By S. Binodkumar Singh*
The Mahinda Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP, Sri Lanka People’s Front) has swept the August 5, 2020, Parliamentary Elections. SLPP received 6,853,693 votes (59.09 percent) and secured 128 electoral seats. The Sajith Premadasa-led Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB, United National Power), the breakaway faction of the former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe-led United National Party (UNP), came in second with 2,771,984 votes (23.90 percent) wining 47 electoral seats. The Anura Kumara Dissanayake-led Jathika Jana Balawegaya (JJB, National People’s Power) got 445,958 votes (3.84 percent) winning two electoral seats. The Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), the main constituent party of Tamil National Alliance (TNA), got 327,168 votes (2.82 percent) winning nine electoral seats. The UNP came at a distant fifth place receiving only 249,435 votes (2.15 percent) and it failed to secure even a single electoral seat. Former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe himself lost the election.
The Ahila Ilankai Thamil Congress got 67,766 votes (0.58 percent) and one seat; Our Power of People Party got 67,758 votes (0.58 percent) but failed to secure even a single electoral seat; Thamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal, 67,692 votes (0.58 percent), one seat; Sri Lanka Freedom Party, 66,579 votes (0.57 percent), one seat; Eelam People’s Democratic Party, 61,464 votes (0.53 percent), two seats; Muslim National Alliance got 55,981 votes (0.48 percent), one seat, Thamil Makkal Thesiya Kuttani, 51,301 votes (0.44 percent), one seat; All Ceylon Makkal Congress, 43,319 votes (0.37 percent), one seat; National Congress, 39,272 votes (0.34 percent), one seat; and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, 34,428 votes (0.30 percent), one seat.
On August 5, 2020, Sri Lanka’s 9th Parliamentary Elections were held at 12,985 polling stations across the country under strict health guidelines amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Election Commission (EC), 71 percent of eligible voters out of 16,263,885 voters cast their ballot to elect 196 lawmakers. A total of 7,452 candidates from 40 recognized political parties and 313 independent groups contested the election.
The 225-member Parliament has 196 elected members and 29 members are elected from a national list according to the number of votes received by the respective parties or independent groups. According to the August 5 results, out of the 29 national list seats, SLPP gets 17; SJB, 7; JJB, ITAK, UNP, Ahila Ilankai Thamil Congress and Our Power of People Party, one seat each.
The Director of the Police Elections Division Senior Superintendent of Police Ashoka Dharmasena, at a special media briefing, stated that the election was held peacefully. However, according to Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), an independent non-partisan organization, 340 incidents of election-related violations, including 63 incidents of intimidation/assault/influencing, were reported on Election Day. Between March 2 (the day of the dissolution of the 8th Parliament) and August 2, 2020, (the day the ‘silent period’, with no canvassing or political activity preceding the General Election, came into effect), the CMEV reported 1,101 incidents of election-related violations, including 55 incidents of assault/threats/hate speech. CMEV did not report any incident of election-related violations on August 3 and 4. However, Sri Lanka’s oldest election monitoring group, the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), reported 37 incidents of election-related violations, including two assault incidents on August 3; and 120 incidents of election-related violations, including two assault incidents and one incident of attack on Political Party/Candidate Office on August 4.
In the last Parliamentary Elections held on August 17, 2015, the voter turnout was 77.66 per cent. However, the voters gave a fractured mandate, with none of the parties securing a simple majority. UNP, led by the then incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, secured 106 seats, falling seven short of a simple majority in a 225-member House; the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) secured just 95 seats. The main Tamil political party, the TNA won 16 seats; and the main Marxist party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, People’s Liberation Front) won six. However, following a historic agreement on August 20, 2015, between UNP and SLFP to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), the incumbent Prime Minister Wickremesinghe took the oath as the 26thPrime Minister of the island nation on August 21, 2015. According to CMEV, between June 26, 2015, midnight, when the elections were notified, and August 14, 2015, when the campaigning officially ended, it registered 143 ‘major incidents’ across the country. ‘Major incidents’ included murder, injuries, assaults, threat and intimidation, misuse of state resources, robbery, arson, abduction, damage to property, etc.
However, in a political slugfest, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sacked on October 26, 2018, and Mahinda Rajapaksa became the Prime Minister. Ranil Wickremesinghe was sacked by Maithripala Sirisena, who became President after winning the Presidential Elections held on January 8, 2015, defeating the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa. President Sirisena, realizing that his de facto Prime Minister, Rajapaksa, would not command a majority in Parliament, announced the dissolution of Parliament with effect from November 9, midnight, in an extraordinary Gazette notification, and scheduled General Elections to be held on January 5, 2019. However, exactly 34 days later, on December 13, 2018, the Supreme Court (SC) of Sri Lanka ruled, that President Sirisena’s decision was illegal and unconstitutional. After the SC ruling, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn-in on December 16, 2018, for a fifth time, as the Prime Minister, ending a nearly two-month long political crisis. However, his Government did not last long, and Mahinda Rajpaksa became the Prime Minister again on November 21, 2019.
The five-year term of the 8thParliament was due to expire in August 2020. Paving the way for General Elections, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is Mahinda Rajapaksa’s younger brother, who won the Presidential Election, held on November 16, 2019, on the SLPP ticket. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved the eight Parliament on March 2, 2020. According to the Gazette Notification, the Parliamentary Elections were to be held on April 25, 2020, and the new Parliament was to meet on May 14, 2020. However, considering the uncertain situation prevalent in the country with the spread of COVID-19, on March 19, 2020, the EC postponed the General Election indefinitely. However, on April 20, 2020, the EC decided to hold the Parliamentary Elections on June 20, 2020.
Meanwhile, several Fundamental Rights petitions were filed in the Supreme Court requesting the court to issue an injunction against holding the General Elections on June 20. On June 1, 2020, the Supreme Court dismissed the Fundamental Rights petitions filed challenging the holding of the General Election on June 20. Pronouncing the ruling, the Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya announced “By majority decision, preliminary objections are overruled. By unanimous decision, Leave to Proceed is refused for all applications.”
On June 3, 2020, the Health Ministry handed over health guidelines in connection with holding the General Election to the EC. Finally, following several rounds of discussions with the Health and Security authorities and other stakeholders, on June 10, 2020, the EC announced that the General Election 2020 would be held on August 5, 2020.
With the SLPP winning 145 seats, just five short of a 2/3rd majority, there is strong probability of the Government overturning several of the decisions taken by the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led National Unity Government.
The focus is on the 19th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, which the party has promised to scrap. Significantly, speaking about the 19th Amendment to the Constitution on December 29, 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa observed,
All of you know that there is a massive crisis in governing the state because of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution done by the previous regime. We have to remove this now. For that, we are in need of a strong Parliament.
On March 5, 2020, President Gotabaya called for a two-third majority in the Parliamentary Election, declaring that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution had taken away the people’s freedom and questioned the meaning of the Constitution, as it circumscribed the powers of the President elected by the people. The 19th Amendment reduced the presidential term from six to five years and the two-term limit was restored. The President could no longer dissolve Parliament until the expiration of four and a half years of its term, unless he was requested to do so by a resolution of a two-thirds majority of Parliament. Moreover, the presidential immunity from suit was abridged by extending the Supreme Court’s fundamental rights jurisdiction to cover official acts of the President. Meanwhile, on July 31, 2020, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa asserted,
The Yahapalana Government (National Unity Government) introduced the 19A mainly to violate the fundamental rights of the Rajapaksas. Though this was the main intention, it has also violated the rights of the people. Even amid all obstacles and to the dismay of the previous government, 6.9 million of people elected Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the President thus approving his programme for the country.
The 19th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution was passed by the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led Government on April 28, 2015, with 215 out of 225 members voting in favour of the amendment to weaken the power of the presidency. The 19th Amendment envisaged the dilution of many powers of the Executive Presidency, which had been in force since 1978. It established a Constitutional Council which exercises some executive powers previously held by the President. It also empowered the Constitutional Council to set up Independent Commissions.
Meanwhile, on January 7, 2020, an official attached to the Justice Ministry disclosed that the Government has decided to review the Office of Missing Person (OMP) Act enacted by Parliament under the preceding regime. The official further stated that a preliminary discussion has already been held and that the Government would review it and decide what needs to be done. OMP was operationalized on March 13, 2018, with the mandate to search for and trace the fate and whereabouts of missing and disappeared persons during the Eelam War between the Government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which officially ended on May 20, 2009.
Earlier, on February 17, 2020, the Rajapaksa Government decided to immediately withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolutions 30/1 and 40/1 co-sponsored in 2015 and 2019. In 2015, the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led Government had co-sponsored the UNHRC resolution, 30/1, making commitments to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka. Renewing the commitments, in 2019, the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led National Unity Government (NUG) co-sponsored UNHRC resolution, 40/1.
The Rajapaksa family’s hold on the Government is much stronger after the Parliamentary Elections. Under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s previous tenure as President (2005-2015), many members of the family occupied senior positions in the Sri Lankan state. The sweeping majority that Mahinda Rajapaksa has now secured in the Parliamentary elections, even as Gotabaya Rajapaksa is President, suggests the possibilities of a consolidating autocracy. On August 9, 2020, Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn as Prime Minister for the fourth time by his younger brother and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The Ranil Wickremesinghe Government had sought to further the national reconciliation process, though if failed to achieve much of significance. This process is now likely to suffer a major setback.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management