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Sri Lanka’s Local Elections And The Return Of Rajapaksa – OpEd


The much-anticipated local government elections in Sri Lanka were concluded without troubles on February 10, 2018.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s newly formed party stunned the observers with a landslide victory. The party won 45 percent of the total vote’s nationwide, collecting majority votes in almost all the districts, 16 to be precise, in the Sinhala majority areas.

Most of the districts in the Tamil dominated North-East regions went to the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), a proxy of the main Tamil political party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The United National Party (UNP) managed to win only four districts and garnered only about 32 percent of the national vote. Given the political realities of the country, using the term landslide to describe Rajapaksa’s victory was an understatement. The results have the potential to completely alter the current direction of the Sri Lankan politics and polity.

Determining Factors

In a recent article on the local polls, this author stated that one “could feel widespread dissatisfaction about the government in the South. General complaints revolve around, for example, exorbitant cost of living (symbolized often by the price of coconut), lack of development activities, and alleged corruption.” These were essentially the factors that cost the ruling coalition the victory in this election. Summing up the results in a personal communication, a high-ranking government official stated that, “what was promised was not delivered.”

An additional factor that influenced the vote could be the inaction of the government on alleged corruption of the former president and his family. In the last presidential election, which unseated Rajapaksa, corruption charges were effectively used against the ruling party. Opposition parties claimed that President Rajapaksa and his family swindled large amounts of the national wealth. This public outcry played a major role in Rajapaksa’s downfall in the 2015 elections.

Nevertheless, the new government failed to successfully prosecute a single member of the Rajapaksa family significantly weakening the severity of the corruption charges. It is safe to argue that through its inaction, the government effectively exonerated the former regime from corruption chargers. This, certainly aided Rajapaksa’s cause in the local government election.

Rajapaksa Agenda

Noticeably, Rajapaksa and members of his alliance have become reenergized and are stepping up the pressure on the ruling coalition. Initially, some of his supporters demanded that he be appointed the prime minister arguing that people have expressed unreserved confidence in Rajapaksa.

The former president however, is not interested in taking over the government as there is only two more years till the next general election. Taking over the responsibility now could become a problem as he has to deliver within the next two years. Therefore, staking a claim for premiership is not in Rajapaksa’s immediate agenda.

Rajapaksa is instead focusing on alternative factors. The immediate wishes of Rajapaksa and his allies are as follows: (1) they want the position of the opposition leader in the national legislature, (2) they want the parliament dissolved and a fresh general election, and (3) Rajapaksa also wants the chairmanship of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

First, the demand for the position of the opposition leader is strategic. With the official title, Rajapaksa can keep hammering the government more effectively and use parliament for propaganda purposes. This position could be handy in getting his party ready for the 2020 elections. After the 2015 general election, about 50 members of parliament started to function as the “joint opposition” and sat on the opposition benches. They operated under the stewardship of Rajapaksa. The TNA, which currently serves as the main opposition party, has only 16 seats. However, the TNA’s opposition role amounts to a farce due to the fact that the TNA is actually an ally of the government.

At present, with the local government poll results, one may expect more SLFP members to cross over to the Rajapaksa faction, resulting in Rajapaksa having a reasonable claim for the position of the opposition leader.

Second, Rajapaksa is not interested in forming a new government. Even if he tries, he would most likely fail because numbers are in favor of the UNP. The UNP won the last general election with 106 seats, only seven short of a simple majority. The TNA is ideologically opposed to Rajapaksa’s return and would, in all likelihood, use its parliamentary seats to buttress a UNP government. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) may stay neutral.

What this means is that Rajapaksa will not be able to muster enough seats to form his own government. This is another reason as to why Rajapaksa is currently not interested in the premiership. Nonetheless, the local government election proved that Rajapaksa’s newly formed party (SLPP) can win more than a simple majority if the general election is conducted sooner rather than later.

There are indications that a motion will be presented demanding the dissolution of parliament. The UNP and TNA combined could prevent such a dissolution. Therefore, it is safe to assume that Sri Lanka is heading for a regular election in 2020. However, this is not a setback for Rajapaksa as he can demand the dissolution of parliament to boost the morale of his supporters and use the remaining two years to prepare for a much bigger victory in 2020. In fact, Rajapaksa will prefer a two thirds majority in 2020, so that the constitution can be altered to accommodate his ambitions or to abolish the presidential system of government.

Third, reports indicate that Rajapaksa wants SLFP’s chairmanship back. He lost all relevance within the party after the presidential election in 2015. Maithripala Sirisena was appointed chairman of the party following his victory in the presidential election. Is Rajapaksa really interested in taking control of the SLFP? It is doubtful. The SLFP used to be an effective vehicle for electoral politics, and there was a time when Rajakapsa could not be effective without the SLFP.

Now, with the electoral victory in the local polls, Rajapaksa’s own party, the SLPP has proved that it could face national elections successfully. If the present trends continue unhindered, the SLPP could be a force to reckon with in 2020. History and legacy are very important for Mahinda Rajapaksa. Therefore, he is likely to consolidate the SLPP, while wooing the traditional SLFP voters with claims for SLFP leadership.

Biggest Loser

The biggest loser in this election was president Sirisena. His party could not win a single district and only managed to garner about 12 percent of the votes. The president lost his own district, Polonnaruwa. He will be under tremendous pressure from both the UNP and the SLPP in the future and will find it extremely difficult to govern smoothly. In a recent article, this author argued that the president will be politically isolated in 2020 and will have no chance of winning the upcoming presidential election. The results of the local polls further concur with this assumption.

The president has already declared that he will make major changes in the near future. However, he does not have too many options except for allowing the UNP to form its own government, resulting in a move that will make him a nominal president.

Dissolving parliament unilaterally is impossible. According to the 19th Amendment to the constitution, the president cannot dissolve parliament before four and half years of its first meeting. Therefore, this parliament cannot be dissolved by the president until early 2020. Continuation of the unity government will not only complicate the situation but also strengthen the SLPP. Many SLFP ministers might join the Rajapaksa faction or abandon the government because the government is not popular. Some SLFP members of parliament could join the UNP, if the party can form its own government.

Another option would be to merge with the SLPP and accept the hegemony of Rajapaksa. The problem is that the leading members of the SLPP would not hesitate to humiliate the president for contesting the 2015 presidential election, which Rajapaksa and his loyalist believe was a betrayal. At this point in time, merging with the SLPP seems like an extremely remote possibility. With the local government polls Sri Lankan certainly sailing into political uncertainty and perhaps, tension.

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Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland. Email: [email protected]

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