ECONOMYNEXT – When President J R Jayewardene’s United National Party (UNP) won the 1977 parliamentary election with a 5/6th majority that paved the way for the creation of a new Constitution and an Executive Presidency, he famously boasted that the only thing he could not do with all that power was to change a man into a woman and vice versa.
Even though he exercised such power, changing the Constitution to suit his personality, and not necessarily to benefit the country, he enshrined laws, which he believed would help keep his beloved UNP in power forever.
The Proportional Preferential system of elections in Sri Lanka, an unwieldy, complex system is the result of “JR thought” and pundits often said that it was a “mathematical impossibility” for a single party or group to win a two-thirds majority in Parliament on its own.
The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has proved that wrong, garnering 145 seats on its own; an astounding achievement.
In the final weeks of campaigning, when political analysts doubted the SLPP could get the two-thirds majority, they hoped to win on their own, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa stated that even if the party does not win 150 seats, it has the allies who will help them reach that goal.
And as the results of the poll started coming in that Thursday (August 6) night, the SLPP was busy talking with its allies to ensure they got the 150 seats.
How the Pohottuwa got there
The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna was born out of the old Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the alliance of nationalist parties Prime Minister Rajapaksa built around him called the United People Freedom Alliance (UPFA).
The modern re-branding of the alliance as the SLPP was a combination of slick marketing and much thought. The Lotus flower has great significance in Buddhist lore as a flower that grows in the mud but floats pristine and pure.
The colour that the designers of the brand chose was the Maroon, taken from the Satakaya that Mahinda Rajapaksa, and many members of the political family wear.
The SLPP, therefore, is created by and for the Rajapaksa family.
The Nelum Pokuna (Lotus Pond) Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre, the Lotus Tower that dominates Colombo’s skyline are not accidental creations, as we all know.
The brand, therefore, is a brilliant combination of modern marketing strategies linked to ancient lore that goes deep into the Sinhala Buddhist psyche.
The SLPP also took a leaf out of JR’s and former president R Premadasa’s UNP by building solid networks on the ground, reaching out and creating the Samurdhi schemes, ensuring the loyalty of the grass-root level leaders as well as the village officials.
This network is held together by village Buddhist temples, Monks and Temple societies who have been assiduously cultivated by SLPP leaders
During the campaign for the recently concluded parliamentary election, one of the challenges activists supporting the newly formed Samagi Jana Balavegaya found was difficulty in matching the SLPP’s “ground game.”
One such leader, Municipal Councilor Lihini Fernando told EconomyNext that her party needs to build a network like the SLPP “for the next election.”
There were also strategic moves that helped. In the east in Digamadulla the SLPP funded Vinayagamoorthi Muraleetharan or “Karuna Amman” to contest, effectively splitting the Tamil constituency, and ensuring the Sinhala block vote solidly for themselves.
In the Puttalam area, an Independent Group called the Muslim National Alliance popped up considerably reducing Rishard Bathiuddin’s hold in that area.
An Opposition in disarray
Of course, it was the UNP that helped the Pohottuwa the best with their very public squabble for leadership in the run-up to the Presidential election in November 2019.
The split in the UNP began when its Deputy Leader, Sajith Premadasa challenged former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for the Presidential candidacy in 2019.
Premadasa, the eventual candidate, lost to Gotabaya Rajapaksa by more than a million votes and at the end complained bitterly that the UNP had not provided the funds nor the assistance for his campaign.
When the Parliamentary General Election came up the UNP Working Committee decided to contest as an alliance and voted to make Premadasa the leader and to allow him to appoint a General-Secretary of his choice.
Once that was accomplished Wickremesinghe engineered a dispute over the Elephant symbol and the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), the alliance Premadasa was now leading decided to break with the parent party and go it alone.
But all those moves by the Grand Old Party, as the UNP has been known came a cropper, when it was punished by an angry electorate that gave it just over one per cent of the vote.
Wickremesinghe the master manipulator has manipulated himself out of the scene.
From the five sixth’s majority in 1977, the party sank to a single seat in this Parliament and that too only through the National List.
The infighting made long-time UNP voters shun the polls, Political Scientist Prof Jayadeva Uyangoda told EconomyNext. “Particularly the rural upper-caste elites who traditionally support the UNP did not vote at all,” he said.
To its credit, the new group emerged as the biggest opposition party getting 54 seats. During the campaign SJB leaders privately said their party “was like a child,” in the face of the senior parties.
In the bitter battles inside the UNP, SJB leaders accused Wickremesinghe and his supporters of “having a deal with the Rajapaksas to bring them back to power.”
One of the SJB Spokesmen Imthiaz Bakeer Markar said that Wickremesinghe this is because the UNP leader “wants to be saved from prosecution for the bonds scam and other deals.”
Uyangoda observes that elites on both sides of the country’s political divide cooperate with each other to “preserve themselves and avoid persecution by the other.”
He pointed out that the Rajapaksas were defeated in 2015 mostly because of numerous allegations of misuse of power, corruption and misappropriation.
“However very few cases were taken to a conclusion and no important political figure was jailed by the Wickremesinghe, administration” he pointed out.
Meanwhile, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-led National People’s Power came a disappointing number three, with their vote base shrinking further.
Uyangoda says that the attempt by the NPP to attract more professionals to the party as candidates who are not cadre members did not work.
“The JVP has lost its rural base and is trying to attract the Middle-class urban vote and that has not succeeded,” he said.
However, he said it is highly regrettable that some of the JVP Members who “are exemplary Parliamentarians have not been elected.”
Many people, even their opponents are particularly disappointed that former MP Sunil Handunetti who chaired the Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) to great acclaim, lost his seat and will not be in Parliament.
However, the NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the highest-ranked MP by the Manthri.lk website that tracks the records of MPs in Parliament did win in Colombo.
The other major development was the reduction in the numbers for the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) from 17 seats in the last Parliament to 10 this time around.
Among other setbacks, its leader Mavai Senathiraja lost his seat as the dynamics of Tamil politics seems to have changed.
This prompted SLPP Chairman Prof G L Peiris to say “they (ITAK) can no longer claim to be the sole representatives of the Tamil people,” and as former Governor of the Northern Province Dr Suren Raghavan pointed out, the “people of the North want development.”
Raghavan who has been appointed a National List MP by the SLPP told EconomyNext that Tamil parties “will cooperate with the government to ensure the central government brings much-needed infrastructure projects to the North and East.”
And what of the challenges ahead?
“We are facing the biggest crisis that this country has ever been confronted with,” says Journalist and Political Commentator Victor Ivan.
He told EconomyNext that Sri Lanka’s traditional sources of foreign exchange which are remittances from migrant workers, tourism and apparel exports have all dried up because of COVID.
Already, he said many people have lost their earnings or are getting much less than they were. For instance, government workers are not being paid their overtime and other allowances.
Ivan paints a gloomy picture in which he says the country may have mass unemployment as a result of the pandemic.
Finding a solution will not be easy. During the election campaign, the SJB’s Eran Wickremeratne told EconomyNext that a future government will have two choices to deal with in the post COVID economy.
“One road which the government seems to be following is treating this situation as an opportunity to build internal markets and strengthen internal production.”
“The other road, one which we would take, is to work with the international community and the international markets,” he said.
Ivan concurs, saying that going back to the 1970s closed economy will not work in today’s globalized world.
But what of the politics? Uyangoda points out that every time a government in our modern history has had an overwhelming two-thirds majority it has resulted in social discontent.
The 1970s government led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike faced an insurrection by educated unemployed youth in 1971 and eventually she postponed Parliamentary elections for two years going on to govern for 7 years.
The pendulum swung at the next election and the UNP got its huge majority, and it used that to amend the Constitution and hold a referendum to extend the life of Parliament, in December 1982, for a further 6 years.
The resulting social discontent contributed to widespread lawlessness. In July 1983 mobs attacked Tamil homes and businesses in Colombo and elsewhere, killing and pillaging
The Tamil community which had lived in peace in the South became alienated and a simmering insurgency in the North and East became a full-blown war that lasted three decades.
These conflicts says Ivan has exacted a huge toll on the country in terms of hundreds of thousands of lives lost and profound economic damage.
“It is estimated that this country has lost USD200bn because of our multiple conflicts based on religion, ethnicity and caste issues,” Ivan says.
“We have to resolve these and heal the divisions.”
Finally, the result of the election has shown that the people have heeded President Rajapaksa’s call and strengthened his hand to deal with the looming crisis.
How that will play out is yet to be revealed.
Although the government has said that the Constitution will be changed, there are no specifics that have been drafted and presented to the electorate.
The SLPP Chairman Peiris in a post-election press conference said that constitutional changes will be brought about after “deep thought.”
“The government has all the power but that does not mean it will behave in an arrogant manner. The government will be humble. Currently, there does not appear to be a strong opposition and we hope they will use their representation in parliamentary committees include COPE and COPA to fulfil the duty of the opposition,” Prof Peiris said.
An indication that academic Uyangoda would agree with.
The Professor wrote that “in this uncertain context, Sri Lankan citizens need a humane government, not merely a strong one. More democratic and consultative governance, and not any less of it.” (Colombo, August 9, 2020)