By Rajan Philips –
There is no other way to describe it. The SLPP has won a stunning victory. It won 128 out of 196 elected seats and added 17 more from the National List for a total of 145 seats. The shortfall of five seats for the coveted two-thirds majority, which was laughably insignificant, is already made up. What is significant is the SLPP’s district level sweep in seven of the nine provinces, barring of course the north and east outliers. The SLPP led in every district in the seven provinces, polling more than 70% of the vote in five districts, between 60% and 70% in eight districts, and between 50% and 60% in further five districts. Only in Digamadulla, the lone district the SLPP won outside the seven provinces, it polled 33%.
No party polled more than 50% of the vote in any of the seven districts in the northern and eastern provinces. The TNA alliance led in five of them, all four in the north and only Batticaloa in the east, but polling under 35% in all of them. The SJB led in only one district in the whole island, in Trincomalee in the Eastern Province, registering 40% of the vote. Its progenitor, the UNP, the oldest party in the fray, was totally shut out. It won zero out of the 196 elected seats, polling a pathetic 2.15% of the national vote. Ranil Wickremesinghe and Ravi Karunanayake were both eliminated right in their Royal College backyards in Colombo. Unheard of – for a Prime Minister and a Minister of Finance to lose in a proportional representation election.
Adding more insult than healing to the injury, the UNP has been given a solitary spot on the National List. The spot should go to neither RW nor RK, who are now defeated candidates. Whoever gets it will have a matching companion in parliament in the only elected SLFP MP in the new parliament, and he comes from Jaffna! The final tinkling of Chandrika bangles. For the record, Maithripala Sirisena topped the list in Polonnaruwa, but under the auspices of the SLPP. Now in their death throes, the two progenitors, the UNP and the SLFP, do send warnings to their new avatars, the SLPP and SJB. Winners beware of the impermanence of political power!
In contrast to its district level sweep, at the aggregate level the SLPP has only maintained the total vote it won at the presidential election in November. In fact, it polled slightly lower: from 6,924,255 to 6,853,698. The huge margin of its current victory, from 52.25% in 2019 to 59.89% now, seems entirely due to the implosion of the UNP vote. The UNP won 5 million votes in the 2015 parliamentary election and 5.5 million in the 2019 presidential election. On Wednesday, the SJB polled 2,771,980, and the UNP a paltry 249,435, for a combined total of just over three million votes. A drop of over two million votes from the last parliamentary and presidential elections. These votes did not go anywhere, but may have stayed at home. The voter turnout was 75%; although a high rate in the COVID-19 situation, it is lower than the nearly 84% in the November presidential election, 81% in the 2015 presidential election, and 78% in the 2015 parliamentary election.
As for the seat count in parliament, the UNP/SJB’s seat count dropped from 105 seats in 2015 to 55 seats last week, while the UPFA/SLPP seat count increased by the same margin, from 95 seats in 2015 to 145 seats. Politically, the UNP drag has had a downward effect on both the JVP and the TNA, although both have been spared of the ignominy of Ranil Wickremesinghe. He kept them waiting for five years on the long leash of his promises. Now they return to parliament rather depleted, and hopefully not too dispirited. And to a parliament minus Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The 54 seats won by the Samagi Jana Balawegaya are lower than what its supporters had been expecting – upwards of 60 or 80 seats. But 54 is a strong enough number for a new party in its first election of any kind. It is also a strong enough number to mobilize an effective opposition in parliament to the new government. Perhaps the strongest features of the SJB’s new parliamentary group are the plurality of its composition and its parliamentary experience. Trincomalee, the only district where the SJB came first, is the microcosm of Sri Lankan plurality with almost equal numbers of Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims.
The new SJB in parliament reflects the same plurality. It also has experienced parliamentarians in Rauf Hakeem, Champika Ranawaka, Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickremeratne. Any one of them could play the role of the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament if Sajith Premadasa were to focus his attention in building the new party at the grassroots level. Hakeem as Leader of the Opposition would be an enlightened counter to the government’s unfortunate proclivity for reinventing history through amateurish archaeological digs, or flights of fancy in Ravana’s helicopter.
The JVP/NPP will have only three MPs in the new parliament, down from six earlier. Verité Research ranked four of the six JVP MPs in the last parliament among the top five MPs for their work ethic. But that was not duly noted by the supposedly politically savvy Sri Lankan voter. The JVP polled over half a million votes in the 2015 parliamentary election and close to three quarters of a million in the 2018 LG election. It has since fallen down, to 418,553 in the November presidential election, and a slightly higher 445,958 on Wednesday. It has nominally overtaken the old UNP, but a handful of more JVP MPs would have made a difference to the JVP and to the functioning of the new parliament.
The TNA has shown a similarly declining trajectory in the north and east. From nearly 570,000 votes and 16 seats in the 2015 parliamentary election the TNA (ITAK) alliance has gone down to under 350,000 votes and nine seats. One of the losing out MPs is the veteran parliamentarian, Mavai Senathirajah, whose political roots go back to the non-violent sections of Tamil militancy that emerged in the 1970s. The TNA won three seats in the Jaffna District, three in the Vanni including Mannar and Mullaitivu, and three more in all of the Eastern Province – two in Batticaloa, one in Trincomalee (the Trinco City represented by the TNA leader R. Sampanthan), and none in Ampara or Digamadulla. The TNA’s shrinking vote base and the now established plurality of representation in the Eastern Province hardly augurs well for maintaining the mantra of remerging the Northern and Eastern provinces.
As well, he TNA now has other Tamil rivals to contend with in the new parliament, besides the EPDP with whom it has established a good working relationship. It may even get along well with (Colonel) Karuna’s Party (TMVP) from the East, but it will have to watch its back for sniping from behind – from Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam who returns to parliament for the first time after leaving the TNA in 2010, and CV Wigneswaran the former Chief Minister of the Northern Province. Mr. Wigneswaran might be the oldest new Member of Parliament in history, and it may not be too interesting to see what he might accomplish as a backbencher in parliament after being an irresponsible underachiever as Provincial Chief Minister.
The message from the Jaffna District is unsurprisingly mixed. Although the TNA won only three of the allotted seats in the district, it came first in eight of the ten electoral districts within the Peninsula, along with Kilinochchi outside it. Of the two electoral districts the TNA lost, one went to the pro-Rajapaksa EPDP (in Kayts, the seat formerly held by pioneer separatist V. Navaratnam), and the other was won by the SLFP (in Udupiddy, once held by the TULF leader M. Sivasithamparam). Neither Ponnambalam’s Tamil Congress nor Wigneswaran’s new Tamil front came first in any of the ten electoral districts in Jaffna, or outside the Peninsula. The voter turnout in Jaffna was relatively low (under 65%) and the people would seem to have voted more out of their familiarity with the leading candidates than for any specific platform. Ponnambalam and Wigneswaran have won their seats in parliament solely due to proportional representation. It is unlikely, however, that they would be proportionately restrained in their parliamentary rhetoric.
Looking outside the Peninsula, Wednesday’s election victory can be seen as Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s political coming of age. The victory at the November presidential election was generally attributed to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political stock among the Sinhalese and his campaign charms. Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was seen as the younger apprentice brought along by his older brother for the country’s highest job. Not anymore. Gotabaya Rajapaksa owns the new victory and there is no IOU from him to the Prime Minister, or to the SLPP. The reverse was the case in November. This election was the people’s verdict on the first six months of his presidency, and a reflection of their assessment of his handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
The victory has enhanced the power of the President, and has invested in him an enormous amount of political capital. The question is what additional powers and political capital are there to be harnessed through never ending constitutional changes? Even if constitutional changes are deemed urgent and necessary, the President will add to his prestige and political capital if he could facilitate a set of changes that are also acceptable to a majority of the opposition MPs, and enable their passage with broad support from both sides of the parliamentary divide. On the other hand, if constitutional changes that are designed to be acceptable only to government MPs are forced through by a narrow two-thirds government majority, such passage will invariably create bitterness and bickering not only in parliament but also among the broader communities. It will also diminish presidential prestige and run down his political capital.
More importantly, is the current and unprecedented situation of continuing COVID-19 uncertainty and worldwide economic hardships the appropriate time for embarking on a fundamental constitutional overhaul? It would only distract the government from the more urgent priorities and disenchant the people who have given the President a massive victory. Regardless of political preferences, the people are hoping to see COVID-19 under control, their jobs protected as far as possible, and at least minimum redress to those who cannot keep their jobs. In these circumstances, people are not excited about the separation of powers between the President and Parliament and abstract assertions on behalf of their sovereignty. The newly elected parliament and the new cabinet must reflect the people’s current priorities. The President can facilitate both. He has all the powers he needs to do that.