Sri Lanka polls: Tough choices and the way ahead


Come Monday, 17 August, and Sri Lanka would have gone to nation-wide elections for the second time in eight months. The result will determine if the January 8 presidential poll was a freak, or heralded a “change of political culture,” as claimed by the victorious combine at the time.

That combination of present-day President Maithripala Sirisena, the beneficiary of the January poll, and his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was among his benefactors at the time, could continue toddling along, in the name of ‘good governance’, their two-word passport to power at the time. Any reversal of the electoral fate for the unpredictable combine could usher in more unpredictability, what with President Sirisena declaring that post-poll, he would not invite his predecessor and fellow-party man, Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa, to become prime minister in Ranil’s place.

Therein is a hitch. The diluted 19th Amendment to the Constitution that the present duo piloted and passed through the Parliament, in which they did not command a majority, is clear that the President can invite only the leader of the single largest party or group to form a government – as is the case with any parliamentary democracy. Diluting, if not outright removing the powers of the ‘Executive President’ as promised by the duo, 19-A, has also taken away Sirisena’s powers to dissolve Parliament at the end of one year.

‘Hung parliament’?

Pre-election opinion polls have proved to be as unpredictable. Some have given outright victory for one or the other of the two ‘Sinhala majors’, led respectively by PM Ranil and ‘Mr.Ex’, Rajapaksa. There is an equally plausible prediction(s) of a ‘hung Parliament’. Governments functioning with a ‘hung parliament’ are not new to Sri Lanka, but there are issues, there again.

The Sirisena-led SLFP-UPFA, which has marketed Rajapaksa as its prime ministerial nominee without the former’s consent, is an electoral entity. In the ordinary circumstances, it cannot expect support from other parties unless it is invited to form the government, and chips in freely from others, in the absence of an anti-defection law, as yet.

The Ranil-led UNFGG, with two Muslim and three Upcountry Tamil parties, too, are contesting under the common ‘Elephant’ symbol of his United National Party (UNP). It, too, can poach MPs from the rival camp(s) but the first and more respectable possibility, if invited to form a government in the absence of an ‘absolute majority’, is for the combine, to seek the support of other parties.

UPFA leaders have already argued that in a ‘hung Parliament’, the first invitation from the President should go to them as an ‘electoral entity’ if they have come on top of the heap. They scorn at any post-poll arrangement before facing the new parliament as unacceptable under 19-A.

The Rajapaka camp in the SLFP-UPFA has also not forgotten/forgiven their ‘own’ President Sirisena for swearing in Ranil as Prime Minister before they had recovered from the shock of their leader’s defeat in January. The resultant ‘tough-of-war’ led to the unsavoury situation of Parliament transacting not much business, as the Ranil leadership had promised before the presidential poll.

Today, when the two UPFA factions have fielded a combined list of candidates, the continuing ‘Proportionate Representation’ (PR) system coupled with the accompanying scheme of ‘preferential votes’ could stymie Sirisena’s powers as President, to invite a leader of his choice (from even within the UPFA) to become PM. If Rajapaksa’s 47-per cent vote-share is their hope from the presidential poll, his camp could try and ensure that Sirisena’s men in the UPFA list do not win even in districts where the combine comes ahead of its rivals.

It is possibly thus that some of the ministerial confidants of Sirisena and his political mentor and another ex-President, Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga (CBK), had crossed over to the opposite camp, to contest under UNP’s ‘Elephant’ symbol – hoping to win with the party’s support. The complexities of the PR system ensure that no party or independent group is deprived of parliamentary representation if they have made the minimum mark, but it also makes pre-poll predictions that much more difficult.

Sri Lanka's newly elected president Mithripala Sirisena waves at media as he leaves the election commission in Colombo January 9, 2015. Sirisena, a soft-spoken 63-year-old from the rice-growing hinterlands of this Indian Ocean island state, is expected to be sworn in at Colombo's Independence Square at 6:00 p.m. local time (1230 GMT).   REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte (SRI LANKA - Tags: POLITICS HEADSHOT ELECTIONS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTR4KOBB


TNA, JVP dilemma and more

Two parties that would be wooed post-poll are the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the left-leaning, ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ party of ex-militants (a self-contradiction at that). Pollsters have given the TNA an acceptable 18-21 seat-share in the 225-member Parliament, and the JVP an arguable 13 seats.

For reasons dating back to the conclusive ethnic war that ended in May 2009, the TNA cannot be seen as backing Rajapaksa for PM, if it were to come to that. This is despite the fact that they had held post-war negotiations on power-devolution and political solution with his Government until the UNHRC-centric ‘accountability issues’ overtook them both.

Ranil thus becomes the favourite (at least in media speculation) to get the TNA’s support, if required. The TNA is again an alliance of opportunity, where each of the four constituent parties can pull it in different directions, if it could help the personal ambitions of individual leaders. The Alliance has not been able to live down the post-war influence/shadow of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, which again is divided in very many ways on the ‘accountability issues’, support for a Sinhala major, both within and outside the government.


Against this, the JVP has problems of personality viz Rajapaksa, but is principally opposed to UNP’s form of market economy, that too with PM Ranil at the helm. Apart from being the first one to sound the bugle against President Rajapaksa on ‘governance issues’ long before it became politically fashionable and electorally sustainable, the JVP has not forgiven Rajapaksa for deliberately splitting the party when it was his strong supporter and alliance-partner within the Government headed by him.

Both the TNA and the JVP may come under pressure by some sections to joining the Government, if they could help it. The TNA could also come under pressure from the ‘international community’ (read: West), to help Sri Lanka consolidate the ‘governance gains’ of January. The TNA will continue to require the indulgence of the international community on the all-important ‘accountability issues’ at UNHRC, only weeks after a new government had (in all probability) taken over, back home.

That’s also an issue that the TNA – and in the reverse, the ‘Sinhala nationalist’ JVP – would have to grabble with before deciding on supporting a post-poll government, either from within or outside. The question would also be still asked of some of the UNFGG constituents like another ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ party in the Jathika Hela Uramaya (JHU), the ‘party of monks’, and even individual MPs belonging to the UNP in particular.

Their predicament would be even more if the UNHRC probe team’s report on ‘accountability issues’ were to name names. Independent of cobbling together a parliamentary majority, even sustaining one and still sticking to Sri Lanka’s ‘legitimate case’ for the continuance of an ‘internal probe’ instituted by the Rajapaksa regime, as demanded by the international community, could become an issue.

But independent of the election results – even if the voter gives an ‘absolute majority’ to either of the main formations – the UNHRC-driven ‘accountability issues’ cannot be wished away. Though it has failed to sustain the war-time traction even with the Sinhala electorate beyond a point, both in the presidential polls and now in the run-up to the parliamentary elections, the ‘accountability issues’, and not a political solution to the ‘national problem’, could stall the progress of the nation on the governance and development fronts – which have already suffered under the UNP-led ‘national government’, too.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, ORF, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. This article has been written for India Writes Network)