21 May, 2024


May Day Politics: A Pregame To Presidential Election

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

May Day this week lived up to expectations as pregame to the presidential election that is expected before the end of October. Political parties strutted their wares and prospective candidates made their pitches. Little was said that was not already known but what was said by each contender does give clues to the direction that each one’s campaign would likely take. There was one constant refrain in the editorials and commentaries before and after May Day that the Day was all about propaganda for the presidential election, and nothing about the rights of the working people, or their plights – from unemployment to underemployment to low wages, regressive taxes and the crippling cost of living.

There was even nostalgic harking back in some commentaries to the days of the Old Left when workers’ demands were privileged over everything else in the May Day slogans and platform resolutions. Bala Tampoe, Sama Samajist and Trade Unionist, once described as the “lone ranger in the mass movement,” championed the adoption of a Workers Charter after the trade union movement was hijacked by the UNP after 1977 and the rights of workers were wiped out by President Jayewardene in 1980. During the early years of the (Chandrika) Kumaratunga presidency, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as Minister of Labour worked closely with Bala Tampoe to draft a Workers Charter for adoption by parliament. A National Workers Charter was in fact promulgated on 2 September 1995, but was apparently scuttled by senior ministers in the cabinet.

Dissanayake would really need a miracle to get past the 50% mark.

Some ten years later, in 2014, participating in a panel discussion on National Policy on Wages organized by the Sri Lanka Economic Association, Bala Tampoe waxed eloquent that protecting the fundamental human rights of workers is as important as fighting for higher wages. He went on to assert that “the real issue for workers in countries like Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh and a greater part of Asia … is not labour rights , not worker rights, but their rights as humans.” That was in the aftermath of the tragedy of garment factory fires in Bangladesh when Pope Francis and Navanethem Pillay at the UNHRC called for recognizing workers’ rights as human rights.

May Day Devolution

From what I have seen in the May Day news stories, there was no assertion or declaration about workers’ rights as human rights and as wage rights this year. Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD), the bearer of the red banner today, was reportedly more focused on declaring that “organizational power and law abiding society” are needed to develop the country, and asserting that “only the NPP has the best organizational power and discipline to develop this country.” The JVP/NPP also put on display a devolution of May Day observances by organizing same day rallies in Anuradhapura, Colombo, Jaffna and Matara. AKD addressed two of them, first in Matara and then in Colombo. So did Sajith Premadasa and Ranil Wickremesinghe, but the spectacles were different.

Understandably Mr. Dissanayake projected optimism, but to the point of bordering on cockiness. He took to mocking those who had mocked at the JVP’s chances: “Our enemies mocked us saying that converting three percent of popularity into 51 percent would be a miracle. That miracle has been achieved. Mustering the trust of more than 51 percent of electors for the NPP no longer is a magic or miracle. It has become a ground reality.” And further, “This is the last May Day we mark under these rulers who ruined this nation. The next May Day will be held under an NPP government. Victory is assured for our party. We must work harder for the next three months to realize our goal for our own government.”

Shades of “NM for PM,” the LSSP slogan in March 1960, the last time a Left Party campaigned in an election with the confidence, if not conviction, of forming the next government. At an election meeting in Borella, Bala Tampoe was cocky enough to introduce NM as PM and himself as Labour Minister! The difference this time is that what then were the two main parties, the SLFP and the UNP, have all but disappeared from the face of Sri Lankan politics now. The May Day did not provide any clue or carry any prospect of the old political forces channelling themselves into viable new electoral alliances. Let us start at the most ridiculous end of the spectrum.

The already emaciated SLFP has split into a legitimate and an illegitimate factions. The latter naturally under Maithripala Sirisena. And Sirisena has paired with grasshopping Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and made the May Day announcement that Rajapakshe would be the ‘SLFP’ candidate at the presidential election. One would have thought 2024 would be the first presidential election this century that will not have a Rajapaksa on the ballot. But there could be one but with an odd spelling bee difference. The bigger point is that Mr. Rajapakshe is a member of the SLPP and President Wickremesinghe’s Minister of Justice. How can anyone blame Anura Kumara Dissanayake when he mocks at the likes of Sirisena and Rajapakshe who are emblematic of the decaying political class.

A real Rajapaksa may not be on the ballot for the presidential election, but the name bearers were there to mark May Day for the family. No Workers Charter though, but only the family elder statesman Mahinda Rajapaksa’s griping about Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake not stepping up to respond to the real ‘May Day’ call of Gota and take over the country’s leadership. “Both refused,” Mahinda Rajapaksa said, “fearing their future in politics.”  He had appreciation for President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who “while the SJB and NPP backed away … took (over) the leadership with the support of the SLPP.” MR did not quite announce that SLPP would be co-sponsoring, along with whomever else, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s candidacy, but the two are too joined at the hip to be severed now.

Two-way v. Three-way

While Ranil Wickremesinghe is the preferred common candidate to a majority of MPs in the current parliament, many of them would not really like to be seen with him in public. Not the SLPP, even though they are ready to sponsor Mr. Wickremesinghe’s nomination. Not the SJB MPs, even though great efforts were made by UNP mandarins to put on a show of at least some SJB MPs returning to the old uncle-nephew family. Not one showed up. The legitimate faction of the SLFP might back him too. But they too are a keeping their public distance for now. Only the CWC was ready to be politically seen with Mr. Wickremesinghe, and the latter returned the favour by not only attending the CWC rally at Kottagala, but also giving a pay hike to plantation workers. The stock market reportedly took a tumble and the Planters are up in arms against the hike. But they would still vote for Ranil.

For the rest of the economy, it is IMF business as usual. That is the gist of the President’s May Day message at Maligawatte, in Colombo. That was all his message, plus the refrain urging “the JVP-led NPP, the SJB and other political parties not to undermine ongoing economic recovery efforts.” He did not quite call for the continuation of the current recovery efforts even under a new government led by the JVP/NPP or the SJB. Nor did he mention his candidacy or even the presidential election. The President is keeping his cards closed, leaving it to AKD to declare 51% victory and for Sajith Premadasa to make a laundry list of promises. The young Premadasa did just that even as his supporters hit the print media calling for a return of ‘Premadasism.’ A new addition to political vocabulary.

The young Premadasa was expansive in his May Day promises: “full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, a fresh probe on the Easter Sunday bomb attacks, creating smart farmers and fishermen, creating a conducive environment for investors, creating employment opportunities and creating Silicon Valley type IT zones in every district.” And so on. Prior to May Day he reportedly volunteered to the visiting pre-election delegation from the Chinese Communist Party, his readiness to play a mediator role between India and China. It usually takes a small country leader to project global ambitions.

But Mr. Premadasa and his supporters may find reason for their own cockiness, to counter that of AKD and the JVP/NPP, in the latest Institute for Health Policy Poll that edges the SJB support over JVP/NPP (38% to 35%) apparently for the first time since these polls started political forecasting. There are known and unknown methodological issues with the IHP opinion polling in general, but what has been sauce for the JVP/NPP could be sauce for the SJB. The real political outcome of this poll, however, could be the reality of Mr. Premadasa being a candidate for the presidential election without giving way to Ranil Wickremesinghe. A Premadasa withdrawal is the most desired scenario for the Wickremesinghe camp. But why would Sajith Premadasa withdraw when he is ahead of everyone else according to the only poll in town?

In a straight one to one contest between Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Either Ranil Wickremesinghe Or Sajith Premadasa, Mr. Dissanayake would really need a miracle to get past the 50% mark. But anything is possible in a three-cornered contest, and there may not be a winner after the first count. The second count is really a copout because if there are not enough second preference votes to make a difference, as it likely would be in this election, the candidate with the highest number of votes in the first count would end up becoming president. The country could end up having a president with less than 40% of the original vote.

In other presidential polities, if no candidate passes the 50% threshold in the first election round, a new second election is held between the first two candidates with the largest number of votes from the first round. The eventual winner will have the support of more than half the people voting. Not so in Sri Lanka. That could be another reason for getting rid of this expensive and cumbersome process of having a direct election to elect a single person to the summit of power. Anura Kumara Dissanayake is the only potential candidate who is committed to getting rid of direct presidential election through a newly elected parliament in 2025. And if he were to accomplish that, he could be doing it as a 40%-vote winner in the presidential election. That would also be poetic justice.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    I am not much interested in the article or its contents. But,
    … Mahinda Rajapaksa’s griping about Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake not stepping up to respond to the real ‘May Day’ call of Gota and take over the country’s leadership,
    draws attention.
    Neither Sajith nor Anura was fooled!
    That was a trap – pretense – that both wisely avoided.
    Had they – any one of them – accepted the offer, it would have been mocked with one excuse or another.
    Ranil was already dressed up!

  • 0

    For the first time, I am interested in – not the election itself – the outcome of the election.
    Is there a glimpse of hope for 13A, that is if Sajith wins.
    Is there going to be a new dawn, that is if Anura wins.
    I wouldn’t be disappointed at either. But, Ranil would be a disappointment, for sure.

  • 7

    I’ve been to the mountain and met God in all it’s glory: money.

    No matter what they tell you, it’s the only true God that most will kill to worship. With the passage of time all other Gods too have found it to be their true God.

    I’m bringing down his commandments from the mountain …….. hope people are ready for his message ……. this time.

    A classic line from a Russian poet ……. “A drunken man (DTG?) in a barroom shouts “Mary is pregnant again; yet again the world is not ready.””

    Native, …… are you ready …….. this time? ……. Or will you miss the bus …… yet again?

    • 0

      nimal fernando, Your mind seems to be out of control without the real God. Ask him to give you a decent, unpolluted, non anti-God, perfect mind. He will and shock you.

  • 0

    a] Rajapakse
    b] Rajapakshe
    Whats in a name queried the Bard.
    Both are from Tangalle. BUT THE SPELLING changed their destiny. a] Looks down on b].
    Accidents of birth.
    2] Full Implementation if the 13thA. promises young Premadasa.
    Full means Police Powers and Land Powers to the Provincial Councils.

    The B- C Pact and Dudley-Chelva Pact came into being AFTER an election.
    This promise to Implement is BEFORE an election and what is already there as a constitutional amendment. Besides if young Premadasa wins he has a MANDATE.

    But, But, will this be diluted?
    Police Powers A.S.P downwards……….
    Land Powers 5 acres and less…………..
    Prof. K.N. Jayetilleke one time Prof: Philosophy at Peradeniya would argue that a half closed door is not a fully closed door………….or something to that effect.
    Rajan, Dementia old chap………

  • 0

    oops…. It should read as…… of the 13thA.

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