adopt what is called the “road-map” to abolish the executive presidential system, which was introduced in 1978. The meeting called for a grand opposition political alliance against the government. The significance of the meeting was that it managed to bring some of the key opposition political figures to support a political agenda, i.e abolishing the present system of governance. For example, leader of the opposition Ranil Wickremasinghe, former army commander and presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka, former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, the impeached former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, and leader of the Tamil National Alliance, Rajavarothayam Sambandan attended the meeting. Some political commentators believe that this meeting could be a turning point and could lead to a regime change.
Although the meeting could very well be a defining moment, at this point in time, it seems to face two major challenges: (1) the agenda, and (2) a common candidate.
The meeting aims to mobilize the opposition political and social entities in Sri Lanka and form a broad alliance under the general slogan of abolishing the presidential system. Ever since the present system was introduced, the Sri Lankan society has been gradually but steadily sliding into authoritarianism, which could eventually culminate in a dictatorial state. Therefore, the validity of the slogan cannot be easily contested, despite the fact that Sri Lanka has experienced authoritarian phases even under the parliamentary system of governance. Ending the presidential system may slow down the erosion of democracy.
The question however is how many votes the slogan could fetch against the government. In a way one could argue that abolishing the system is an elitist mantra as the authoritarian tendencies and the need for change are felt strongly among the urban elite and civil society circles. The common people and especially the rural masses do not feel strongly about the need for change of the system. In fact, some people do not believe that there is an authoritarian slide in the country. Looking at the Sri Lankan society today one could easily argue that such issues as cost of living, corruption and increasing national debt could be more attractive and fetch more votes than the abolition of the present system. Going to a national election with a single issue, which could bring the votes of the urban elite, could be a costly mistake.
Obviously, one of the main aims of the meeting was to form a broad national alliance with what is popularly called a “common candidate” to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa in the next presidential election. The problem is that there are too many ambitious people within the opposition ranks, which could undermine an agreement on a possible common candidate despite the agreement on the need to abolish the present system. Ranil Wickremasinghe has asserted that he should be the common candidate and there is no indication that the UNP would settle on a common candidate from outside. One cannot expect too many opposition parties to endorse Wickremasinghe as the common candidate. It is possible that different opposition parties could field their own candidates eventually in the next presidential election.
The road map meeting was organized by the National Movement for Social Justice headed by Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thero. Sobhitha Thero was also proposed as the common candidate by a section of the opposition parties. Sri Lankan society, however, has not indicated so far that a person from outside of the political establishment would be accepted as a national leader. Therefore, despite the agreement on the need to change the system, the road ahead for the national alliance seems challenging.
However, if an alliance could be formed based on last week’s meeting and if the alliance broadens its agenda to include the common man’s problems, it could very well be a spoiler for the President’s plans for the third term. There are two reasons for this.
First, the recent ethnic tensions, especially between the Sinhala and Muslim communities, indicate that President Rajapaksa can hardly rely on Muslim votes. Tamil votes will mostly go to the candidate supported by the TNA, and TNA cannot and will not endorse Rajapaksa. This reality would force Rajapaksa to rely mostly on Sinhala votes. A common candidate with Sinhala Buddhist outlook could seriously damage this vote bank.
Second, the recent election to the Southern and Western Provincial Councils demonstrated that the ruling party’s vote bank has begun to slowly shrink. This could be a national trend. If this is the case, the President’s quest for a third term in office will not be a cake walk. Therefore, one can be assured that the government and its agencies will be watching the road map process with concern.