By Rajan Philips –
The scores seem to have become even at the end of a tumultuous first week after nominations. To go back to the week before – the UPFA scored first by hijacking and announcing the Rajapaksa candidacy supposedly premised on a ‘historic unity’ between Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa. The real threat of a Mahinda return galvanized the yahapalanaya forces to come together after months of infighting into a new United National Front for Good Governance. Then on Tuesday came the Sirisena thunderbolt – that was every bit a body blow to the UPFA/Rajapaksa campaign, save for the left handed bond swipe at Ranil Wickremasinghe over the Central Bank scandal. It was also political just desserts, twice in one year, for Mahinda Rajapaksa, first time after hoppers and now without a meal. But unlike the first time, the Rajapaksa forces seem to have recuperated and pulled off a mammoth rally in Anuradhapura. What he has achieved in four years, the new government has destroyed in six months – is the new Rajapaksa counter-charge. So the scores are even, but only among the contestants and their campaigns. How the voting public will receive all of this, and more over the next four weeks, and respond on August 17 is another matter.
After the presidential cum parliamentary system was introduced in 1978, there have been four instances when presidential and parliamentary elections were held one after the other within a year. In 1988/89, 1999/2000 and in 2010, the presidential election preceded the parliamentary election. The exception was in 1994, when the parliamentary election was held first. On each occasion the same party or alliance won both the presidential and the parliamentary elections. The UNP’s only pair of victories came under President Premadasa in 1988/89. Since then, it has been electoral drought for the UNP, except for the brief respite when the UNP won a ‘mid-term’ parliamentary election in 2001 and formed its parliamentary government, under President Kumaratunga. The testy co-habitation lasted less than three years.
Earlier in 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga had led the SLFP and the People’s Alliance to their first parliamentary election victory in nearly twenty five years, with just over 50% of the votes and went on to win the presidential election later in the year with an impressive 62% of the vote. She won her second presidential term in 1999 with a reduced 51% vote share and led her alliance to victory in the parliamentary election in 2000 with an even lower 45% vote share. Mahinda Rajapaksa became President in 2005 and had his pair of presidential and parliamentary victories in 2010 securing 58% and 60% of the vote base. At the parliamentary election, the UNP vote share was reduced to 29%, its lowest share in history after the 1960 March election. The voter turnout at the 2010 election was also abysmally low.
In our year of grace 2015, the first of the pair of elections has come and gone – on January 8. It was unprecedented in its origins and in its outcome. Not only was an incumbent president defeated for the first time, he was also defeated by one of his own ministers who had crossed over to become the common opposition candidate. The incumbent leader of the opposition was sworn in as the new prime minister of a minority government based on the presidential mandate that the voters endorsed on January 8. The August 17 parliamentary election is even more unprecedented, and is also bizarre on several counts. The defeated president has emerged as the prime ministerial candidate of the majority-opposition alliance in the dissolved parliament. The minority-government party, after 20 years in opposition and six months in government, is now constrained to carry the curse of incumbency including nothing less than a Central Bank scandal. The current president, who is also the de jure leader of the same opposition party, has not only announced his opposition to his predecessor seeking the prime ministerial post, but also threatened to use his constitutional prerogative to appoint anyone other than his predecessor as the new Prime Minister. The political realities underlying these constitutional and electoral absurdities are quite serious.
A manipulated system
It is not usual for a country to labour under a system that allows two elections in six months producing counter-posing results. That is what we have under the 1978 constitution. The people are going nuts after electing Maithripala Sirisena as President in January, to elect Mahinda Rajapaksa in August to be his countermanding Prime Minister, just for the heck of it. But there is an electoral and a party system that has been manipulated to produce results that will serve the vested political and economic interests and not the interests of the people. The January verdict was not so much the common opposition’s victory as it was the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was defeated not because the opposition managed to hypnotize the people about government corruption but because the people were experiencing corruption and family rule and disgusted with both. At the same time, there are vested interests which are not happy with the January verdict. The defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa has been a serious blow to them. The pro-Mahinda forces include ministers and chairmen who lost their jobs and perks, parliamentarians who cannot get their names on any nomination list other the one including Mahinda Rajapaksa, a new generation of business captains who have got used to bigger returns from trading in government corruption than trading in the competitive market, and ‘commissions seeking’ intermediaries at all levels in the crowded circuits of social and economic life.
It is these forces, more than Mahinda Rajapaksa, who orchestrated the bring-back-Mahinda initiative. Through the mechanism of the UPFA and its Executive Committee, they have been able to challenge and reverse the peaceful transfer of leadership within the SLFP from Rajapaksa to Sirisena. Ironically, the non-SLFP members of the UPFA Executive Committee, many of whom were Ministers in the all-inclusive Rajapaksa cabinet, and who could not influence Mahinda Rajapaksa in any positive way in the exercise of his presidential powers over the last ten years, have now been able to use their ‘clout’ in the UPFA to re-empower Mahinda Rajapaksa within the SLFP and make him the UPFA candidate for Prime Minister. In the same process, they have disempowered Maithripala Sirisena, the elected president of the country within the political party of which he is the nominal leader.
What the UPFA now has going for it in the August election, unlike in January, is the aura of being the opposition against an incumbent and, in UPFA’s terms, incompetent government. It also has on a platter to parade, injunctions notwithstanding, the head of the beleaguered Central Bank Governor. This the UPFA will use to detract from the more serious corruption charges that will be levelled against the Rajapaksas during the campaign. These charges have also gone stale by their over-exposure during the presidential election, and have lost their credibility by virtue of the non-action against them after January 8. In these circumstances, President Sirisena’s intervention on Tuesday would seem to have created two opposing effects. On the one hand, it re-energized the supporters of good governance who felt deflated and betrayed by the nomination of Mahinda Rajapaksa as a UPFA candidate. On the other hand, the President’s denunciation of Rajapaksa has created the opposite reaction among the politically loyal SLFP and UPFA supporters. How will these two opposing effects influence the voters? That is the question.
Put another way, in the August election, can the UPFA maintain or improve on what Mahinda Rajapaksa achieved in January, when he polled 5.8 million votes and won 90 of the 160 polling divisions (old electorates)? In January, he had all the state resources at his command and used them in the presidential campaign. Yet, he lost nearly 300,000 votes from what he polled in the 2010 presidential election. Would he be able to reverse the losing trend in the upcoming election without being able to deploy the resources of the state in his favour as he had got used to doing ever since he became President in 2005? Equally, are Mahinda Rajapaksa and the UPFA offering anything new and different to the voters in August, from what they presented in January, to attract new voters? The UPFA is certainly not benefiting from the old fashioned rumours and new social media stories about internal haggling and cardiac slaps over re-nominating MPs who do not have decent qualifications and/or are implicated in criminal investigations. How many of the UPFA candidates will meet the criteria that civil society organizations are asking the public to demand from aspiring parliamentarians.
On the other hand, the task of the United National Front (for Good Governance) will be to ensure that it secures the largest number of seats, if not overall majority, while allowing for the loss of a portion of the 6.2 million votes polled by Maithripala Sirisena the January presidential election, to the JVP and the TNA in August parliamentary election. While neither the JVP nor the TNA will support a UPFA government, it will be of little consolation to good governance supporters if the UPFA were to win the largest number of seats. If it does, it will be business as usual, buying out MPs from other parties to make up the majority. There have been anecdotal stories that internal polls by the UNP are indicating a comfortable UNP victory, and that is being seen as the reason why the UNP leadership seems determined to weather out the storm over the Central Bank scandal rather than putting an end to it by asking the controversial Governor to resign. Even the President’s prudent advice to the Governor go has been dismissively ignored by the Prime Minister. As well, spearheading an election campaign for good governance requires not only the assurance of opinion polls, but also some moral basis. And polling itself has lately been proved to be unreliable in a number of elections in different countries especially when issues and momentum can change unexpectedly during an election campaign.
What is also unique about the unfolding election campaign is that for the first time an incumbent president will not be openly campaigning in a parliamentary election. More importantly, the people expect President Sirisena to protect the Election Commissioner, his staff and the law enforcement agencies from political interference at any level and every level that has singularly marred every previous election, presidential or parliamentary. That in itself is not a small gain to accrue from the January presidential election.