Amidst twists and turns | Daily News

Amidst twists and turns

The 2019 presidential election is now less than ten days away and the battle lines between the two major parties, the National Democratic Front (NDF) and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) are becoming more clearly defined while the controversies surrounding the campaign continue.

Generating widespread interest was a comment by Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa at the launch of SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s manifesto. The former President stated that a victory for Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the presidential election will be considered as a mandate for a general election soon after.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa may be a novice in politics but the older Rajapaksa is a veteran and has seen many a battle. Though his younger brother is the candidate it is the former President who decides on political strategies for the SLPP. Hence, his observations cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement is concerning because of recent history: the country remembers how, just over a year ago, there was an attempt to dissolve Parliament by President Maithripala Sirisena, in the wake of the constitutional crisis.

Centre of the controversy

On that occasion too, Mahinda Rajapaksa was at the centre of the controversy, after being appointed Prime Minister by President Sirisena who ‘sacked’ Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. While Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s dismissal itself was challenged in court, Rajapaksa still had to demonstrate that he commanded the support of a majority of MPs in Parliament.

This he could not do, despite reported attempts to inveigle United National Party (UNP) parliamentarians through alleged bribery. This was mentioned by no less a person than President Sirisena himself who publicly declared that the attempt to change the government in October 2018 failed only because the asking price for the support of MPs was too high.

Thereafter President Sirisena ‘dissolved’ Parliament with the intention of calling for an early general election, a decision which was contested in the Supreme Court. The challenge to the presidential order was mounted based on the 19th Amendment which precludes the President from dissolving Parliament prematurely.

The 19th Amendment to the Constitution states that the “President shall not dissolve Parliament until the expiration of a period of not less than four years and six months from the date appointed for its first meeting, unless Parliament requests the President to do so by a resolution passed by not less than two-thirds of the whole number of Members”. Accordingly, the current Parliament, which first met on September 1, 2015, cannot be dissolved until March 1, 2020.

A full bench of the Supreme Court heard the challenge against President Sirisena’s decision and upheld it, resulting in the status quo being restored. Rajapaksa earned the dubious record of being Prime Minister for the shortest time in the country’s history, for fifty-two days.

Therefore, when Rajapaksa now says that a victory for Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be considered a mandate for an early general election, questions are being asked as to whether a repeat performance of October 2018 is being planned.

It must be noted that to obtain a sufficient majority for dissolution of Parliament, Rajapaksa needs the support of two-thirds of parliamentarians, amounting to 150 MPs. In the current Parliament, the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) commands the support of only 95 MPs while the United National Front (UNF) counts 105. These numbers may alter slightly with the likes of Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Venerable Athuraliye Ratana Thera, Wasantha Senanayake and Kumara Welgama changing alliances.

Dissolution of Parliament

Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot obtain two-thirds majority support for the dissolution of Parliament by simply bartering for the support of a dozen or so MPs. He would have to engineer a mass defection of UNPers, an extremely unlikely scenario considering that it would mean that some first-time parliamentarians would have to forego their pension entitlements. This is why the former President’s remarks are being viewed with a high degree of scepticism in some quarters and with a high index of suspicion elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s principal rival, the NDF’s Sajith Premadasa received two significant endorsements for his candidacy last week. They came from a faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

Support from the dissident faction of the SLFP is being spearheaded by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga who is also the daughter of the founder of the party, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and former Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike. Kumaratunga, along with 28 other political parties and 30 civil society organisations signed an agreement forming the Democratic National Front (DNF) this week, pledging their support to Minister Premadasa.

Kumaratunga’s group, known as ‘Api Sri Lanka’, opposes President Sirisena’s attempts to allow the SLFP to unconditionally support Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidacy. On Tuesday, ‘Api Sri Lanka’ held a meeting at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium in Colombo which was attended by parliamentarian Kumara Welgama who has steadfastly opposed Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidacy from the outset and several other SLFP stalwarts.

While most SLFP parliamentarians who did not join the Joint Opposition (JO) group in Parliament initially wanted President Sirisena to run for re-election, they were left stranded when the President decided not to do so. With their political futures at stake, even those who staunchly opposed the Rajapaksas such as former General Secretary of the party Duminda Dissanayake scrambled to support Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

However, this does not mean that voters will always endorse such a course of action. They often frown at these tactics and could well remain with the SLFP. The party, being one of the two major political parties in the country for almost seven decades does have a substantial ‘base’ vote. This amounts to over a million votes, as demonstrated at the last local government elections held in February 2018. This could be a crucial factor in the eventual outcome of the election if, in the last days of the campaign, ‘Api Sri Lanka’ actively campaigns for Premadasa.

Perhaps numerically more significant for Minister Premadasa is the endorsement he received from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The party is the major political alliance in the North and East and easily commands the majority support of the population in those provinces. What is even more significant is that this endorsement came without any conditions.

Previously, a list of thirteen demands had been forwarded by a student organisation. The demands, which border on the extreme, were never endorsed by the TNA. However, much was made about these demands in the media. With the TNA endorsing Minister Premadasa, the SLPP has now embarked on a campaign of disinformation, attempting to portray him as having agreed to these thirteen demands.

Premadasa has responded categorically in his campaign speeches, stating that the support of the TNA was unconditional, a stance confirmed by that party. However, the SLPP has continued with its strategy of vilifying Minister Premadasa as a ‘traitor’. It is a tactic that could boomerang badly on the SLPP as it could garner even more support for Premadasa, particularly in the North and East.

Election campaign

There have been varying views regarding the impact of the TNA’ decision on the election campaign. Many have noted that a presidential election cannot be won without the support of the population from the North and East, the only exception being in 2010, when Mahinda Rajapaksa won the contest against Sarath Fonseka.

That was however when Rajapaksa was riding the crest of a tidal wave of support in the South of the country, in the wake of the victory in the Eelam war. In that election, Rajapaksa won with nearly 58 per cent of the vote and a majority of 1.8 million votes despite losing the districts of Jaffna, Vanni, Batticaloa, Digamadulla, Trincomalee (and the Nuwara Eliya district which also has a significant population of Tamils of Indian origin). However, no such ‘wave’ of support for Gotabaya Rajapaksa prevails now, in what is an exceedingly close contest.

On the other hand, in 2015, Maithripala Sirisena was able to win the election with a comfortable majority and 51 per cent of the vote, despite losing ten districts: Anuradhapura, Galle, Hambantota, Kalutara, Kegalle, Kurunegala, Matara, Matale, Moneragala and Ratnapura.

It must also be noted that in some of these districts, Rajapaksa polled heavily, such as in Hambantota (63 per cent), Moneragala (61 per cent) and Matara (57 per cent) but could not still emerge victorious because Sirisena had massive margins of victory in the North and East.

Therefore, if the election is a close contest- and all predictions point towards that- the votes in the North and East as well as what the turnout in those provinces will be a critical factor in the eventual outcome of the poll.

As the 2019 presidential election campaign gathers momentum towards its conclusion, there will be last-minute pledges and promises, crossovers and cross-talk in the rhetoric that is being bandied about. All that is part and parcel of democracy. The redeeming feature, however, has been that the campaign has by and large been peaceful with no major incidents thus far. It is hoped that this situation will prevail even when the outcome of the election is known on Sunday, November 17.

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