Working towards a two-thirds majority | Daily News


Working towards a two-thirds majority

The much-awaited declaration gazetting the general election was made by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa this week paving the way for a poll which will now be held on April 25. Nominations will be accepted between March 12 and 19, leaving political parties with precious little time to finalise matters regarding their candidates.

For the first time in the history of elections in the post-independence era in this country, the contest will not be between alliances led by what were the two major political parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP).

As a result of the seismic changes in the political landscape over the last few years, the SLFP has been subsumed by the newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). With the SLPP’s candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa winning the presidential elections and a government led by SLPP leader Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in office, the SLPP is the clear front runner for the upcoming poll.

Any intentions the SLFP had of bargaining with the SLPP for the general election- as it did before the presidential election -disappeared after that poll. The overwhelming mandate received by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa meant that the SLFP had to capitulate to the dictates of the SLPP for the general election. This will be very much in evidence when nominations are finalised in the coming days.

Party symbols

The SLPP did form an alliance, the Sri Lanka Nidahas Podujana Sandanaya (SLNPS), with likeminded parties including the SLFP prior to the general election. However, on Tuesday it announced that it will be contesting as the SLPP and that its symbol will be the lotus bud, with the alliance conveying its decision to the Elections Commission.

The decision to contest from the SLPP symbol was based mostly on practical aspects rather than legal or any other considerations. SLPP leaders feel that contesting from the lotus bud symbol will offer the party a considerable ‘brand recognition’ advantage as it had become synonymous with a successful presidential election campaign.

This means that candidates from all other political parties will ‘adopt’ the lotus bud symbol for the election. This will include candidates nominated by the SLFP, such as former President Maithripala Sirisena who will contest from the Polonnaruwa district. The former President recently led a SLFP delegation which discussed matters related to the election with Prime Minister Rajapaksa.

It is quite ironical that former President Sirisena has to contest general elections from the SLPP and under the lotus bud symbol. It was his actions as President in wresting control of the SLFP that led to the marginalisation of those loyal to his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Ousted from power and pushed to a political corner, Rajapaksa sought a comeback for which his brother Basil Rajapaksa created a political party and the SLPP was born. Now, Sirisena has to take refuge in that party.

If the preparation for the election were going on full steam ahead in the SLPP, the reverse was true for its principal rival, the UNP. Despite nominations having been called and with only a week to go to before they are closed, they are still embroiled in a massive dispute, with neither the Ranil Wickremesinghe faction nor the Sajith Premadasa faction being prepared to yield.

Premadasa this week went ahead with his plans to form the ‘Samagi Jana Balavegaya’ (SJB) which was launched in Colombo on Monday. Many UNP parliamentarians loyal to Premadasa attended but those in the Wickremesinghe camp including the UNP leader himself were conspicuous by their absence.

Party stalwarts expected a reconciliation of sorts before the launch of the SJB. There were several rounds of talks between the two factions. There was even an agreement about the UNP’s contribution to the SJB which was to be sixty per cent. There were also negotiations about the degree of oversight the UNP leader would have over UNP nominees. Despite these discussions, no consensus was reached.

One particular issue at stake was the symbol of the SJB. The UNP hierarchy was insisting that it contests from the symbol of the Grand Old Party, the elephant. That would have meant that the UNP’s general secretary, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, a staunch Wickremesinghe loyalist, would sign nomination papers and in effect have a say in finalising candidates- a condition which the Premadasa faction would not agree to.

There was another suggestion on the table for the SJB. That was to contest from the National Democratic Front (NDF), the alliance from which Premadasa contested the presidential election under the swan symbol. However, Ravi Karunanayake, who wields influence over the NDF insisted that if this was the case either he or his nominee should be the general secretary of that alliance. Again, this was not a condition that the Premadasa camp could agree to.

All this was while the UNP’s highest decision-making body, its Working Committee had approved the formation of an alliance for the poll with Premadasa as the leader of the general election campaign and its prime ministerial candidate. The Premadasa faction feels that its opponents within the party are hell-bent on destroying his push for party leadership, even at the cost of ruining the party’s chances at the election. The voting public meanwhile are taking a dim view of this in-fighting between the factions and the loyalty of even die-hard UNP supporters is being sorely tested.

Premadasa does have another option. That is to contest from the SJB as a separate entity. He can apply for and obtain a new symbol from the Elections Commission over the next few days for this purpose. The ‘telephone’ is being mentioned as a potential symbol.

That would mean contesting from a new symbol that would be unfamiliar to the electorate but free him from the shackles of having to bow to the dictates of the UNP hierarchy. Some in his camp feel that this is the only feasible option now- and a significant number of sitting UNP parliamentarians are backing Premadasa.

This could, of course, result in disciplinary action from the UNP. However, that might be a moot point because any such action would be after the General Election and would be heavily influenced by the outcome of the poll. Moreover, if Premadasa’s SJB contests on its own and the UNP fields its own candidates, the former is likely to outperform the latter.

Comparisons have been made between Mahinda Rajapaksa forming the SLPP in defiance of the SLFP and Premadasa forming the SJB in defiance of the UNP. While these are similar political moves born out of similar motives, the comparison ends there because there are significant differences between the two.

Political alliances

Mahinda Rajapaksa has already been elected President of the country twice. Whatever his future political attainments, he will be remembered as the leader who was able to defeat the scourge of terrorism and as a result, he commands a degree of respect from even his harshest critics. Notwithstanding these considerable credentials, he had two years to build up his own political alliance which began as the Joint Opposition (JO) group in Parliament which later blossomed in to the SLPP. It also had the advantage of a ‘trial run’ at the 2018 Local Government elections.

With all due respect to Sajith Premadasa’s political potential, his only foray into national politics was at the presidential election last year which ended in defeat. His SJB is in its infancy and still lacking a symbol. He has barely six weeks before the general election to get his political party a symbol, finalise nomination lists and candidates, raise funds and stage an effective campaign. That is a tall order. The SJB could well become an alternative for the UNP in due course, particularly if Ranil Wickremesinghe intends to be leader for life, but to expect it to win in 2020 is to hope for a miracle.

In that sense, the general expectation is that the SLPP will win the general election. The SLPP, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa have all been quite candid in their declaration that they are not merely seeking a victory but are also working towards a two-thirds majority. Such a majority, they hope, will give them the tools to engineer further constitutional amendments, such as repealing the 19th Amendment. The question for the SLPP is whether a two-thirds majority is a realistic goal.

Securing a two-thirds majority in a 225-seat legislature is no easy task. The opposition has to only secure 76 seats to thwart that objective. It is made all the more difficult by 29 of those 76 seats being located in the Northern and Eastern province, not traditional strongholds of the SLPP, as it was seen in the voting patterns at the presidential election. At the 2015 general election, the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) secured only four of those twenty-nine seats.

If the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) secures 15 seats in the North and East, as it is very likely to do, that leaves the opposition the task of winning 61 seats to prevent the ruling party from obtaining a two-thirds majority. Opposition political parties would do well to have an eye on this issue.

However, even if the SLPP just falls short of a two-thirds majority, it can still woo new parliamentarians to its side, to secure that majority. Mahinda Rajapaksa did so as President in 2010; there is no reason why he wouldn’t do so again a decade later as Prime Minister. Therefore, the most interesting political developments in 2020 may well emerge only after the General Election.

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