By Godwin Constantine –
The recently concluded local government election has created much controversy, expectations and assumptions regrading the present government. Most of the parties that are opposed to the Unity Government have regarded this election as a referendum of sorts and said that the results of this election reflected the lack of acceptance of this government by the masses. Hence there was a call for the government to stepdown.
The president who tolerated the high-handed work of the Prime Minister used this opportunity to look for a replacement. He has been looking for a suitable candidate for the Prime Minister’s post within UNP and SLFP. He is now experiencing the consequence of introducing the 19th amendment without much consideration during honeymooning with the Unity Government.
On the other side Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has completely disregarded his humiliating defeat and attributes the defeat to fertilizer crisis, Meetotumulla tragedy and the likes. However, the bond scam, failure to persecute the culprits of the previous regime, increasing cost of living and economic setbacks had been the main reasons for this major debacle of the ruling coalition.
This election results have undoubtedly established the popularity of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa yet again. However, the percentage of votes polled by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) still remains less the 50% of total polled votes. There is nothing much to celebrate since the percentage of votes obtained by the SLPP is slightly less than that obtained at the last Presidential election by Mahinda Rajapaksa. The most important change that has taken place with this election is the emergence of SLPP as a major contender, with the blessings of the former President. The SLPP has shifted the SLFP’s voter base in its favor at the grass root level.
There are only two main personalities in the SLPP at present. They are the chairman of the SLPP Prof GL Peiris and Basil Rajapaksa. The real winner of this election is Basil Rajapaksa. This victory of SLPP is going to affect Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) more than any other party in the future elections. Today the jubilation of the joint opposition is due to the victory achieved by the SLPP. One cannot expect the SLPP which has secured a historic victory to windup and become part of SLFP for the next election. The future of the SLFP will depend on whether the SLPP will be willing to function under SLFP in future elections.
Since the time Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the Presidential election he and his group had been testing his popularity from time to time by organizing various meetings. These meetings showed that Mahinda Rajapaksa remained popular amongst the masse and possibly become more popular as a result of growing discontent of the masses with the present government. Though he was very popular it was of no consequence as he was not the leader of the SLFP. Hence there was a suggestion to form a new party under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s leadership, since the time he lost the Presidential election. However Mahinda Rajapaksa remained non-committal to the idea of forming a new party, probably fearing the worst case scenario of being marginalized from the history of SLFP.
After long period of speculation and expectation the news about the formation of SLPP emerged. Though it was expected that Mahinda Rajapaksa will be the leader of the new party Prof G L was appointed as the chairman of the new party (This strategy would have been adopted since it is easy to wash hands off the new party if it proves to be a failure.) Basil Rajapaksa became an active member since he had nothing to lose even if the new party is a failure. For Basil who could not secure an important position in the central committee of the SLFP this was a good opportunity to advance his career prospects in politics.
Since the SLPP has clearly dissociated it’s self from SLFP to contest the local government elections it is unlikely that the SLPP will join with the SLFP or work under SLFP in the forthcoming provincial elections. In a recent interview when Basil Rajapaksa was asked about the future plans of the SLPP he said “next we will have to face the Provincial Councils elections. Afterwards, we will have the Presidential or General election. We will face them according to a systematic plan”.
At present according to the 19th amendment Mahinda Rajapaksa will not be able to contest for Presidency at the next Presidential election. Though there was hope at the beginning of the Unity government of the possibility of abolishing executive Presidency, and Mahinda Rajapaksa becoming Prime Minister in a future government, this is becoming very unlikely with the unfolding political events in the country. The most important question at this juncture would be who the Presidential candidate of the SLPP for the next Presidential election will be. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has already declared his interest to contest for Presidency in 2020. Mahinda Rajapaksa remains silent and non-committal in this issue. Basil Rajapaksa so far has not commented on this issue. It is worth noting that Gotabaya did not figure prominently during the SLPP local government election campaign.
It is unlikely that SLPP will join hands with SLFP after this landslide victory. If the members of the Joint opposition is to make amends and work with the SLFP they will invariably have to accept the leadership of President MS. This will result in Joint opposition members endorsing the candidacy of President Mithripala Sirisena at the next Presidential election. As Mahinda Rajapaksa has already committed to support SLPP, he will remain with SLPP unless if he is offered the chairmanship of SLFP which is very unlikely. The SLFP is known as Bandaranaike’s party. If SLPP maintains this momentum and become a major party in the next couple of elections, Mahinda Rajapaksa would do well if he sticks to SLPP which is Rajapaksa’s party.
In a recent interview Basil was asked whether SLPP will join hands with SLFP in future Basil said “We have asked the government to stop all forms of treacherous activities. We have power at the local authorities but that alone isn’t sufficient to stop such actions. There is public enthusiasm. This is the time to urge the government to cast away its traitorous agenda. We will support a government that does not have any form of UNP representation” which did not answer the question.
Given the present situation it is unlikely that SLPP will join hands with SLFP to contest future elections. The next election (Provincial Councils election) will be the testing ground for SLPP’s future course. If SLPP contests separately at the Provincial Councils election and wins SLPP will be in a commanding position to dictate terms about the Presidential candidate for 2020. The SLPP will be positioned well to do so as the parliamentary election will be after Presidential election where the aspiring parliamentary election candidates will invariable have to fall in line with the SLPP agenda to secure their candidacy.
Though Mahinda Rajapaksa’s group is jubilant over the Local Government election victory the group failed to get absolute majority in the last 3 elections. With UNP being implicated in a major bond scam was at their lowest ebb of popularity at the last election. The UNP and the present government are likely to improve their performance and rectify some of their shortcomings by the next election. This might slightly improve their popularity. Hence the candidate who is to contest with the support of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s group will depend on minority vote to win the 2020 presidential election.
If Mahinda Rajapaksa’s group is to be victorious at the next Presidential election they will have to nominate a candidate who will be able to attract minority votes. Obviously, Gotabaya Rajapaksa will not be a suitable candidate in this regard. On the contrary Basil Rajapaksa may have a better chance of wining minority votes. Basil had been in the forefront of the development work in the north and east and he has been very diplomatic in dealing with minority issue. In the last election the TNA lost some of its voter base to the SLPP, when commenting on that Mahinda said that “Eelam has shrunken” whereas Basil said “TNA voter base has also dwindled”.
Judging from the recent turn of events it is likely that the SLPP will become a major independent contender at the next Presidential election. Who will be its Presidential candidate of SLPP will remain a secret. Professor GL Peiris was asked in an interview “Who would you be grooming to run for Presidency at the next election?”, he said “That will be decided at the right time, what we are doing now is organizing the party, formulating its policies, communicating with the people and creating public opinion. That is the need of the hour, the grassroots level organization. President Maithripala Sirisena’s candidature was announced only two months before the election – cometh the hour, cometh the man”.
*Dr. Godwin Constantine – Senior lecturer in Medicine, University of Colombo and Cardiologist