ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka is nearing the end of the Parliamentary General Election campaign, and the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is ahead, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) second with United National Party (UNP) third and the National People Power (NPP) alliance in fourth place, according to most observers.
The starter’s gun for the Parliamentary General election went off with the dissolution of Parliament on March 2 and many things have changed since then.
At that time when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa set the campaign rolling his party was riding high on a wave that saw him win a million votes more than his nearest rival Sajith Premadasa last November.
The then government had resigned and handed over the reins to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa once again, and SLPP supporters were ecstatic.
Gotabaya had billed himself as the man who can get things done, and more importantly protect us from evil. The Easter Sunday attacks by Muslim extremists bolstered his national security-centred campaign.
Also since the 2018 attempt by President Maithripala Sirisena to install Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister failed, the already dysfunctional Yahapalanaya government became shambolic and was an easy target.
The main opposition UNP, after the huge defeat, collapsed in a heap with the Premadasa and Wickremesinghe faithful blaming each other for the disaster.
The SJB was born and Wickremesinghe engineered a tussle over the Elephant symbol, effectively splitting the party. Most sitting UNP Members of Parliament chose to join the Premadasa-led SJB.
Meanwhile, the demoralized Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which had been on life-support, caved in to form an alliance with the SLPP, willing to forego the Hand symbol and contest under the SLPP symbol, the Pohottuwa.
Its leader, the outgoing President Maithripala Sirisena, chose to contest his home seat of Polonnaruwa and not even as the district leader, but as an ordinary member.
Curbing COVID during the campaign and the hasty slogan
The SLPP may be headed for a comfortable victory in the elections on August 5, but the road to the poll date since November has not been smooth.
The COVID 19 pandemic has been both a problem and an asset to the administration.
It had not heeded the early warnings of the pandemic when then Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa said we should isolate ourselves being an island nation and take precautions.
A former head of the Health Department’s Epidemiological Unit Dr Nihal Abeysinghe, who is contesting in Horana on the NPP ticket, says the World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic at the end of January but the government restricted travel into the country and began quarantines only in March.
Instead, the Tourist Board advertised Sri Lanka as a safe destination and invited visitors in. A young Chinese woman tourist was detected as the first patient and when she was cured and discharged, Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi sent her off with a hug and a kiss with cameras in attendance.
The first Sri Lankan patient, however, got it from a group of Italian tourists he had been guiding and it was only then that the government got serious.
President Rajapaksa went to his default solution to most issues, that is to mobilise the military, and that worked. Sri Lanka’s armed forces are working well with the Health Services, excelling in contact tracing and setting up and running quarantine centres in no time.
Candidate Abeysinghe says, after that, the management of the crisis by the Health Service and the Armed Forces has been good, limiting the spread of the disease and minimizing deaths.
Politically however it was a misstep for the government to liken the anti-pandemic effort to the fight against the separatists saying “we can defeat COVID in the same way we defeated terrorism.”
The Health Minister then predicted that by April 19, COVID would go away. But then the disease began spreading in the Welisara Navy camp, eventually causing 906 Navy Personnel, their family members and associates to become infected.
On May 20, Health Minister Wanniarachchi announced there was no more community transmission as all new cases for 3 weeks have been reported from either the Quarantine Centres or the Welisara Navy Camp.
With that in hand, the government went into the final stretch of the election campaign with the slogan “we beat COVID” (කොවිඩ් ජයගත්).
Then came the COVID outbreak at the Kandakadu Rehabilitation camp and the spread of the disease from there to numerous locations around the island where staff had visited or returned home. Up to now more than 550 COVID 19 positive cases have been reported from this cluster.
The slogan got tarnished with that.
In an interview with EconomyNext SLPP candidate, Tharaka Balasuriya said: “that slogan may have been a mistake.”
His opponent SJB candidate Eran Wickremaratne pounced on the issue saying “some problems you can solve by shooting, but problems concerning health and the economy you cannot solve by shooting. They are far more complex, you need lots of specialists and experts.”
He also said that the “world is distrustful” of the government’s narrative of the COVID situation in Sri Lanka, pointing to the European Union which has included Sri Lanka in a list of countries from which visitors are not allowed into the territories of the group.
“We have only 11 deaths and Singapore has thousands but they are allowed in,” the SJB candidate told EconomyNext.
However, on Friday, July 24, the United Kingdom lifted a travel advisory to Sri Lanka allowing its citizens to come here. It is still not allowing Sri Lankans to travel to the UK.
The Director-General of Health Services Dr Anil Jasinghe has continued to say that he has not “hidden anything and we have nothing to hide.”
Popular sentiment is that the government, the Armed Forces and the Health Services have done well to control the pandemic and minimise deaths.
Bumps in the campaign SLPP campaign trail
Apart from COVID which looms large over the election, there were other blips on the way for the government.
Management of the economy has been troubled, with the COVID crisis sending the country into a deeper mess than it already was when the new administration took over.
The President ordered the Value Added Tax removed and Pay As You Earn (PAYE) Income Taxation stopped after he was elected.
The hope was to put more money into the pockets of people and create an economic stimulus. However this grossly reduced revenue collection by the government and when COVID hit this caused issues for the Treasury.
Later President famously badgered the Central Bank to reduce the statutory amounts commercial banks had to deposit with it to release around Rs 150bn into the market. This move was made to allow the banks to lend more to businesses.
Pouring more money into the economy and making loans cheaper will reduce the interest rates depositors will get and retired folks living on fixed deposit earnings will take a hit.
Companies, however, will have access to cheaper credit and this will help them through the crisis.
The government has also allowed the monetization of dues the government has to pay contractors, a move criticized by some economists as damaging to the economy.
Import controls have been imposed and a “Nationalist economy” proposed which has hurt a number of industries including many in the export sector. But it has served to shore up the Sri Lankan Rupee.
Archaeology and Human Rights
There were also other issues that are dogging the SLPP campaign close to the end of the campaign.
One of them is the bulldozing of the Buwenaka Hotel in Kurunegala, where the Prime Minister is a contestant.
The city’s SLPP Mayor Thushara Sanjeeva is taking responsibility for the act saying it has to give way for road development.
The place is also a heritage site, raising the ire of Nationalists and arch-conservatives who are the backbone of the SLPP.
The PM called for an expert committee report, the Attorney General has asked the Police to take action against the perpetrators and the country waits to hear what Mahinda Rajapaksa will do.
The official SLPP line articulated by candidate Vidura Wickremanayake on Friday is that “if there is proof that there was a building of archaeological value destroyed whoever is responsible must be punished.”
The expert committee that was set up by the Prime Minister to report on the matter said that whoever who has destroyed the building should be punished under the law.
Will the PM protect Sanjeewa, who is a key player in the district he is a candidate from or go with the experts and the Attorney General who want those responsible punished, is the question.
Then this week Rights activists were outraged over remarks the Prime Minister made which they said denigrated childless couples.
In a campaign speech, Rajapaksa said “he (Premadasa) talks about pressing a button to summon the Midwife, of course, he won’t need it…” in the audience someone says “he does not have children,” and the PM responds saying “hush, don’t say that.”
Women’s groups said that the PM, a former President, had made fun of women who could not or chose not to have children.
In a letter handed over to the Prime Minister, they said politicians should respect the reproductive rights of men and women and demanded he apologise.
The Prime Minister’s office has not responded.
The SLPP is well ahead
But despite these bumps in the road, the SLPP is well ahead in the race.
Opposition campaigners say the network of SLPP supporters around the country is strong and well organised and hard to fight against.
Lihini Fernando, a Municipal Councillor campaigning for the SJB in the Moratuwa area, told EconomyNext that her party “has to deal with the welfare politics of the SLPP on the ground. They have the money and the network,” she said.
The NPP’s Abeysinghe said in remote parts of Kalutara he found villagers heavily dependent on welfare programs created by the last Rajapaksa government and felt they had to vote for the SLPP out of gratitude.
The party is also helped considerably by the open support of the two biggest private TV channels as well as some state media.
Meanwhile, the SLPP has carried out a high profile campaign with meetings across the country.
An ageing Mahinda has gamely led the campaign, not with his usual vigour, but coping as well as he can.
Some observers have said that the Prime Minister’s campaign has been “faltering” and that was the reason the President, who was not planning to lead the campaign, has entered the scene.
President Rajapaksa has been a major draw at campaign events in Polonnaruwa, Kandy, Colombo and the South.
Even though the SLPP may be running out of steam, it is still a question whether the SJB which is its main challenger, or the UNP has the capacity to take advantage of the situation.
The final result, or how each party is doing, is hard to say as Sri Lanka does not have independent polls. The best we can do is to talk to observers and party insiders and conduct a straw poll.
Under the current standings it most likely that the SLPP will win a stable simple majority, getting between a low of 120 seats to a high of 130, still short of the 150 – a two-thirds majority – they have asked the electorate to give them so that they can make changes to the Constitution.
The SJB will probably hit 50 and will be lucky to get above 60, the UNP will get between 15 and 20 and the NPP about the same as they had in the last Parliament.
There just 12 days to go and will things change? Time will tell. (Colombo, July 25, 2020)