By Rajan Philips –
The twenty-year itch, or the 20-25 year itch as some call it, is the notion that electoral politics in Sri Lanka experiences a tsunami-like wave every 20 or 25 years that sweeps up the electorate, upending long-governing parties and replacing them with new ones. 1956, 1977, 1994 were tsunami elections. These elections and their consequences have been different from the recurrent government changes that occur at shorter intervals in between. Calling them tsunami elections is not a causal explanation, but a correlational observation. What does this mean for the SLPP and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa? It is taken for granted that the SLPP will win the upcoming election in August, at least win the largest number of seats. The pedestrian question is whether it will get the constitutionally coveted two-thirds majority. A different and somewhat historical question is whether the SLPP today is at the same point as the UNP was in 1977, and the SLFP in 1994, when they began their long tenures in power. That question is not going to be answered by the results of the upcoming August election, but what will transpire after that.
For now, it is a relief that after such a long wait Sri Lanka will finally have its 16th parliamentary election on Wednesday, August 5, 2020. This would be the fourth August election after parliamentary elections began in 1947, which was also the first August election and voting in that election went on for a month from 25 August to 20 September. The sinister purpose of extended voting was to give the outgoing Board of Ministers, who had jumped on to the new political wagon (the UNP) created on the fly by DS Senanayake, sufficient time to deploy state resources for political campaign from one part of the island to another. Multi-day elections, advantaging the UNP in power, continued in 1952 and 1956. One-day only polls began in 1960 March, perhaps the only significant initiative of Prime Minister W. Dahanayake during his short six-month tenure after the assassination of Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike in September 1959. There have been two August elections since, both after 1977 and under the current constitution and the presidential system.
The first was on 16 August 1994, when Chandrika Kumaratunga spectacularly led the Peoples’ Alliance to throw out the UNP after being continuously in power for 17 years. The next one was on 17 August 2015 when the common opposition forces led this time by the UNP brought down the SLFP parliamentary majority after 21 years. Is August the turnover month after long years of one-party dominance in the name of political stability? Is there anything special about the August moon?
Never mind, here we are still 37 days from the next August election, and 103 days after nominations closed on 18 March for what was to be a 25 April election. The coronavirus had other plans, and even though it has spared Sri Lanka to get away without serious symptoms, it scared the hell out of everyone to put the country under lockdown and have the elections postponed from 25 April, to 20 June, to finally 5 August.
The election timing as well as its eventual conducting are highly unusual. That unusualness is not going to change what political parties are going to try to get out of this election, and what the ultimate outcome or outcomes may turn out to be. However, the objectives of the current political leaders and their alliances and the constraints they have to deal with, are quite different from what had characterized earlier parliamentary elections under the presidential system. The outcomes are also going to be different. These differences have nothing to do with the coronavirus, but they will have a bearing on how equipped the country would be to deal with the challenges created by the coronavirus after the elections are over.
So far, there have been seven parliamentary elections under the presidential system. Three of them were during President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s second term, in October 2000, December 2001, and April 2004. She is the only Sri Lankan political leader to convincingly win a parliamentary election, in August 1994, and equally convincingly translate it into a presidential election victory, which she did within three months, in November 1994. JR Jayewardene too became president after winning a parliamentary election in 1977, but that was through a constitutional amendment which transubstantiated him from Prime Minister to President.
In a foretelling of the future, which no one saw through at that time, President Jayewardene governed the country for eleven years without holding a parliamentary election. But there was a parliament, unlike now, the one that was elected in 1977, and was kept going till 1988 through the contraption of a referendum in 1982. JRJ also used his massive and captive parliamentary majority to suspend the civic rights of his chief political opponent and former Prime Minister, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
The first parliamentary election under the presidential system eventually came in February 1988, President Jayewardene’s last year as President. The UNP won the election but against a far more competitive SLFP and ULF. Then Prime Minister R. Premadasa was the UNP candidate in the second presidential election in November 1988, which he won against a very competitive Mrs. Bandaranaike who by then had her civic rights restored. Premadasa succeeded JR Jayewardene in January 1989
President Premadasa, who was assassinated by the LTTE on May Day 1993, the first and the only Sri Lankan head of government to be assassinated after SWRD Bandaranaike in 1959, is also the only President who did not conduct either a presidential election or a parliamentary election while in office. His stopgap successor, President DB Wijeytunga, managed to conduct both the parliamentary election and the presidential election in 1994. The UNP lost both and Mr. Wijeytunga was not a candidate in the presidential election.
Like Mr. Premadasa in 1988-89, Mahinda Rajapaksa succeeded incumbent President Chandrika Kumaratunga in November 2005, after narrowly winning the presidential election as the SLFP candidate. Unlike President Premadasa, however, President Rajapaksa defeated the LTTE, and used the aura of the war winner to win the presidential and parliamentary elections, one after the other in 2010 January and April. His political fortunes abandoned him in January 2015 when he extra-constitutionally tried to win a third term in office, and lost the election to the common opposition dark horse, Maithripala Sirisena. Sirisena promised to be a one term president and end the executive presidency after him. He did nothing to end the presidency, but the country was too tired of him and ended his presidency after a single term.
Somewhat like DB Wijeytunga, but not at all “Doing Bloody Well”, Sirisena managed to hold a parliamentary election in August 2015 and a presidential election in November 2019. In between Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe jointly presided over the disastrous yahapalanaya misadventure that created a clear path for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to abandon his US citizenship and become President of Sri Lanka in one meteoric rise, in the course of one year. This is the backdrop to the upcoming 5 August election and the unfolding presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Own Goals Election
The most important difference from the past is that for the first time since 1947, the country will go through a parliamentary election without either the UNP or the SLFP being the principal contender for power. Between 1952 and 2015, the two parties were the dominant political parties in every election, parliamentary and presidential, as they alternated between government and opposition. In the heady days of Maoism, N. Shanmugathasan the leader of the Communist Party (Peking), called this alternation the musical chair game of Sri Lankan politics. It really was until 1977 when the music stopped. Four decades on, the old parties are also disappearing. There was no SLFP in the 2019 Presidential election. And it is not going to be there in any substantial way in the August parliamentary election.
For its part, the UNP is now going through what the SLFP has been going through for the last five years. In fact, it is worse for the UNP. In the August 2015 parliamentary election, the SLFP contested as a single party but under a split head (Rajapaksa and Sirisena). The UNP, on the other hand, is split through the torso and will be contesting the next election as two separate entities. The smaller legal UNP under Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the larger breakaway SJB (Samagi Jana Balawegaya) under Sajith Premadasa. They will be fighting each other to get more seats and to brag about it after the election.
The more consequential difference from the past is the emergence of the SLPP, that has never contested a parliamentary election before, as the most likely winner in the upcoming August election. The SLPP is not a new party representing any fundamental realignment of sociopolitical forces. It is not even a formal breakaway from the SLFP. Rather, it is the outcome of some clever poaching of the SLFP base by Basil Rajapaksa facilitated by specific developments after January 2015: nationalist disillusionment with Ranil Wickremesinghe among the Sinhalese; disaffection with Maithripala Sirisena among the SLFPers; Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political charm that was constantly boosted by yahapalanaya blunders; and the fascination with Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a no-nonsense President among Sinhalese professional and new business classes.
It is easy to see that none of the factors that have shaped and catalysed the success of the SLPP are available to Sajith Premadasa’s SJB. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that Sajith Premadasa has it in him to build up a new political organization from the grassroots of the UNP. The prospects for the leftover UNP leadership are even worse. In any event, neither side can do much before the August elections. How they fare in the August polls will indicate how they will perform after the election – whether either of them will be able to remobilize the abandoned UNP base, or a new political force might emerge to carry out that task.
As for the SLPP, history may not be on its side going by the “20-25 year itch” in Sri Lanka’s electoral politics. Although the SLPP is new and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is newer, the Rajapaksa association with power is now fifteen years old, leaving aside the yahapalanaya interregnum (like the UNP interregnum of 1965-70). By that measure, the Rajapaksas are well past the midway point in the itchy time span, and not at the beginning of one. More than historical cycles, the challenges facing the SLPP and President Rajapaksa are both current as well as unprecedented.
The coronavirus threat is not abating anywhere with epicentres of caseloads and deaths inexorably shifting to the southern states in the US, South America, and South Asia, where Sri Lanka is still, by effort or good fortune, only minimally impacted. The government cannot expect the return of the pre-covid normalcy any time soon. The government’s weak spot and its biggest challenge are the economy. So far, its responses have been rightly criticized as being clueless and as panicking. More will be said after the election when the government runs out of excuses. And criticisms are likely to come from outside the parliament than from within. None of the contending opposition parties are able to capture the public’s attention either with their criticisms of the government, or with any alternative suggestions that they might have on offer.
The election itself will be an election of political parties hitting more own goals, than scoring against one another. The UNP and the SJB will be hitting own goals against one another. The JVP will again be kicking around with no goal posts on the field. The Sri Lankan Tamils, the Muslims and the Up Country Tamils will be playing in their own leagues at the margins of Sri Lankan politics. The main game at the centre will be Rajapaksa v. Rajapaksa, sounding like Kramer v. Kramer of old, but in reality a proxy battle between the followers of the President and those of the Prime Minister.
It would be interesting to see what the President and the Prime Minister, and their followers, will do if the SLPP were to win a two-thirds majority and can potentially proceed with constitutional changes. Whose powers will be increased, and whose will be trimmed, the PM’s or the President’s? They both cannot have their powers increased. What they have now is a fine balance. The unpalatable alternatives are for the Prime Minister to become “a name board”, or the President to follow the model of William Gopallawa.