Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Rainbow coalition intact with defeat of no-faith motion

Posted by harimpeiris on July 17, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 14th July 2019)

The No-Confidence motion (NCM) against the government, presented by the JVP was defeated in Parliament a few days back, by one hundred and nineteen (119) votes to ninety-two (92) or by a majority of twenty-seven (27) votes. Voting in favor of the motion were three of the main opposition parties, the SLPP and the SLFP sitting in Parliament as the UPFA and the JVP. Opposing the same and having a comfortable margin above the threshold of one hundred and thirteen (113) members required for a simple majority of the House, was the UNP and the TNA.

The politics of whether the government should stand or fall provides some useful insights into the political alliances and coalitions that currently exist, and are an indicator of the balance of political and social forces, for the much-anticipated year end presidential election.

Firstly, the hard core of the rainbow coalition which ended Rajapaksa rule in 2015 was the UNF together with its allies of the Muslim parties and the Tamil National Alliance. They were supported independently by the JVP. The UPFA at the January 2015 election was solidly behind Mahinda Rajapaksa, but the politics of Rajapaksa verses the rest, meant that the rest or a rainbow coalition defeated the deeply entrenched and seemingly invincible Rajapaksa political machine. The breakup of the UPFA post the presidential election, into the Rajapaksa SLPP and the Sirisena SLFP is again coalescing politically, though the talks to do so institutionally are still progressing very slowly.

For both Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa who cannot contest another presidential election due to being term barred, and President Maithripala Sirisena, who is extremely unlikely to receive presidential election nomination from either the UNP or the SLPP, a general election consequent to a successful no confidence motion against the government is to their advantage. Mahinda Rajapaksa can lead his party in a general election in which he is eligible for candidature, and President Sirisena can conduct such a campaign for his party, with all the trappings of his office and state power. Even for the JVP, a general election before a presidential election would be more favorable, since as a third force in national politics, it is not seriously in the game of the two horse presidential race. So, the votes in Parliament for the NCM demonstrated just that; as UPFA and JVP supported the NCM, while the UNP and the TNA opposed the same, leading to a resounding defeat for the NCM. The politics of the NCM, last week, demonstrated that at least in parliament the remnant of the rainbow coalition was holding, in much the same way it held together late last year, to defeat the constitutional coup premiership of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Implications for the presidential election

The presidential election politics of 2015 was a rather simple formula, the Rajapaksas vs the rest. The rest, a rainbow coalition prevailed against all odds. The 2019 presidential election will in a sense be a re-run of that same election, but with different actors. Instead of Mahinda, another Rajapaksa will be candidate, most likely Gota; and instead of Maithripala Sirisena, another consensus candidate would be required who is a unifier of a disparate coalition, while simultaneously being attractive to a more diverse constituency, including at least about two fifths of the Sinhala constituency. The reality of the 2015 election is that Maithripala Sirisena did not win the popular vote outside the North and East, losing the other seven provinces combined by three hundred thousand votes, but winning big in the North and East with a combined majority of seven hundred and fifty thousand votes, leading to his national victory margin of almost half a million votes.

The big difference this time around, is that the UNP and its UNF partners have been in Government for the past five years and are likely seen, at least by the floating voter and definitely by those in the North and East, to have not fully delivered on their expectations. Expectations created in no small part by the coalition’s own rhetoric of good governance and sweeping reforms. The real issue is would many voters switch back to the Rajapaksa candidate as a repudiation of the one term of UNP rule, and would people vote along ethno-religious identity blocks or base their votes on governance track record and policies? In all likelihood, votes are garnered on a combination of these factors. But for a Rajapaksa candidate to win, he (or indeed she) would have to do better and improve on Mahinda Rajapaksa’s own electoral performance among Sinhala Buddhist voters in 2015 and his appeal to them.

Even as things stand now, the rhetoric and messaging of Gotabaya’s Eliya and Viyath Maga organizations and their fellow travelers is certainly more strident and nationalistic, than Mahinda Rajapaksa ever was or has been. The real issue is whether the votes that slipped away from the Rajapaksa’s in 2015, essentially all minorities and the more liberal minded, urban, sub-urban and youthful first time Sinhala voters, can be won back with ever higher doses of nationalism and stridency or a move back to a more moderate center? Neither in November – December last year nor six months later, have the Rajapaksa’s secured or demonstrated any new political allies, they didn’t have in January 2015. Whether they have done so with the voting public at large, we will know through the next presidential election, due before the year end.

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