A decisive year ahead | Daily News


Political projections for 2020

A decisive year ahead

Sri Lankans who were intrigued by the drama of the constitutional crisis in 2018 eagerly anticipated 2019 as the year of the presidential poll. As 2020 dawns and a general election looms, its outcome is likely to shape the country’s political landscape for decades.

This election will define the course of politics in the country because Sri Lanka is at a critical juncture. For the first time since independence, a new party other than the two established political parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), is in power.

This is following President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decisive victory at the November 16 presidential election last year. The SLPP candidate’s victory was expected on a background of the SLFP not contesting and the UNP-led government being unpopular because of the Easter bomb attacks, a stagnant economy and ineffective government.

President Rajapaksa’s victory

What was unexpected was the scale of President Rajapaksa’s victory. He polled 6.9 million votes, a percentage of 52 per cent and more than 1.3 million votes than his nearest rival, UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa. Premadasa’s campaign was handicapped by his late nomination and some questionable election strategies that alienated the majority community but even so, the margin of victory for President Rajapaksa was impressive.

After being elected, President Rajapaksa had a hurdle to clear first: Parliament was still controlled by the UNP led United National Front (UNF) which, although not having a simple majority by itself, had an understanding with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which allowed them to govern with relative ease. Sections of the UNP were also wanting to stay put in government.

The President elect was bound by the 19th Amendment to the Constitution introduced during the UNP-led coalition’s tenure. This amended Article 70 of the Constitution to state 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 (including those not present), voting in its favour”.

The current Parliament, elected at the August 2015 general election, held its first sitting on September 1, 2015. That meant that President Rajapaksa cannot dissolve Parliament until March 1, 2020 which would entail elections, at the earliest in April. Had the UNP insisted on staying on in government, President Rajapaksa would have had to govern with a UNP-led Cabinet until April.

New government

Fortunately for the President and arguably for the country too, saner counsel prevailed. Following the resignation of several key ministers-including candidate Sajith Premadasa- then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe resigned paving the way for President Rajapaksa to form his own government.

That government, with a reduced Cabinet of fifteen ministers gives pride of place to the SLPP while partner parties in the Joint Opposition (JO) and the SLFP have had portfolios allocated to them. This was in keeping with President Rajapaksa’s pledge to reduce costs by pruning the Cabinet to a manageable number. However, the subsequent appointment of thirty-five state ministers and three deputy ministers indicated that even President Rajapaksa had to yield to political pressure.

In his public statements since then, President Rajapaksa has made no secret of his view that he considers the 19th Amendment to the Constitution an obstructive piece of legislation. Introduced with a view to curtailing the excessive powers at the disposal of the Executive President, the 19th Amendment doesn’t cause conflict if a single party was in command of the Executive as well as the Legislature.

When two different parties command control over these pillars of government, as they did between 2015 and 2019, this could lead to disputes. This is what occurred during the constitutional crisis. The crisis was preceded by a lengthy period of uneasy cohabitation between then President Maithripala Sirisena and then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with the former making frequent public criticisms of the latter.

Given this experience, it is clear that one of President Rajapaksa’s foremost priorities in 2020 is to repeal the 19th Amendment. This can only be done by winning a two-thirds majority at the upcoming general election. The President has repeatedly declared that this is his objective.

Joining him publicly has been former President Maithripala Sirisena. The ex-President who was elected on a platform of political and legislative reform five years ago and promised to retire after his tenure is now vowing to remain in politics. It is understood he wishes to contest the general election from the Polonnaruwa district from an alliance that would include the SLPP and the SLPP.

This would be similar to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who took a seven-month break from politics after his election defeat in January 2015 but returned to Parliament as a Member of Parliament for the Kurunegala district.

What are the likely political scenarios that will emerge in 2020? A review of past voting trends provides an insight to this issue. Sri Lankan voters have generally followed a pattern of voting with the party that wins the presidential election at the general election that follows and Presidents have used this to consolidate their power. While there was no general election in 1982 following J.R. Jayewardene’s win at the first presidential election because of the referendum, in February 1989 the UNP secured 125 seats following Ranasinghe Premadasa’s victory in December 1988.

President D. B. Wijetunge, appointed to replace the assassinated President Premadasa, bucked the trend in 1994, calling for general elections first, a move that backfired because that propelled Chandrika Kumaratunga to office. Since then, SLFP-led coalitions that won the presidential elections in 1999, 2005 and 2010 quickly called for general elections to strengthen their stranglehold on power.

Sajith loyalists

Even in 2015, after a UNP-led coalition was able to secure a victory in the general election in August, following the victory of the candidate they backed, Maithripala Sirisena, at the presidential election in January that year.

Given this history, it is not difficult to predict a SLPP victory at the 2020 general election. That is made all the more likely because of the state of disarray in the only remaining major opposition party, the UNP. Sajith Premadasa has been named Leader of the Opposition and prime ministerial candidate but denied the party leader’s post. His loyalists within the party are now contemplating contesting from a different alliance. If the UNP get their act together before the election, that itself will be quite an achievement.

Therefore, it appears that the only question that remains is whether the SLPP will be able to muster a two-thirds majority in the Parliament elected in 2020, a difficult task under the proportional representation (PR) system of voting.

This is the very reason why J. R. Jayewardene called for a referendum instead of a general election after his presidential election win in 1982: so he could retain his two-thirds majority in Parliament. Since then, no party has been able to secure a two-thirds majority under the PR system of voting.

The closest a party came to achieving this was in 2010 when, basking in the afterglow of the war victory against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and a presidential election victory with 58 per cent of the vote, the Mahinda Rajapaksa led United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) secured 144 seats in Parliament, still six seats short of a two-thirds majority.

That did not deter then President Mahinda Rajapaksa or his chief political strategist Basil Rajapaksa who wanted a two-thirds majority to enact the 18th Amendment to the Constitution to enhance the powers of the President and remove the two-term limit on an individual holding the office of President. The latter engaged in intensive negotiations with opposition MPs to obtain their support for the government and was able to muster a two-thirds majority.

Eventually, a group of seven UNP parliamentarians broke ranks with their party to vote with the government in favour of the 18th Amendment. Eight Sri Lanka Muslim Congress members who were elected on the UNP ticket also voted with the government. The Amendment was passed with 161votes, well above the required two-thirds majority.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s objectives in 2020 are somewhat similar. He is seeking a mandate for a two-thirds majority to repeal the 19th Amendment which he believes curtails the powers of the President in an unreasonable manner, thereby hindering effective government. It is an argument the electorate is likely to agree with, given the events of the past five years and the resounding mandate the President received at the recent presidential poll.

Wave of popularity

Much will depend on the profile of candidates offered by the SLPP at the general elections. It is a fact that voters who eagerly voted for President Rajapaksa at the presidential election may not as enthusiastically endorse some of the SLPP candidates at an electoral level. These are the same individuals who were tainted with allegations of corruption during the Mahinda Rajapaksa era. If the President wishes to secure the coveted two-thirds majority in 2020, he needs to seriously factor this into the political equation.

Currently, President Rajapaksa is riding on a wave of popularity. This is both the ‘honeymoon’ effect as well as general perception that he is the type of person who tries to get a job of work done. If he is able to sustain that image until the general election and then able to offer candidates with ‘clean’ credentials, a two-thirds majority in 2020 could well be a possibility.

If however, the government falls short of this objective, more backroom manoeuvres to gain the support of 150 parliamentarians will be inevitable. For all these reasons, 2020 is bound to be an interesting year for the student of Sri Lankan politics.


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