By S. I. Keethaponcalan –
Last week, attending the late Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera’s 76th birth anniversary at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, President Sirisena warned the country not to think too much about the upcoming presidential election in 2020. According to the Sunday Times (June 03, 2018) the president has claimed that “there is lots of talk about presidential candidates. That is a crime as the elections are due only at the end of next year. Already presidential candidates are being named. This will lead to instability in the country. By creating an election interest, one and a half years before the elections, the state officials will stop their work.” It is true that when changes are expected after major elections, attitude of the public-sector employees also change. This is an unavoidable side-effect of national elections in Sri Lanka. Did Sirisena unconsciously admit that he has no chance of winning the presidential election in 2020? This is an interesting question, but it is not the focus of this essay.
There has been a degree of hypocrisy in the appeal that it is too early to think about the impending big election. When President Sirisena asked the Supreme Court whether he can serve as president for six years instead of the five-year period stipulated by the 19th Amendment, he was thinking about the election. Unfortunately for Sirisena, the Supreme Court said no. Moreover, almost all major parties have started contemplating and some have already started preparing for the presidential election. Hence, it is not completely inappropriate to think about the election on our part, the ones who will be at the receiving end of any outcome of the election.
A couple of weeks back, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) presented its proposal for the 20th Amendment to the constitution. The proposal seeks to transform the existing executive presidential system into a cabinet form of government. It seems that the JVP is the only party that sincerely believes in abolishing the executive presidential system. All others who support the idea, seem not too serious about the change. They like it. Obviously, as a small party, the JVP can play a major role in governance under a cabinet system. Hence, the persistence of the JVP on this issue has not been a surprise.
Nonetheless, I expected the Joint Opposition or the Sri Lanka Pudujana Peramuna (SLPP) to support the JVP proposal. Under the existing constitutional arrangements, Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot come back to power as president. The 19th Amendment reintroduced the two-term limit. Hence, under a Westminster model of government, Rajapaksa would have no problem winning the general election and come back to power as prime minister. The abolition of the executive presidential system will resolve Rajapaksa’s two term problem. The party however decided not to support the JVP proposal. What does the decision suggest about the SLPP’s strategic calculations?
For me, it indicates that the party has been extremely confident about the likelyhood of winning the upcoming presidential election. The confidence most likely stems from the recent local government election results. The SLPP secured about 45 percent of the votes in this election. Will the same votes be recast for the SLPP candidate in the presidential election? Most likely, yes.
One, bulk of the SLPP votes in the local government election came from the Sinhala heartland, which consistently votes for Rajapaksa. Even in the 2015 presidential election, votes in the Sinhala heartland went to Rajapaksa; not Sirisena. Two, one of the main reasons which stirred a lot of dissatisfaction towards the ruling coalition in this election was the high (or in the words of some people, unmanageable) cost of living. Postelection, the government has hardly done anything to lower cost of living. Instead, as far as I know, cost of living has been increasing steadily. Hence, there is no evidence to suggest that Sinhala votes could be redirected towards the UNP or the SLFP in the near future.
If this is the case, the SLPP needs only about six percent more votes to win the presidential election. This six percent could come from two sources: (1) about 14 percent votes the SLFP/UPFA gained in the local elections or the Muslim votes. In order to tap into the SLFP/UPFA votes, the SLPP needs to either appease and start collaborating with Sirisena or undertake a concerted scheme to prevent him from contesting the presidential election. Given the animosity between the Rajapaksa faction and Sirisena, incorporating the president into the SLPP headed coalition seems unlikely. If the SLPP succeeds in convincing Sirisena not to contest, the party candidate will most probably win the election.
Another promising source is the Muslim votes. Antagonizing the Muslims through the actions of Bodu Bala Sena and other militant Buddhist entities negatively affected the Rajapaksa coalition in the last election. There have already been moves to entice the Muslims. For example, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the presumed SLPP candidate, recently stated that “Muslims are ready to work hand-in-hand with the Rajapaksas to form a government under the leadership of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.” (Daily Mirror, May 29, 2018). He has already been attending Muslim religious ceremonies. Can the Muslims be convinced to vote again for Rajapaksas? Of course. The continuing attacks on the Muslims during the tenure of the unity government may influence at least a segment of the Muslim voters to support one of the Rajapaksas in this election. Hence, the prospect of the SLPP candidate in the presidential election looks very bright.
Only problem I sense in the candidacy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has been promoted as the SLPP candidate by interest groups, is the possibility of mobilization by large segment of the minorities and pro-democracy forces against Gotabhaya. His candidacy has the potential to ignite a protest vote against the SLPP in this election. Another Rajapaksa, for example, Basil may not invoke the same degree of resistance. One has to wait and see how the SLPP thinking evolves on this issue.
The split between the Sirisena faction and the UNP seems well-defined now. Parties are exchanging barbs against each other vigorously. The split means the UNP will not repeat the same strategy in the 2020 election and support Sirisena. This on the other hand means that the UNP will field its own candidate and Sirisena will not be able to secure a second term. In the local government election, the UNP gained 32.61 percent of the votes. Reaching the 50 percent mark will be an uphill task. The problems of the UNP will be compounded by the fact that the party does not have any more space to expand its presidential vote, except the Tamil votes.
Going by the recent attitude of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the party will directly or indirectly endorse and support the UNP candidate. It has about three percent solid votes, which could be translated into UNP votes. Would majority of the Tamils vote for the UNP candidate? It is absolutely clear that the Tamils will not have the same level of enthusiasm for the UNP candidate in 2020 largely due to the disappointment, which stems from the government inaction in terms of resolving Tamil issues. Also, Tamil votes will be determined by the candidate of the SLPP. The more hardline the SLPP candidate the more excited the Tamils will be in voting for the UNP candidate. Nevertheless, majority of the Tamil votes may go to the UNP candidate, which may not be adequate to reach the 50 percent mark.
One area the UNP will seriously look into is the votes Sirisena faction gained in the local government election. It needs to prevent those votes from going to the SLPP. This can, at least partially, be done by influencing Sirisena to contest regardless of the chances he has in winning the election. Therefore, both the UNP and the SLPP should be kind to the president, of course with different aims in mind.
Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland.