ISSN 2330-717X

Sri Lanka Politics: Frozen by COVID-19 – OpEd

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The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa convincingly won the presidential election held on November 16, 2019. He polled 52.25 percent votes as opposed to his arch-rival, Sajith Premadasa’s 42 percent votes. Without wasting too much time, the president installed a new government headed by the SLPP, and Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed Prime Minister. As soon as the presidency was won and the new administration formed, the SLPP’s quest became winning a two-thirds majority in the general election, which was to take place in early 2020.  

On December 4, 2019, Amanda Hodge reported that President Rajapaksa “is widely believed to be seeking a two-thirds majority in parliament…”(1) The government ministers were frank about the need to win such a majority. G.L.Peiris, Chairman of the SLPP, declared that the government would secure a two-thirds majority in the forthcoming election. He said a two-thirds majority was needed not to enjoy privileges but to serve the public efficiently.(2) Minister Prasanna Ranatunga maintained that “a new government with a two-thirds majority should be elected at the general election. It is only then can a constitutional amendment be made to save the country.”(3) 

Why Do They Need a Two-Thirds Majority? 

The government could achieve many objectives with a two-third majority in parliament. It would assist the government to, for example, consolidate the unitary character of the state. However, the new government does not hide its objective in seeking a two-thirds majority from the Sri Lankan electorate. It wants to do away with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. The Amendment was introduced by the previous government, which won the election in 2015 on the promise of good governance (yahapalanaya). 

I believe that three specific elements in the 19th Amendment irk the government: (1) the reduced executive powers of president, (2) independent commissions, and (3) reduced presidential term. 

The 19th Amendment seriously diluted presidential powers. For example, originally, the president had the executive powers to appoint and remove the prime minister and members of the cabinet of ministers. The prime minister and a member of the cabinet of ministers could be removed “by a writing under hand of the President.” Under the new scheme, the president lost that power. Now the prime minister could be removed only if he or she resigns or ceases to be a member of parliament. The 19th Amendment also reestablished the Constitutional Council. With the reestablishment of the Councils, the president could not make major public service appointments without the approval of the CC. The Amendment also reduced the presidential term from six years to five years and limited the time in office to only two terms. Therefore, the 19th Amendment severely dented the power, strength, and prestige of the presidency. Rajapaksas liked none of them. Hence, the desire to repeal the 19th Amendment, which requires a two-thirds majority. 

Electoral Reality

Can the SLPP win more than 150 seats in the 225-seat parliament?  In October 2019, I predilected that “Gotabaya is more likely to win the presidential election…”(4) One of the assumptions that enabled the prediction was that major political parties in Sri Lanka have permanent vote banks, and they only marginally shift. A possible vote a candidate could poll was calculated based on the existing political configurations at that time. The same political configuration remained after the presidential election, especially within the SLPP led alliance. 

Newly elected presidents in Sri Lanka like to go for the general election almost immediately because euphoria created by the (presidential) election victory has the potential to boost the chances of the president’s party in the parliamentary election. Gotabaya Rajapaksa could not do that because the 19th Amendment prevented him from dissolving the parliament immediately. Therefore, the government could not take advantage of an immediate general election. 

Also, the UNP split into two. Sajith Premadasa formed his own party/alliance called the Samagi Jana Palavegaya (SJP) while the UNP remains and will contest the general election under Ranil Wickremesinghe. The split in the main opposition party also unlikely to fetch too many votes to the SLPP. The UNP votes will break into two.     

Therefore, I assumed that the SLPP led alliance would garner about the same number of votes in the general election as well. Applying those votes to the general election template indicated that the ruling party would get only about 125 votes.

What this means is, had Sri Lanka proceeded with the plans for the general election in April 2020, the SLPP would have won the polls with a comfortable majority, but would have failed to get enough seats (150) to amend the Constitution. In that sense, an April 2020 election would have ended as a disappointment to the government.    

COVID-19 Intervention

It was against this backdrop, the COVID19 hit Sri Lanka bringing the system along with its politics to a standstill. As expected, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved parliament on March 2, and the fresh election was scheduled for April 25. However, due to the COVID19 pandemic, the general election was postponed indefinitely by the Elections Commission of Sri Lanka. Since the election could not be held on time, there was a call to reconvene parliament, which the president refused. 

Therefore, Sri Lanka remains without an elected national body. As of today, no one knows when the election will be held. The government and the Election Commission expects the other to fix the new date. No political party is campaigning for the election as the prevailing scenario is not conducive for campaigning. Opposition parties adopt a muted attitude in relation to the government response to the COVID19 crisis. Hence, the COVID19 seems to have frozen Sri Lankan politics.        

Now, we know the general election will be held sooner rather than later, most likely sometime in 2020. What would be the impact of COVID19 on the results of the forthcoming general election? It seems the crisis has strengthened the government’s fortunes in the election. In general, natural catastrophes are bad for governments in power. People are dissatisfied with what they endured and react against the incumbent government. This could happen to the SLPP as well. Theoretically, it could win less than 125 seats when the election is conducted. 

 However, the reaction from Sri Lanka indicates that many people are satisfied with the way the government, especially President Rajapaksa, has handled the crisis. People tend to compare this government’s performance with the yahapalana government. The comparison or the comparative analysis favors the SLPP government. Even the opposition parties are in praise. For example, Sajith Premadasa pointed out that “the entire state apparatus, led by health authorities and the security forces, have so far been able to keep the number of infections controlled and deaths at a minimum.”(5)

Internationally also it seems to be getting high marks for its COVID19 response. For instance, the GRID Index (Tracking the Global Leadership Response in the COVID19 Crisis) ranked Sri Lanka as one of the top ten countries to deal with the crisis effectively. Moreover, the crisis enabled the government to deliver handouts to voters in the name of crisis relief. The point is that these factors could become handy for the government in the general election. 

Therefore, in the backdrop of the COVID19 crisis, the government is more likely to fare well in the post-COVID19 general election. It seems the government would win more than 125 seats if the election is held in, for example, May 2020. Space has been created to win a two-thirds majority. But, would it win such a majority? No one knows.  

Notes:

  1.  Amanda Hodge. Sri Lanka Strongman Gotabaya Rajapaksa out to Tighten Grip. The Australian. December 4, 2019. 
  2.  Need Two-Thirds Majority to Repeal 19A: SLPP. Daily Mirror Online. March 2, 2020. 
  3.  Parliament to be Dissolved Tomorrow. Daily Mirror Online. March 1, 2020.
  4.  S.I. Keethaponcalan. Sri Lanka Presidential Election: Fate Sealed? Eurasiareview. October 28, 2019.  
  5.  President Takes Cautious Route to Restore Normalcy. The Sunday Times. April 19, 2020. 

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Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

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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