Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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The limits of Rajapakse magic

Posted by harimpeiris on December 13, 2017

By Harim Peiris

 Published in the Daily News of 13th Dec 2017

The National Unity Government passed its third budget and the first by Minister Mangala Samaraweera with a two third majority in Parliament in all its three readings. With the end of the budget debate, the entire political focus now shifts to the impending local government elections due to be held in mid-February next year. Nominations are due to close by mid-December.

Two-way or three-way contest?


The political activity of the past several weeks have been attempts by various members of the SLFP to seek to unite the governing and Joint Opposition (JO) factions of that party. As this article is being penned, it certainly seems like the most likely outcome is a three-way contest, between the UNP, the SLFP and the JO under the SLPP. With the core SLFP base divided, conventional wisdom would have it that the UNP would emerge on top though well short of either fifty percent of the popular vote nationally and also with many hung councils. The contest between the SLFP and the SLPP is harder to predict for several reasons. A local government poll is generally disadvantageous to an opposition since it is a non-government changing election and hence essentially a vote for the opposition is only a protest vote. The mainline JO leaders themselves are not the candidates and their ability to campaign may be limited through legal jeopardy to their parliamentary seats. Also, the attractiveness of the SLPP is almost exclusively to a section of the majority ethno-religious community only, so it will struggle in the more pluralist urban centers such as in the Colombo and Kandy, Municipal Councils. Let us not forget that the UPFA failed to elect a single Muslim at the August 2015 General Elections, all their Muslim MPs, Faizer, Fowzi and Hisbulla entering Parliament on the national list.

Testing the limits of the Rajapakse Magic 


The JO and the SLPP are convinced that the Rajapakse brand is alive and well and that it will emerge victorious, if not in 2018, then in 2020. Overconfidence is rather endemic in the Rajapakse set up, after all calling an election, two years early, only to lose it while deeply entrenched in power was symptomatic of that overconfidence. Moreover, the Rajapakse run UPFA campaign in August 2015 also ensured they ended up second best. So, the Rajapakse political project is hardly a sure winner. In 2005, it barely scrapped through with the narrowest win in presidential poll history and only because the LTTE ensured a boycott of the Tamil vote in the Jaffna District. The role of Emile Kanthan and whether money changed hands would forever be a mystery. In the immediate aftermath of the war in 2010 was the only notable and historic election or rather re-election of the Rajapakse Administration and under fortuitous political circumstances that would not be repeated. What the two elections of 2015 proved was that while the nation was grateful for the end of the war, it will not consistently vote looking back at the past. The Rajapakse Administration’s governance track record was appalling and the electorate delivered its verdict in 2015, not once but twice. The SLFP should actively consider the new path being articulated by President Sirisena and not seek to return to the past under Rajapakse. Further the Rajapaksa’s have not internally resolved their own succession issues. Is the 2020 Rajapakse standard bearer Mahinda, Basil or Gota. Given the implications of that choice for young Namal. The plot thickens. Any student of Sri Lankan history would know that most of ancient Ceylon’s dynasties collapsed due to succession battles.

The LG elections impact on policy


The LG elections has the potential to play several useful roles. Firstly, it is the first election since quotas were introduced for female representation and accordingly there will be a significant increase in the participation of women in public life in general and local governance in particular after this election. Secondly the momentum on the reform agenda of the National Unity Government has slowed somewhat from the early days and the election has the potential of solidifying political alliances. The rather plain reality of the balance of social and political forces is that as long as President Sirisena and Prime Minster Wickramasinghe stay together, it is sufficient to keep out and decay the Rajapakse comeback project. If the President and Rajapakse politically unite, it could potentially be a political game changer. Now what was proposed in the “unity” talks between the SLFP and the JO was not such a radical political realignment but a return to the status quo ante or the August 2015 electoral arrangement where the SLFP led UPFA though divided between the pro National Government and the pro Rajapakse faction contested together and parted company thereafter. The benefit of the two factions contesting separately is that it forces a decision one way or the other. Post the LG election, after a three-way contest, the main political protagonists would need to affirm their political direction, either confirm their commitment to the mandates of 2015 or oppose the same. For the JO / SLPP, the expectations of their rank and file are very high. A part of the Rajapakse attraction is supposedly its popularity, a third defeat would further dent that image. Most recently we see an electorally minor but rhetorically major star of the JO, Wimal Weerawansa’s National Freedom Front, imploding as its members desert their leader and flock to President Sirisena and the SLFP. A loss by the JO would increase its internal tensions further.


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