Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for September, 2014

CBK, Ven.Sobitha, the Uva Polls and the Presidential Stakes

Posted by harimpeiris on September 5, 2014

CBK, Ven.Sobitha, the Uva Polls and the Presidential Stakes

By Harim Peiris

(Published in Groundviews and Ceylon Today)

 

The Uva provincial council elections campaign in the Badulla and Moneragala districts, are taking on an intensity that was missing even in the recent Western and Southern Provincial Council elections, not least because the UNP’s young firebrand Chief Minister Candidate former MP, Harin Fernando has breathed some new life into an otherwise anemic UNP opposition effort. No one expects the UNP or the young Harin to win, but a strong showing especially in Badulla will rather publicly confirm the fact that the Rajapakse Administration is hemorrhaging public support, slowly but surely. If the UNP gets its act together and can get Sajith Premadasa appointed as deputy leader and to campaign for it in Uva, as he did in the South, the concerted unity will translate into higher UNP turnout and votes. Complementing the main opposition UNP’s efforts is the much more energetic grassroots level campaign of both General Fonseka‘s Democratic Party and a rejuvenated JVP under its new leader and emerging national figure, Anura Kumara Dissanayake. Who since assuming the leadership mantle is seemingly trying to pull the JVP back from being a JHU wanna be, under the influence of its former heavy weight Wimal Weerawansa to a modern new left party in the opposition political space. Since other left parties are all in government, albeit with publicly stated reservations.

 

The Presidential Stakes 

 

Conventional wisdom, political insiders and media speculation is rife that the Uva provincial elections are a precursor for early presidential and general elections to be called next year, somewhere in the first quarter, accommodating both astrological recommendations and a papal visit, the Pope never visiting a country in the midst of an election campaign.  November 2014, marks four years since President Mahinda Rajapakse won reelection in 2010 and with the 18thamendment to the constitution eliminating term limits on the presidency, thus enabling him to seek a third term in office, President Rajapakse has the luxury of choosing when to go to the polls. Even in the likely event of reduced public support for the Administration demonstrated in Uva, it would still make sense for the President to go for polls sooner rather than later, when voter support will only slip further.

 

The Challenge

 

The Rajapakse Administration has governed now for two terms and within the Sinhala southern constituency there is certainly some erosion of support from its highs of the post war euphoria. Persistent and widespread perception of high level corruption, concerns over democratic governance, rule of law and economic management is all contributing to a slow but steady loss of support for the Rajapakse Administration. This steady drip loss, may not yet be sufficient for an electoral defeat for the government, not least because the political opposition has not got its act together. A defeat for the Rajapakse Administration requires a Sri Lankan political landscape where there is a united opposition and a divided government, rivern by internal dissent. Currently there is some internal dissent within the Administration basically between its extreme ethnic Sinhala nationalists, the JHU and the NFF on the one hand and the old left, CP, LSSP and NSSP together with the Muslim parties on the other hand. But the opposition is certainly also not yet united either. So now we have a divided government and a divided opposition. Whichever political formation, government or opposition which manages to coalesce will probably emerge winners in national elections. Certainly the political opposition is better off now, than the doldrums it was in several years ago and two factors have largely contributed towards this.

 

A common opposition front 

 

Firstly, working hard towards a common opposition front and acting as a catalyst for a unified opposition has been the Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero and his Peoples’ Movement for a Just Society. The venerable Thero brings into the next national elections, what General Fonseka brought into the last elections, a challenge to the Rajapakse, not on their weaknesses but on their strength, an appeal to its Sinhala Buddhist core constituency. Now Venerable Sobitha Thero has operated with a political shrewdness which has matched the Machiavellian capabilities of the Administration. He has succeeded in almost coalescing the opposition around abolishing the executive presidency, charging that office with being the cause of many of the ills of society, in much the same way as representative democracy challenged absolute monarchies in eras gone by.  The abolition of the executive presidency, by  a unified opposition, makes a clearer path for a Ranil Wickramasinghe executive premiership as head of a coalition government. It also opens the political space to attack the presidency without too directly attacking the still publicly popular incumbent in that office. The response to the political criticism that the TNA and the SLMC could not persuade, Tamils and Muslims in the North and East to vote for a Buddhist monk is untenable when one considers that they succeeded in getting the ethnic minorities to support a Sinhala General en bloc right after the war.    

 

Moreover, when the 18th amendment to the constitution was adopted as part of the basic law of our land, it also eliminated the term limit mandated ineligibility of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to run for President. Busy in a new international role as a senior stateswoman, associated with both the Clinton Global Initiative and the Club de Madrid, an exclusive association of former heads of state or government, the former President has also been actively engaged in local issues at an academic policy level through her regional think tank, the South Asia Policy Research Institute (SAPRI), which most recently has been examining and engaging on the emerging issue of religious tensions and communal violence. Despite repeated denials, speculation that the former president would be a challenger to the incumbent, persists.

 

However, the Rajapakse Administration has considerable factors stacked in its favor. It is entrenched in power like no predecessor ever was, with a totally sympathetic supreme court, (post the CJ impeachment), a pliant bureaucracy, a subservient police force and post the 18th amendment, zero institutional checks and balances on absolute power. Whether the young Harin Fernando can come close to what Amarasiri Dodangoda, did under Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1993, by defeating the then UNP Administration in the Southern Province and heralding the end of a seventeen year run of governance by the UNP, we shall know in a few weeks time.

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