Rajapaksas calling the shots in Sri Lanka election

India has ceased to be a major “vote catching” device in Sri Lanka elections, particularly after the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. The August 5 election is no exception to this norm. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-the Rajapaksas equation seem to have been strengthened after President Gotabaya’s election.

by Col R Hariharan

Sri Lanka is one of the few countries going to polls in the midst of the Covid pandemic. The date for the parliamentary election was reset twice due to the legal complications of holding it during the pandemic threat. However, successful management of the pandemic with the Covid accounting for only 11 deaths, out of just short of 3000 cases, apparently gave the government confidence to go ahead with it.

India has ceased to be a major “vote catching” device in Sri Lanka elections, particularly after the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. The August 5 election is no exception to this norm. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi-the Rajapaksas equation seem to have been strengthened after President Gotabaya’s election. Despite hiccups in executing Indian projects, the Rajapaksa’s know India can lend a helping hand when Sri Lanka’s dire economic situation particularly when it is negotiating for $906 million loan.

A total of 7,452 candidates are in the fray for a seat in the 225-member parliament. Members to the parliament are elected by proportional representation for five-year term. Out of the 225 members, 196 will be elected from 22 multi-member electoral districts, while the remaining 29 MPs will be elected from National Lists of their political parties and independent groups based on the proportion of their share in the national vote.

There are over 16.263 million voters eligible to participate in the election as against 15.04 million eligible voters in the 2015 parliamentary election. In the 2015 election 77.6 percent voters participated. However, strict public health restrictions in place both during the campaign period and the conduct of elections could adversely affect the voter percentage.

There are three major alliances of national parties, apart from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) led by the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchchi (ITAK), which are reckonable in the election scene.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa leads the National Freedom Alliance, formed by his Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and former President Sirisena-led Sri Lanka Freedom Party, has 15 other smaller parties as partners. The Alliance has adopted President Rajapaksa’s vision statement “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” as its manifesto. Its vision for a prosperous nation aims at a productive citizen, a happy family, a disciplined society and a prosperous nation. Its ten key policies include priority to national security; friendly, non-aligned, foreign policy; administration free from corruption; a new constitution that fulfills peoples wishes; productive citizenry and a vibrant human resource; people centric economic development; technology based society; development of physical resources; sustainable environmental management; disciplined, law abiding and value based society.

The SLPP hopes to retain the support of Sinhala majority, who overwhelmingly voted for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to power in the last presidential election. Without hate mongering, President Rajapaksa in his speeches and actions has managed to seamlessly weave Theravada Buddhism in his narrative to preserve national identity and unity of Sri Lanka. He has strongly come out in favour of abolishing 19th Amendment to the Constitution to restore full powers free the executive presidency; he does not favour with 13th Amendment which created the provincial councils to give level of autonomy to minorities. The SLPP alliance hopes to win two thirds majority of the seats, so that a new constitution can be drafted keeping these aspects in view.

The Samagi Jana Baalawegaya (SJB), formed by deputy leader of the United National Party (UNP) Sajith Premadasa, has emerged as the main challenger to the Rajapaksas. Its manifesto focuses on efficient governance by establishing people-oriented system and promises to formulate a new economic policy. It supports a unitary state with 13th amendment, with dilution of power within the state. Importantly, it calls for de-politicisation of the army and the police. It also proposes a monthly stipend of Rs 20,000 to families affected by the Covid.

The Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)-led National Peoples Power (NPP) alliance consists of 28 leftist organisations. It hopes to transform the socio-economic structure, abolish executive presidency and hopes to wean away the people from communal politics. Its presidential candidate Anura Dissanayake had said his first priority would be to bring a law which would make it mandatory for the President to implement his election manifesto!

The United National Party (UNP), debilitated by the breakaway SJB, focuses mainly on upgrading the economy affected by Covid pandemic in its manifesto. It promises to raise $6 billion with the assistance of the IMF, to build an economic revival plan by setting the basis to build a competitive platform similar to Japanese model.” It also promises to pay Rs 10,000 a month for those who became unemployed due to Covid crisis. SME support scheme, moratorium on enterprise loans below Rs 50 million, free computer tabs to schools and introducing a Public Health Emergency Act.

With strident Sinhala nationalism trying to grab power to draft a unitary constitution, the TNA manifesto has focused the need for international community continuing to have a role to ensure Tamil speaking people achieve permanent peace through genuine reconciliation to enable everyone to live as equal citizens. The manifesto said “We stand with the progressive forces in the country to prevent a totalitarian regime emerging and to preserve and foster democratic ideals. Independent institutions set up by the 19th amendment must be preserved and further strengthened. Powers of the Executive Presidency must be further reduced and the Parliament strengthened.” Though it hinted at the fears of President Rajapaksa’s rule ushering in authoritarianism, the TNA leaders have indicated their readiness to work with the Rajapaksas. TNA supremo R Sampanthan’s congratulatory message to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on his completion of 50 years in active politics, also struck a conciliatory note. Describing Mahinda as a Man of the People, the octogenarian Tamil leader urged him “to spearhead the move for drafting a new constitution and assured him fullest support in this matter.”

Former Northern Province chief minister CV Wigneswaran’s Tamil National Peoples Front (TNPF) with strong emphasis on Tamil nationalism, has sidelined itself into irrelevance. Overall, in spite of internal dissensions, the TNA is likely to do well as alternate options for Tamils are few.

The Rajapaksas hope to win at least 130 seats, a clear majority but 20 seats short of two-thirds votes they need to push through their “constitutional” agenda. Even if they do not reach that figure, they will probably win close to the majority. If we go by past experience, PM Mahinda Rajapaksa can probably attract members of other parties to crossover to his coalition; so it seems the Rajapakshas are calling the shots in this election!

[Col R Hariharan, a retired MI specialist on South Asia, served as the head of Intelligence of the Indian Peacekeeping Force in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 90. E-mail. Blog: ]

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