Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • October 2020
    M T W T F S S

The Opposition SJB Strives Hard to Counter 20th Amendment

Posted by harimpeiris on October 8, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Island on 07th October 2020)

The proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, on various legal grounds. With oral arguments finishing with the Attorney General’s submission early this week and only written rebuttals accepted thereafter, the determination of the Court is likely to be communicated to Parliament within the week. However, this article does not seek to examine the various legal issues being argued before Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court, but rather to examine the political dynamics which enabled the Government to engage in this complete overhaul of Sri Lanka’s state structures.

The proposed 20th Amendment seeks nothing less than the creation of an elected leader with all the powers of an absolute monarch, baring the need to be periodically re-elected. Sri Lanka is clearly nostalgic for its days of pre-colonial absolute monarchy. In fact, our 1978 constitution with its proposed 20th Amendment would be more centralizing than ancient Ceylon’s pre-colonial monarchies, set in another day and age, which had feudal structures with powerful nobles. In contrast the 20th Amendment will reestablish, a Prime Minister with no powers and Cabinet and state ministers with even less powers. The President will in essence appoint everybody, decide on every matter and would be beyond legal challenge, even on fundamental rights. The central argument of the government is that the 20th Amendment merely takes the country back to where it was with the 1978 Constitution and accordingly there is no problem. However, the reality is that the anti-democratic features of the 1978 Constitution and especially that of its overbearing executive presidency were so apparent that every president elected since 1994 has pledged to reform it and its lack of inclusion and democratic space, alienated large swathes of the population, from Sinhala rural youth to the Tamil community

The UNP as the great enabler of the 20th Amendment

The UNP or rather its essential leader for life, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been the great enabler of the 20th Amendment. Firstly, his steadfast refusal to cede the presidential nomination until days before the November presidential elections and then subsequently in the run up to the August parliamentary elections, scuttling the efforts to have a unified opposition alliance, so dented the political credibility of the opposition, that what would have been a close defeat, along the lines of the February 2018 local government election results, led instead to a complete route and a constitution changing two third majority in parliament for the SLPP.

The parliamentary elections resulted in the end of the United National Party (UNP), as a serious, national political entity, losing to its successor the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), by a resounding and unequivocal margin of 10 to 1, in the popular vote. The SJB garnering 2.7 million votes and fifty-four Members of Parliament, while the UNP got a little less than one tenth of that at about 250,000 votes country wide and going from being the largest party in parliament, to no district representation and a single national list seat, on which it cannot agree as to who would be the nominee. The refusal of Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, even at this late stage, to gracefully leave the field when the umpire has ruled him out and the third umpire has also concurred after review and perhaps busy himself with some international commitments, or an elder statesman’s role, for which he is eminently suited, has meant that Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has struggled to unify the opposition and create and present a cohesive and united opposition to the government. Resulting in the Rajapakse Administration indulging in significant political overreach in its proposed 20th Amendment.

The real political dynamics in the country are worse, from an opposition standpoint. What currently exists is a unified government and a divided opposition which enables government inflexibility and rigidity, even in the midst of some internal dissent. An internal dissent regarding the 20th Amendment exists from some very Sinhala nationalist sources, including Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front, which stated that if its views expressed and the resultant recommendations of the Government committee, on which it leader served and which examined the 20th Amendment were ignored, it would not hold itself responsible for the political consequences.

The SJB needs to broaden its outreach

The SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa did incredibly well under difficult circumstances, post the presidential election to annihilate the UNP at the ensuing general elections held recently and essentially capture the party in all but name, symbol and head office, none of which are the essence of politics. Sajith Premadasa’s great strengths are similar to that of his late father’s; the common touch, a strong grassroots appeal, a good sense of the Sinhala polity and boundless energy, all of which were lacking in the old UNP and hence his appeal within that party and its allies. However, those skills were complemented by the UNP’s entrenched strengths, such as extensive media interests of the Wickremesinghe / Wijewardena clan, considerable financial support from the Colombo business community as well as political allies within and good relationships with the international community. The SJB as a new party and the chief opposition alliance needs to create this network and extend its outreach to the different segments of society, so that in their disquiet of the Rajapakse Administration’s policies, the SJB is seen as an effective check and balance as well as a viable and credible future alternative government. The SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa needs his own equivalent of “Eliya” and “Viyath Maga”, except resolutely civilian and absolutely inclusive and pluralistic.

The opposition to the 20th Amendment has been fairly spontaneous and widespread. From the Retired Judges Association, to Government Auditors, from the UN Human Rights Commissioner to Sri Lankan civil society, from the Bar Association to young lawyers, a record number of plaints were filed against the said Amendment. However, the SJB has not quite been able to harness all this raw energy against the amendment and to hugely increase the political costs of the same to the Government. All political indicators are that some slightly amended version of the 20th Amendment will soon become the law of the land. The only hope is that in its adventurism and political overreach of the 20th Amendment, the subsequent and ultimate objective of a new constitution will likely be denied the SLPP, notwithstanding its super majority in parliament.

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Judges, Civil Society & Opposition Push Back Against 20th Amendment

Posted by harimpeiris on September 28, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 21st September 2020)

The Rajapakse Administration, by Government gazette, published its proposed 20th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution and subsequently the Secretary General of Parliament announced that it would be taken up for its first reading in Parliament on September 22, opening up the narrow window of time for the widely anticipated legal challenges to the amendment in the Supreme Court.

The 20th Amendment in a nutshell

The 20th Amendment essentially seeks to establish an elected absolute ruler who can theoretically do no wrong and is therefore not to be held accountable for his or her governance or adequately and independently guided in his or her actions. The executive presidency so created will not only wield powers arrogated to itself prior to the 17th and 19th Amendments, but it will also make that office even less accountable, removing for instance independent auditing of the President’s Office and the advisory role of the Constitutional Council.

For the past 25 years or more, the general consensus in political and civil society has been that the 1978 Constitution had centralized power too much and created an executive presidency that over shadowed all other organs of the State and that this must be reformed. Every government elected since the Kumaratunga Administration in 1994 has pledged to reform and reduce the powers of the executive and make it more accountable – the 17th and 19th Amendments to the Constitution doing just that.

It is precisely because a consensus existed among political elites, and consequently the general public, that the powers of the executive presidency should be pruned and Sri Lanka’s executive arm of government should increase its accountability to both the judiciary and the legislature, that the 19th Amendment, introduced in early 2015 by a minority government that had only 43 seats in the 125 member House, was passed with near consensus with only a single vote against. Contrast that with the present situation where a government, which has a two-thirds majority in the House, is already running into internal dissent on its signature 20th Amendment. Interestingly there are over 25 members of the present parliament, as opposition members in 2015, who voted for the 19th Amendment, now having to be hurrah boys for its demise.

Internal SLPP opposition to the Amendment

The SLPP Administration has at least two very clear strands within it (factions would be too strong a word). The first strand is the old guard politicians, allied parties and traditional political operators, generally all managed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and party chief Basil Rajapaksa. The other, and currently dominant, strand of the Administration is the professional and retired military personnel around the president, organized through their various groups. The 20th Amendment is very much a creation of President Rajapaksa’s inner circle of professionals, strong on personal loyalty and weak on political sense. The 20th Amendment is classic over reach by the politically naïve professionals. The result has been significant disquiet and push back from various forces within the government itself.

The ultra-Sinhala nationalist wing of the ruling Alliance has a serious problem with enabling dual citizens to be parliamentarians or Cabinet Ministers since it potentially opens the door for various diaspora activists to engage in electoral politics. They also want the Sri Lankan State, which is seen as synonymous with the majority community they represent, to be more not less accountable. Accordingly, the elimination of both the independent Audit Commission and the Independent Procurement Commission has been met with stiff resistance. It has been a reflection of that resistance that led the Prime Minister to appoint a ruling alliance advisory committee to study the proposed amendment and report back. But as media reports over the weekend indicate, their recommendations for changes would not be incorporated into the proposal. Changes, if any, are to be moved during the committee stage debate in Parliament.

External opposition by judicial, administrative, civil and political forces

Besides the internal government concerns and the disquiet over the proposed 20th Amendment, the totally non-partisan Retired Judges Association (RJA) stated that they were “gravely perturbed” by the potential impact of the 20th Amendment on the constitutional separation of powers and particularly with regard to the selection and appointment of judges to the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. In a letter to the Justice Minister, the RJA states that an accountable and publicly transparent process of appointment of judges is integral to upholding the Rule of Law, engendering public confidence and dispensing justice. They claim, with considerable merit, that they “are concerned by the amendment of Article 41A of the Constitution, to replace the Constitutional Council having the power of issuing recommendations by a Parliamentary Council which can only make observations in regard to pending judicial appointments”. They further note that the Parliamentary Council lacks the important element of non-political membership and is seriously compromised by the President’s ability to remove nominees of the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition.

Similarly, government auditors also express their serious concerns over the removal of the Independent Audit Commission and the weakening of the powers and the removal of the autonomous nature of the office of Auditor General.

For Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and the more than 50 parliamentarians who make up the SJB parliamentary group and their political allies, the immediate introduction of the 20th Amendment creates both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is that it does not have the luxury of settling down before having to take on a strong government, which nonetheless has shown some cracks due to over reach. The opportunity is that the 20th Amendment and the opposition to it from various quarters, including from sections of the Sinhala nationalist political forces, presents a real opportunity to create a diverse though united force, based on established high political principles, against the 20th Amendment and its proponent Administration.

The Rajapaksa Administration, feeling vindicated at the Parliamentary elections and emboldened by its two-thirds majority in Parliament will not back down or compromise on the 20th Amendment. It will push through the 20th Amendment without compromise or consensus and will in all likelihood see a 20th Amendment in place. But in winning this battle, it may lose its ultimate war for a new constitution. The 20th Amendment will certainly not be the beginning of the end for the SLPP Administration but it may well be the end of the honeymoon period for it. Sri Lankans are happy to place blind faith in their leaders but it begins to come a little unstuck when the leaders try and take more than what is on offer.

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Ruwan Wijewardena UNP Leader – in – waiting

Posted by harimpeiris on September 17, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Island on 17th September 2020)

Former MP and State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardena, was recently elected UNP Deputy Leader and consequently the leader-in-waiting, by that besieged party’s working committee. For a party, which has only a single National List seat in parliament, on which it cannot agree who should be nominated and which received less than half the votes, the fourth placed JVP did, the rather long drawn out process of finally replacing its leader, has begun. That this leadership transition only formally began once the party had been all but wiped off the electoral map, is a testament to the anachronistic nature of the UNP’s internal decision-making processes. The UNP’s only contribution to current politics was to weaken the opposition and enable the SLPP to secure a two-third majority in parliament.

Wijewardenas Replace Senanayakes as UNP’s First Family

The electoral defeat of the UNP, in the 1970 general election, witnessed the end of the domination of that party’s leadership by the Senanayake family and saw a transition to the Wijewardena family, the maternal wing of both JR Jayawardena and Ranil Wickremesinghe, with a brief interlude for the leaderships of Ranasinghe Premadasa and DB Wijetunga.

A similar situation was also witnessed in the UNP’s arch rival, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which was dominated, since inception, by that party’s founding family, the Bandaranaikes’, which domination ran its natural course for over half a century, since 1951, and witnessed a more natural and dignified transition to a fellow founding member’s clan, the Rajapakse family, in 2005.

The Wijewardena clan can also celebrate a half century, since 1970, of dominating the United National Party (UNP) leadership, even at the expense of finally running the party to the ground. The clan’s control and near dominance of the party leadership has certainly not run its course. Accordingly, it was no surprise, at least to this analyst, that from a crowded field of pretenders to the UNP throne, ranging from Karu Jayasuriya to Naveen Dissanayake and including such colourful figures as Ravi Karunanayake and Arjuna Ranatunga, that the soft spoken and relative new comer to politics, Ruwan Wijewardena, would receive the nod from his near kinsman and by extension the rest of the handpicked working committee, to take over the now nearly defunct party.

The SJB Option or Perish

Ruwan Wijewardena, the UNP leader-in-waiting, whom media reports state has to wait, yet still more, till next year, to take over the party, has only one realistic course of action open to him. It is the only viable option for a party with a grand history but no future. That option is for the UNP to become a constituent party of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), rather like the JHU and the other regional parties. However, for this option to take place, Mr. Wijewardena must be prepared to accept, or enforce, the easing upstairs or retirement from politics of some of those, whom the SJB correctly believes to be liabilities rather than assets in its attempts to be a credible check and balance and eventually a viable alternative to the Rajapaksa led SLPP government. The UNP’s only hope for survival, even as a shadow of its former self, is in the shade and as a part of the Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa-led Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). This option is similar from the other side of the aisle, most obviously to the course taken by the SLFP under former President Maithripala Sirisena or even the Dinesh Gunawardena-led Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) – both parties with proud histories, but with no future on its own.

However, the odd thing with the UNP leadership contest is that despite having no real option than join the SJB, the UNP leader-in-waiting has to parrot the mantra, that he will be rebuilding the party to its grand old days. There were breakaway parties that believed that having the party nameboard, the head office premises, and the symbol, was what popular or public support was all about and were rudely surprised to realize that this is in fact not so. In the Tamil polity, the best example would be the TULF, still around under veteran leader V. Anandasangari, but despite fielding candidates, under its well-known rising sun symbol, which was in 1977, the second largest party in parliament, is now existent, only in name.

A Second Decimation in the PC Polls

There is a significant preference, within the SLPP, to have the provincial council polls. This preference comes mainly from the compelling internal need to provide secondary positions to party loyalists and activists who were unable to enter parliament. Doing so sooner rather than later, will help keep the opposition off balance. Having the PC polls, will also remove a potential irritant in the relationship with India. However, for the UNP, a pending PC polls, sans a tie up with the SJB, spells near doom. Superficial analysis which assumes that the UNP will retain the 2% of the national vote, or 250,000 votes country wide, which it garnered in the August parliamentary elections, is naïve. The UNP, if it contests alone, will be again wiped out, but worse. At the general election, there was some doubt, however small, about whether it would be the SJB or the UNP which would emerge on top, in the battle to be number two. Now that doubt not only no longer exists, but the UNP has such weak public appeal, that it polled less than half the JVP vote and failed to secure a single district seat in parliament. UNP support or the famed party machinery, has conclusively and permanently moved lock, stock and barrel to the SJB. Should young Mr. Ruwan Wijewardena seek to roll back the clock and have a rematch on the fight with the SJB, he would fare far worse than his cousin Ranil Wickremesinghe did. If on the contrary he accepts the political leadership of Sajith Premadasa and crafts a course for the UNP, which challenges the SLPP Government and is steadfastly a part of the opposition, he will generate for the UNP, a new lease of life and a new path, not as a leading party, whose heyday is over, but as an appendage to the SJB, in much the same way as the SLFP and the MEP are within the SLPP.

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The Challenges facing Sambanthan and the TNA

Posted by harimpeiris on August 27, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in The Island on 26th August 2020)

The recent election results reveal interesting changes in Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. The predominant representative of the Tamil people, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which contest elections under its largest constituent party, the Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), saw its share of the national vote decline, from 4.6%, in 2015 to 2.8% in 2020. Its parliamentary representation correspondingly declined from 16 MPs in 2015 to 10 MPs in the 9th Parliament of Sri Lanka. The good news for the TNA is that its popular support has roughly held steady from since the 2018 local government elections, where it secured 3% of the popular vote. So, those who voted for TNA, in 2018, supported them again in 2020. Whatever support it lost, it lost between 2015 and 2018, as the Sirisena/Wickemesinghe administration opened up democratic space and hence diversity in Tamil politics, but grossly underperformed on delivery amidst high expectations.

Rajavarothian Sampanthan, the TNA’s veteran leader and sole Tamil MP, from his native Trincomalee, is a former Leader of the Opposition and one of the senior-most MPs in the legislature, having first entered Parliament, in 1977. The TNA, will face major challenges to safeguard the interests of the Tamil community, during the ensuing term of the now super majority mandated Rajapakse SLPP Administration, intent on constitutional reforms. There are at least three major political challenges, that Rajavarothian Sambanthan needs to deal with.

1st challenge is Tamil tactical voting in 2019 and 2020

An interesting feature of the Tamil vote is that it votes en-bloc at presidential elections but subsequently diversifies in the ensuing general election. In the November 2019 presidential elections, the Tamil majority Jaffna District voted 84% in favour of Sajith Premadasa, with Gotabaya Rajapakse garnering only 6% of the vote and similarly in the Batticaloa District, Sajith Premadasa received 78% of the vote, while President Gotabaya Rajapakse secured just 12%. This was similar to prior presidential elections as well, where the Tamil votes go en bloc. What was different this time around is that in the ensuing parliamentary elections, the Tamil voters, diversified their electoral support. So, the TNA, needs to understand why and then deal with the reality that regional Tamil political parties, such as Karuna’s AITM, or Pilliyan’ s TMVP, who cannot influence the Tamil voter for a “national presidential candidate”, can still at the parliamentary elections, ally and align themselves with a president and a party, the Tamil voters have repudiated at presidential polls and use that alliance to defeat the TNA. A variant of that also holds true in Jaffna. Gajen Ponnambalam and CV Wigneswaren, did not expressly call for a presidential election boycott but scorned both presidential candidates and did not seek to turn out the Tamil vote in the presidential elections. The TNA did and delivered hugely for Sajith Premadasa. But the same voters, then deserted the TNA in the parliamentary polls.

The first challenge for TNA leader Sambanthan is to understand, why Tamil voters trust the TNA during presidential politics at the centre, but not regarding constituency politics.

2nd challenge; hold the moderate centre from further assault

The TNA is facing both a pragmatic and a hardline assault. It is being successfully attacked from both the left and the right wings and succumbing to pressure on both fronts. Using the pragmatic argument for collaborating with the government at the Centre, political parties such as the TMVP in Batticaloa and the AITM in Digamadulla (Ampara), interestingly, led by those with a history deeply embedded in the LTTE, have made serious inroads into the TNA’s support base, with just 11,700 votes separating the TNA from the TMVP in Batticalo. In Ampara the TNA actually lost to the AITM, 6.5% to 7.5%. Consequently, neither party elected a member from the Ampara District. The first time since State Council days, when no Tamil member would have represented Ampara until the TNA decided that its sole National List seat should go to one of its unsuccessful candidates in Ampara to ensure some Tamil representation in that district. In the Eastern province, the competition for resources have resulted in Tamil areas being vastly underdeveloped, as ministers from the Muslim parties have developed their constituencies and Sinhala villages have also expanded. The never-hold-government-office creed of Tamil nationalism is losing the argument in the Eastern Province.

In the Jaffna district, the collaborate-with-the centre argument has also had significant success, not only with the increase of the EPDP’s vote share from 10% to 12% from 2015 to 2020, (actually 16.5% if the EPDP breakaway Chandra Kumar’s Jaffna Independent Group 5 district vote of 4.5% is counted as well). Most spectacular with the reemergence of the SLFP in Jaffna with a lavishly spending Angajan Ramanathan, garnering 13.75% of the popular vote, especially among the youth. So, a full 35% or more than one-third of the Jaffna electorate has supported strong collaboration with the government at the centre, as reflected by the votes of the EPDP, the SLFP, Independent Group 5 together with the SJB’s 4% and the UNP’s 1% of the Jaffna district vote.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum in Jaffna, lies a more hardline Tamil nationalism articulated by the Tamil Congress (AITC) of Gajen Ponnambalam and the TMTK, the newly minted political apparatus of TNA breakaway, CV Wigneswaren, which garnered 15% and 10% of the popular vote respectively. The hardliner Tamil nationalism attracts only about 25% of the Jaffna vote and does not have support outside the Jaffna peninsula, attracting just 4% each of the vote in the Vanni district of the North. It fares disastrously in the Eastern Province, the AITC and the TMTK receiving only 0.5% and 1.6% in the Tamil majority Batticalo District and 1% and 0.5% in Trincomalee and being nonexistent in Ampara. The Tamil nationalist creed of first a political solution and then economic development has no resonance in the East, in the Vanni or among Tamil youth.

The second challenge for TNA leader Sambanthan is to expand the TNA’s politics to include Tamil economic and developmental interests, together with the political, cultural and social rights it is more familiar with.

3rd Challenge; empowering younger leaders and internal cohesion

The failed political leadership transition on full national display with regards to the United National Party(UNP) and earlier with regard to the SLFP/UPFA should provide a salutary and sobering lesson to the Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi and the TNA, on the need to empower their next generation of leaders and post-election, to stop the interparty and intraalliance bickering and political sniping that is regrettably a part of both our preferential voting system and the regular jockeying for political influence. There was a clear choice facing Jaffna District TNA voters in this election and they have made their choice, clearly and unambiguously, even against the thrust of Tamil media and other elites, who backed their favourites but lost the election. It is noteworthy that social media is losing the power of the poison pen. It is time for those who lost the election to make way for the younger and proven elected leadership.

The third challenge for TNA leader Sambanthan is to ensure that a future Tamil political leadership that can hear the Tamil voice locally, engage the government at the centre nationally and speak to the international community globally is clearly designated and empowered.

The Rajapaksas and the SLPP have done what everyone thought was politically impossible. They have unifed the majority Sinhala vote, consequently marginalised the Muslim vote and divided the minority Tamil vote. To deal with that reality and defend a more pluralistic vision of Sri Lanka and represent Tamil interests effectively over the medium to long term, Rajavarothian Sambanthan and the TNA have their work cut out for them.

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Election 2020 – An Analysis and Trends

Posted by harimpeiris on August 18, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews on 07th August 2020)

The general election to parliament is concluded and the official results are out. The anticipated landslide victory to the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has materialised with the SLPP winning a grand total of 145 seats through garnering a total of approximately 6.8 million votes or 59% of the valid votes cast. Through its stated allies, the SLFP (1 seat), the EPDP (2 seats), the TMVP (1 seat) and others in the pro-government political space, it has effectively reached the two-thirds majority it craved, or 150 seats, in the 225-member legislature.

The winning SLPP

The SLPP retained the 6.9 million votes it secured in the November 2019 presidential election, with just about one hundred thousand votes less. This in a situation where voter turnout was very much lower. The SLPP’s performance in the 2020 election is very impressive in many ways and is comparable to the Rajapaksa’s finest political hour, their parliamentary election victory back in 2010, just after ending the war. There the SLPP’s predecessor, the UPFA, garnered 60% of the popular vote and 144 seats. That this target was matched, and in fact surpassed without the trump card of ending the war, shows the scale and extent of what the SLPP has achieved politically this time around. In reality, the SLPP has improved on its 2010 performance. Much more than in 2010, the political discourse and public debate is completely dominated by the Administration, its ideologues and political fellow travellers, aided in no small measure by a dominant section of the private electronic media. Now effectively armed with a two-thirds majority, the country can await the newly elected SLPP Government’s policy priorities, which we should all hope will be ensuring that the Covid-19 pandemic does not translate into a national economic disaster, as our tourism, foreign remittances and other exports take a beating.

The newly minted Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) opposition  

An equally important story of the 2020 general election has been the demise of the United National Party (UNP) and its replacement by the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) led by the UNP’s former deputy leader and now Opposition Leader designate, former Cabinet Minister and November 2019’s runner up presidential candidate, Sajith Premadasa. The SJB came in admittedly a distant second to the winners. But the SJB, in securing 24% of the popular vote and 54 parliamentary seats, is roughly comparable to the UNP’s 29% popular vote and 60 seats in the 2010 parliamentary election, which was a sufficient spring board for the opposition to make an electoral comeback victory in 2015. Two SJB partner parties, the SLMC and the ACMC, secured a seat each under their own colours, having an effective SJB parliamentary group of 56 members of parliament.

Sajith Premadasa and the SJB answered loud and clear as to who is leader of the non-Rajapaksa political space and who is, however small today, the “alternative government” as political oppositions are known in democratic practice. The UNP had an unheralded and unprecedented demise. Failing to win a single seat in any district, it secured a dismal 2% of the total vote, or approximately 250,000 votes country wide and only approximately 30,000 odd votes in Colombo District, signalling that the UNP is now a historical monument rather than an electorally viable political force. The refusal of the UNP to be a part of the SJB critically weakened the opposition and contributed to the scale of the SLPP victory. Even now the rump UNP, perhaps under Naveen Dissanayake or Ravi Karunanayake, should accept the verdict of the opposition voters and join the SJB as its junior-most partner.

The SJB has a monumental task ahead to stand up to the SLPP juggernaut but young Premadasa had been standing up to the Rajapaksas in their native Hambantota ever since he cut his teeth in politics down south, away from his late father’s real base, the city of Colombo, to which he has now returned. Colombo city’s cosmopolitan, pluralistic society switched its allegiance from its traditional UNP and was en mass true to Sajith Premadasa and SJB, which even in the landslide victories of 2020, 2010 or even back in 1956 has always eluded and rejected the harder ethnic nationalist appeal.

The third place TNA/ITAK

The third place in Parliament in 2020 was predictably, though with considerably reduced numbers, secured by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), contesting through its main constituent, the Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), led by the veteran Rajavarothian Sambanthan from Trincomalee. His hometown comfortably returned him to the legislature for yet another term.

Tamil politics has changed since the end of the war in 2009 with the TNA coming into its own and, to some extent, filling the political space left by the demise of the LTTE, which insisted on claiming the mantle of “sole representative of the Tamil people”. The TNA in the 2010 parliamentary election secured 2.9% of the popular vote and 14 seats, its finest hour being the 2015 parliamentary election in which it secured 4.6% of the national vote and 16 seats. Now in 2020 it is back to where it started in 2010 with 2.8% of the popular vote and 10 seats in parliament. It secured approximately 233,000 votes in 2010, 515,000 votes in 2015 and 327,000 votes in 2020. However, it has been significantly challenged from both ends of the political spectrum, showing that the moderate centre Tamil politics, best showcased TNA spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran, is under serious pressure and has to listen and learn from the message of the Tamil electorate and has hard work to do to retain its pre-eminent position as the “chief or main representative” of the Tamil people. Not only did their closest competitors the AITC and the EPDP come distant second and third place with 67,766 and 61,464 votes respectively but both parties made any impression only in the Northern Province. The TNA/ITAK is the only Tamil party with equal attraction and presence in both the North and the East and moves beyond particular regions and Tamil caste communities.

The leftwing JVP

Sri Lanka’s traditional left vote, once dominated by the LSSP and the Communist Party of yore, is now clearly in the hands of the JVP as its standard bearer. The JVP actually improved on its 2019 presidential election result, the only party to do so, moving up marginally from approximately 418,000 votes to 445,000 votes at the parliamentary election with 3.8% of the popular vote, up from 3.1% at the November election. However, its seat count declined from the 7 seats it secured in the 2015 parliamentary elections to 3 in 2020, its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayke, Vijitha Herath and a yet undecided national list seat making up the small parliamentary group. The JVP will be important allies for the SJB in creating a more cohesive political opposition to the SLPP and the SJB is well advised to be inclusive in parliamentary time and other facilities to the small ideological opposition political party.

The jury is back and the verdict is out. The Rajapakse Administration and its political vehicle, the SLPP, has a mandate to govern. The hope indeed should be that it would seek to move beyond the divisive rhetoric of the campaign trail, seek to be tolerant and inclusive in a pluralist society, respect democratic norms and freedoms, govern more through parliament and less through militarised task forces and settle down to the hard work of getting our nation and economy out of the Covid-19-induced slump we are in. All Sri Lankans should wish our newly elected government well for them to pursue our common good and shared destiny.

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