Rajapaksa Stages Comeback in Sri Lankan Civic Polls
ITAK while far ahead in Tamil areas suffered shock defeat in Jaffna Point poll
COLOMBO: Through the all-island local bodies elections held on February 10, former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna has comprehensively established its political supremacy in the country, barring the Tamil-dominated Northern Province which continues to be the bastion of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK).
Results for 324 out of 341 local councils had been announced till Monday night. Out of these, in 239, SLPP was the single largest part; in 41, the United National Party (UNP) led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was the largest; in 34 to the ITAK led by R.Sampanthan was the single largest party ; and in 10, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party/United People’s Freedom Alliance (SLFP/UPFA) led by President Maithripala Sirisena, was the single largest.
However, in places where the single largest party had not got more than 50% of the seats, it might not be able to take over the council if two or more of other parties combine and make a bid for power. Already there is a move on the part of some leaders of the SLFP and UNP to combine and challenge the SLPP.
Also the distribution of the popular vote does not suggest a washout of the non-SLPP parties.
The SLPP had got 44.65% of the popular vote; UNP 32.63% and the SLFP/UPFA 13.38% in the 324 councils for which results are available. If the UNP and SLFP/UPFA combine, they can claim that their coalition government has an edge over the SLPP and that it is not as unpopular as it is made out to be.
However, the emergence of Rajapaksa’s SLPP as the single largest party in an overwhelming majority of the local councils is political extremely significant.
It has far reaching consequence to Sri Lanka’s politics in the near term because these elections were seen as a “referendum” on the performance of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime which came into being in 2015.
341 local government councils and 8356 seats were up for grabs in the elections held after a gap of seven years. The elections were held under a new system in which 60% of the seats in a council were filled through the First Past the Post System (FPPS) and 40% through the Proportional Representation System (PRS). Under the new system 25% of the seats have to be filled with women. In case of a shortage of women among those who had won through the FPPS, the deficit can be made up through the PRS under which parties can nominate a woman from the party list.
Both the ruling collation comprising the SLFP/UPFA and UNP, and the opposition parties, had made it an election of national importance with national issues kept in the forefront and local issues brushed under the carpet.
Therefore, the government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena, conscious of its lackluster performance at all levels, kept postponing the polls until it became an embarrassment for it. The opposition led by Rajapaksa kept taunting it on a daily basis through the media.
Given the overall disillusionment with the regime, it is not surprising that the SLPP led by opposition stalwart Rajapaksa has done far better than the Sri Lanka Freedom Party/United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance led by President Sirisena, and the United National Party (UNP) led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
In the Tamil areas, the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) is streets ahead of other parties. According to one of the leading lights of the ITAK, the party could capture 40 of the 56 councils in the Tamil majority Northern Province.
However, ITAK suffered a shock defeat in the Jaffna-Point Pedro Urban Council where it came second, losing the first position to the Akila Ilankai Tamil Congress led by Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam, a radical Tamil nationalist. The AITC secured 6 seats while ITAK was a close second at 5.
The all-Island results could seriously affect the political prospects of President Sirisena whose SLFP/UPFA has performed very poorly compared to the SLPP and UNP.
The rank and file of the SLFP/UPFA would now put pressure on Sirisena to join forces with the SLPP as the SLPP is only a breakaway group of the SLFP/UPFA.
Votaries of a Sirisena-Rajapaksa rapprochement will get a shot in the arm. But it might still be very difficult for Sirisena to make up with Rajapaksa as he had defected to the opposition to contest the January 8, 2015 Presidential election against Rajapaksa.
Sirisena had also refused to appoint Rajapaksa Prime Minister even if his group had won the August 2015 parliamentary elections. Sirisena is currently pursuing many corruption cases against Rajapaksa, his clan and coterie.
With the UNP doing much better than the SLFP/UPFA, it’s power in the coalition government would increase several fold. Sirisena, who had been overturning the UNP’s neo-liberal decisions to suit his traditionalist and populist agenda, will not be able to do so from now on.
Tension between the UNP leader cum Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the SLFP/UPFA leader cum President Sirisena will increase.
The coalition government for Good Governance could even fall before the 2020 Presidential and parliamentary elections.
As for Tamil politics in North Sri Lanka, the results show that opposition to the dominant ITAK is growing, although the ITAK is still number one.
It will no longer be possible for the ITAK to take things for granted. It has to deliver on its promise to get a better devolution package through a new constitution as declared in its 2015 election manifesto.
Premananth, a keen observer of Tamil politics in Jaffna, said that distribution of power in the local councils will be problematical in a majority of the cases, because of the presence of so many parties. This in turn will affect developmental programs, he added.
And with Rajapaksa becoming politically very significant, efforts to draft a new constitution devolving power to the minority dominated Northern and Eastern provinces will be problematic, if not impossible, said Kilinochchi-based political analyst Sivarasa Karunakaran.
Rajapaksa has said many times that the Tamils cannot get through talks what they could not seize by waging war.
However, Rajapaksa’s ascendency and the possibility of his party coming to power in 2020 will brighten the chances of implementing development projects which are currently shelved for want of a politically and ideologically united and functioning government.
Rajapaksa has already said that the vote for the SLPP is a vote for speedy economic development.
President Maithripala Sirisena has said that he would now make “significant changes in the government in the next couple of days.”
He did not say whether he would take over the economic and law and order ministries from the UNP or would break his alliance with the UNP.
The UNP leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe however said that the alliance with the SLFP/UPFA will continue till the next parliamentary elections in 2020.
Meanwhile, the SLPP has demanded the resignation of the SLFP/UPFA/UNP coalition government as it has clearly lost the popular mandate.