Postscript to May Day | Daily News

Postscript to May Day


May Day is all over, even the shouting, and both the Government and the Opposition are now looking to the next major event on the political agenda - Local Government elections - to establish themselves as frontrunners on the political landscape.

If one is to pick a winner from the different May Day rallies that were staged by political parties, the United National Party (UNP) will take pride of place. Its rally at Campbell Park was arguably the best it had in many decades. There were no differences of opinion among the speakers and the party hierarchy presented a united front to the public- in stark contrast to the infighting that plagued the UNP just a few years ago.

It was predictably a different story with the mainstream Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its dissident faction which joined the so-called ‘Joint Opposition’ (JO). The SLFP held its rally in Galle with President Maithripala Sirisena presiding while the JO staged its meeting at Kirulapone, chaired by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The themes of speakers at the Galle rally were on issues such as worker welfare and passing on the benefits of good governance to the masses. At Kirulapone however, speaker after speaker tore into the Government and President Sirisena in particular, claiming that the SLFP was being taken for a ride and being used to do the bidding of the UNP.

Parliamentary strength

In the lead up to May Day, SLFP General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake had stated that SLFP parliamentarians attending the JO rally would be dealt with on disciplinary grounds. Whether that will really happen is now the big question.

The SLFP, or more precisely the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), has 95 Members of Parliament in its ranks. Among them, 46 MPs attended the rally at Kirulapone and 49 attended the rally at Galle. So, the division within the UPFA appears to be right down the middle. If the SLFP were to initiate disciplinary action against those who attended the Kirulapone rally, it risks losing almost half of its parliamentary strength.

Also, this is easier said than done. The ‘JO’ faction will not take matters lying down and a full scale legal showdown contesting the measures taken by the SLFP leadership is very likely to follow. The legal wrangles, mired deep in the intricacies of Sri Lanka’s much amended Constitution, could take years and well into the next major national elections due only in 2020.

On the eve of May Day President Sirisena also made a cryptic announcement, saying that there will be ‘major changes’ after May Day. There is speculation that this will take the form of a Cabinet reshuffle as well as a major shake-up of the SLFP’s party structure.

Such a revamp will enable the President to firmly assert himself as the leader of the SLFP but at an electorate level, it will leave the party devoid of some of the most active members of the party who are aligned with the Rajapaksa camp. That is the price the President and the party will have to pay in return for re-establishing a strong and distinct mainstream SLFP.

This is where the prospects of the Local Government elections come in to the equation. Polls were due this year but they have been postponed. The official reason is that the delimitation of wards for the new system of elections is not complete yet but clearly, there is no enthusiasm on the part of the Government to hurry things up, given the state of disarray the SLFP is in.

Local Government elections

This week, Local Government and Provincial Councils Minister Faiszer Mustapha, the man in charge of the subject, ruled out the possibility of conducting elections for local authorities this year, because of work involved in delimitation. Mustapha said the committee entrusted with ironing out anomalies in delimitation of electoral wards would be given an extra month to finish the task. The deadline for this which was August 31 originally has now been extended until September 30.

Mustapha was keen to emphasise that he was not catering to the political needs of any particular party but was only following due procedure. He said some parties and organisations were pushing him for early Local Government elections. “I would like to ask how these parties sort out anomalies in the creation of electoral wards The UPFA Secretary wants me to conduct the elections as soon as possible. I cannot act according to his dictates. As the Minister, I am responsible for the whole country and its people but not for the UPFA as a party,” Mustapha told a media briefing.

However, Commissioner of Elections Mahinda Deshapriya was to tell a different story. He stated that if the Delimitation Commission completes its work by the new deadline - September 30 - three months was “more than enough” to hold elections within the year.

The Commissioner explained the process stating that once the Delimitation Commission finalises its work, the Minister of Local Government would be required to issue a gazette notification enumerating the number of members for each local government body. It was only then that the Elections Commission could begin the process of conducting the elections, Deshapriya, highly respected for his impartiality, explained. It can be seen from this process that there are many steps and that delays at each step could contribute towards a delay in holding the polls this year.

Deshapriya also pointed out that the matter was now before the Supreme Court, where the postponement of Local Government elections has been challenged. The Elections Commission is also bound to obey any direction from the Supreme Court, Deshapriya noted.

Right now, the JO is content to berate the government in Parliament and outside it and operate as a dissident faction of the UPFA. However, if the Local Government elections are held, it will push the JO towards forming a new political party. The strategies leading up to the election will depend on whether the mainstream SLFP wants to precipitate this or avoid this.

The Sirisena faction in the SLFP still believes that it commands a majority of the base SLFP vote that has formed the bedrock of the party’s support over the decades. This will no doubt take a hit with the Rajapaksa faction eating in to some of those votes. However, this must be weighed against the undeniable fact that in post-independence Sri Lankan history, there has never really been a ‘third force’ barring the UNP or the SLFP that has been able to win power.

National government

These issues must be undoubtedly music to the years of the UNP. Languishing for two decades in the Opposition, the party is now firmly back in the saddle. However, it still yearns, as Minister Ranjith Madduma Bandara said, to set up a ‘apema aanduwak’ or a government of the UNP itself, rather than aligning itself with a faction of the SLFP.

Nevertheless, both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are firmly committed to the concept of a national government, at least until 2020. That is because they need to secure a two-thirds majority to ensure that further constitutional reforms- most notably changes to the election system, resolution of the ethnic question and a further dilution of powers of the Executive Presidency- are passed.

These are noble ideals indeed but they will need to be grounded in the reality of politics. For now though, as the major political camps- the UNP, the SLFP and the JO- ponder their next moves in the aftermath of May Day, their preoccupations will differ. The UNP is keen on salvaging the country’s economy, so that they could showcase that at the next national elections. The SLFP would want the party to unite under President Maithripala Sirisena. The JO meanwhile is seeking a shortcut to power. The Local Government elections will be the theatre in which these actors will play the roles assigned to them. 




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