By Rajan Philips –
Sri Lankans voted in a presidential election for the first time on 20 October 1982. The upcoming presidential election 16 November 2019 will be the eighth such election. It is virtually a different country that will be going to the polls in November. Since 1982, the population has shot up by nearly seven million from 15 M to about 22 M. The number of registered voters has almost doubled – from eight million to nearly 16 M. Of the additional eight million voters today, about 6.75 million were too young (under 17 years) to vote and 1.25 million were not even born in 1982. The registered voters were 53% of the population in 1982. Today they are 72% of an aging population.
The economy has grown from less than a hundred million rupees GDP in 1982, to Rs. 14 trillion in 2108, at current prices. The much-touted per capita income has grown, also at current prices, but still impressively, from Rs. 6,531 (1982) to Rs. 666,817 in 2018. It is now over the coveted $4,000 target, and Sri Lanka is statistically a middle-income country. The government debt has ballooned from Rs 80 M to nearly Rs. 12 trillion, while the debt/GDP ratio has been hovering between 76% then and 83% now.
The aggregate picture is impressive and the general growth in physical assets and overall prosperity is unmistakable, but there are huge gaps of unevenness and inequality at the disaggregate levels. There are significant imbalances in that basic necessities are either not easily available or not affordable to large numbers of people, while there is a growing abundance of luxury goods and services that only a small section of the population would like to have and can afford them.
The question is also if the country could and should have done better. The JVP is now talking the language of global economics and is blaming the UNP and the SLFP for letting the country fall behind from what was “the second place in Asia at the time of independence. The per capita income of Japan was 90 dollars and ours was 89 dollars. All other South Asian countries were far below us. … Today our loans amount to 83 per cent of GDP. At the moment our loans to other countries stands at 12,000,000 million rupees. Our loan installment alone last year was 5,450 million rupees.” The JVP is reminding that the two parties took turn ruling the country for 71 years, doing it jointly for the last four and a half years.
Blame the Presidency
The changes since 1982 have more to do with the far-reaching changes in economic policy that were introduced in 1977 than the introduction of the executive presidential system. Politically, however, almost from the beginning of the executive presidency, all the negative aspects of the economic and social changes since 1977/78 have been attributed to the executive presidential system. The UNP that captured power in 1977, under the old parliamentary system and changed it to the hybrid presidential-parliamentary system held on to power continuously for a period of seventeen years. The longevity in power was justified as necessary for political and economic stability.
The tables were turned in 1994, when the SLFP and its allies finally got back into power after 17 years in the wilderness. It was their turn to taste longevity, and they did it by surpassing the UNP’s 17 years with their own 20-year stay in power, from 1994 to 2014. In their respective power-periods, the UNP won two presidential elections (1982, 1988), and the SLFP and its allies won twice as many in 1994, 1999, 2005 and 2010. One aspect of the long reigns was the development of internal divisions and infighting within the governing parties over presidential succession, and the abrupt policy changes from one President to another even while belonging to the same governing party – to wit, from JR Jayewardene to R. Premadasa in 1988, and from Chandrika Kumaratunga to Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005.
The 2015 presidential election was an outlier, and one that also took the internal differences to a new level. The incumbent President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, forced himself as a candidate for an unprecedented (and arguably unconstitutional) third term, became the first incumbent to taste defeat, and was defeated by his own cabinet minister who defected from the government and challenged his former boss as the common opposition candidate. Maithripala Sirisena, who performed the most consequential one-man defection in Sri Lanka’s political history, won the 2015 presidential election promising to be a one-term President and end the elected-presidency after him. For a myriad of reasons Maithripala Sirisena did not live up to his promises, and despite his shameful efforts to run for a second term he is set to end the presidential chapter of his life as a one-term President.
The Sirisena presidency and the whole unravelling of the yahapalanaya government and the vanishing of the SLFP might be starting a new phase in Sri Lanka’s presidential experience. The political system might be shifting away from the long periods of power that occurred under the UNP (1977-1994) and the SLFP (1994-2014) to shorter (one-term, five year) power cycles that were common under the parliamentary system before 1978. But the shift is occurring in a context of greater instability than it was ever there before 1978 with the parliamentary system.
The argument of stability that was used to justify the introduction of the presidential system was a false argument. This is borne out by the country’s experience of the presidential system over nearly four decades. The emergence of political violence after 1977, violent eruptions against minorities in 1977, 1981 and 1983, the JVP’s second uprising, and the all-encompassing LTTE war were extraordinary calamities that contributed hugely to the instability of the period. Instability and the presidential system became mutually reinforcing phenomena and the upshot was the normalization and institutionalizing of the concentration and abuse of power. The reality of an authoritarian state in the making became quite evident after the war ended in 2009, and presidential power was used to give cover to state corruption, subordinate the legislature and the judiciary, target and take out political opponents and media critics, and finally to make family power permanent through the 18th Amendment.
As the country gets ready for its eighth presidential election, it is useful to see connections between past presidential elections, on the one hand, and both the drift towards authoritarianism as well as the resistance to it, on the other. The connections are not necessarily causal themselves but are indicative of the breakdown of the old system, its norms and practices, and their unwelcome replacements. The past seven presidential elections present are different from one another both in terms of the national and electoral statistics specific to election, as well as in terms of the issues that dominated each election, the candidates and their platforms, and the geographic distribution of their support.
There were only six candidates in the first presidential election in 1982, and they were all candidates of established political parties: JR Jayewardene (UNP); Hector Kobbekaduwa (SLFP); Colvin R. de Silva (LSSP); Rohana Wijeweera (JVP); Vasudeva Nanayakkara (NSSP) and Kumar Ponnambalam (Tamil Congress). JR Jayewardene was of course the sitting President. All were lawyers with the exception of Wijeweera; apart from Wijeweera and Ponnambalam the other four were well known parliamentarians; and besides JR Jayewardene, Colvin R de Silva and Hector Kobbekaduwa had cabinet experience. Rohana Wijeweera had his own qualification as the leader of Sri Lanka’s first insurgency.
In the second election in 1988, there were only three candidates, one of whom (R. Premadasa, UNP) was the incumbent Prime Minister, and the other (Sirima Bandaranaike) had been Prime Minister twice for a total of 11 years. In terms of candidates, party affiliations and platforms, the first two presidential elections were the closest to the old parliamentary elections and to the prospect of marrying the two systems, that has been President Jayewardene’s unreachable dream.
The third election (1994) also had six candidates in the fray, two of them representing the two main political parties, but none of them had any prior parliamentary experience. The October 1994 presidential election was a historic sequel to the August parliamentary election and completed the expulsion of the UNP from power after 17 years. Chandrika Kumaratunga, who led the People’s Alliance anchored on the SLFP to victories in the two elections, ran on the express promise to abolish the executive presidency. She was the first of three presidents so far to successfully run on the abolition promise, only to abandon it after the elections.
Nonetheless, Kumaratunga’s October 1994 victory is still remarkable for its total sweep of the electorate. She won 62% of the national vote, all 22 of the island’s administrative districts (polling over 60% in 16 of them), all nine provinces, and 159 of the 160 parliamentary electoral districts. No one has won as comprehensively as did President Kumaratunga in 1994, even though President Jayewardene won 21 out of the 22 districts in the first election in 1982, his first and only presidential election. The 1994 elections totally reversed the UNP sweep of 1977 but they did not translate into even a simple majority in parliament. The proportional representation system restricted the People’s alliance, at 49.8% of the vote in the parliamentary election, to 105 out of 225 MPs in parliament, whereas the UNP in 1977 won a tyrannical 140 out of 168 seats at 50.92% of the vote under the old first-past-the-post electoral system.
Since 1994, the combination of direct presidential elections and the proportional representation and preferential system of voting for the parliamentary election has fundamentally changed the country’s political dynamic. There has been a proliferation of political parties to take advantage of the proportional representation system in parliamentary elections. On the other hand, the dynamic of presidential elections led to the creation of two broad but porous alliances. Party boundaries virtually disappeared as it became common for individual members of the old established parties and the upstart mushroom parties to cross freely from one alliance to the other. Judicial rulings made it possible for a member of an opposition political party to become a government minister without losing his party membership.
Parliamentarians who were elected from a district list rather than from individual constituencies lost their sense of worth as a representative and became a mere voting statistic in the legislature. To be anything more required a cabinet position, and so layers of ministerial positions were created to keep individual MPs happy and to retain minor parties in the governing alliance. This was achieved through the presidential power to appoint any MP as a cabinet minister, which in turn kept enlarging the size of cabinets while destroying party discipline. To complete the cycle, extra-party networking emerged to groom potential presidential candidates and political parties were forced to look for winning candidates from outside their own parties.
The dynamic of presidential and parliamentary elections has become another abnormality in the hybrid Sri Lankan system. There was a drought of parliamentary in the first decade of the presidential system. Thanks to the ruse of a referendum soon after the presidential election in 1982, Sri Lanka went without a parliamentary election for twelve years between 1977 and 1989. So, President Jayewardene kept the same parliament that made him President in 1978 through a constitutional amendment, for his entire two terms as President. In contrast, President Kumaratunga had a flood of them in her second term (1999-2005) as President, with three parliamentary elections in 2000, 2001 and 2004, thanks first to parliamentary crossovers and then to the (now rescinded) presidential power to dissolve parliament any time after one year following an election.
Normal business returned under President Rajapaksa, with only one parliamentary election (2010) in his two terms as President (2005-2010 and 2010-2014). But he manipulated and managed his parliament very skillfully even securing a two-thirds majority, and using it not to abolish the elected presidency as he had promised but to give himself (and presumably his family members) unlimited terms of office as President. He created a fanciful mirage of democracy by selectively holding and winning Provincial Council elections, but the people turned on him when he pushed his fortune for a third term as President.
The number of candidates in presidential elections began increasing from 1999. There were 13 candidates in 1999, 22 in 2010, 19 in 2015 and 35 for this year. Apart from politically or otherwise motivated candidates, there are also politically placed candidates to disrupt the potential votes for opposing candidates. The slate of candidates and their platforms for the November election are a far cry from the first election in 1982. For the first time there is no SLFP candidate in the election. The SLFP has now given way to a new family party, the SLPP, and a new family candidate in Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Sajith Premadasa is the first person as the son of a former President to become a presidential candidate; but unlike his father, Sajith Premadasa is not contesting under the UNP banner or its elephant symbol. Even Anura Kumara Dissanayake represents a new and different JVP than what Rohana Wijeweera personified in 1982.
The November election is also unique and different from any previous election for a number of reasons. The incumbent President is not a candidate but is supporting a candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is fundamentally opposed to the current President’s signature achievement, the 19th Amendment. Sajith Premadasa, on the other hand, will have to deal with blame that will be unleashed targeting the incumbent Prime Minister and his government. With the two leading candidates unsure of reaching 50%+ support on the first count, the question of counting second preferences has become important for the first time after 1982. Lastly, whoever who wins the election will have to cohabit with a sitting government under the 19th Amendment, and a parliament that cannot be dissolved until March next year also in terms of the 19th Amendment. At the end of it all, and a public price tag of Rs 50 billion, not counting the candidates’ spending, someone might just ask what’s all this worth?