Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for March, 2020

Nominations close and elections postponed amid Covid-19

Posted by harimpeiris on March 23, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island & Groundviews on 23rd March 2020)

 

Nominations for the parliamentary elections of 2020 closed late last week and barely an hour after the close of nominations, the Elections Commission made its widely expected announcement that the poll would be postponed until the threat to public health through the rapid potential spread of the Covid-19 or Coronavirus has been contained. How long that would take is anybody’s guess, though the experience in China, the nation where it all began, seemed to indicate that a period of two to three months was needed to contain the worst threat and gear public health systems to deal with the epidemic over a longer term basis. End May is currently referred to as the earliest possible date when the elections could be held, with June or July a more prudent and likely time frame.

Politically the ruling party was keen to see the election happen sooner rather than later, the President informing his SAARC counterparts in a conference call prior to the close of nominations that the elections would proceed, while to the contrary Opposition and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) leader Sajith Premadasa called for the postponement of the elections, stating that public health and safety was paramount, rather than elections and should be ensured before the polls. The JVP and the TNA, respectively the third and fourth largest political parties in the country, after the two main blocks, echoed similar sentiments. The Elections Commission concurred. Given that the electoral process requires a mass domestic human migration or movement of people and that campaigning makes social distancing impossible, the decision of the Elections Commission was inevitable. Perhaps in hindsight the hasty dissolution of parliament when Covid-19 was known as a global pandemic was unwise.

The SLPP and the SLFP unite while the SJB and UNP fail to do so

 The most notable feature of the election nominations now concluded, is that the SLPP was able to draw the vast majority of the SLFP into its ranks, baring its Kalutara strongman Kumara Welgama, who formed the new SLFP and joined Sajith Premadasa and the SJB. The SLFP will contest the elections together with the SLPP in 18 districts with the exception of four districts with sizable minority voters, where it will contest under its own ‘hand’ symbol. Perhaps, acknowledging the futility of seeking to persuade minority voters to vote for the SLPP. In recognition of the same, the SLPP is not contesting in the Jaffna district, having received single digits levels of support there in the presidential elections and that was when its EPDP allies were campaigning for it. For the parliamentary polls the EPDP is going it alone and its leader Douglas Devananda is likely to mobiliSe the EPDP’s customary voter base and retain his seat in Parliament.

It is in the main opposition block, that negotiations, shuttle talks and even direct discussions between Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and his erstwhile political leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe failed to persuade the latter, that rather like his political mentor and uncle former president JR Jayawardena, who graciously, if not entirely willingly, conceded the Party leadership to Premadasa Senior, that he should follow suit and do likewise in this instance. Instead he has chosen, rather like Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s immortalized poem, to do the charge of the light brigade and for the UNP to contest elections in all districts, with most incumbent UNP MPs and all their political allies, including the JHU, the SLMC and the TPA contesting as part of the SJB. Just as senior British military officers in the Crimean war had not internalized the reality of heavy artillery in open warfare and still believed in the horse- mounted cavalry charge of yesteryear, the UNP leader Ranil Wickramasinghe seems convinced that it is not the political personas, policies and promise, but the party brand, history and most strangely the party symbol which carry weight with voters. The experience of the SLFP vis-a-vis the SLPP, the TULF vis a vis the TNA, all point to the contrary. Even more concretely, the political acumen of the UNP’s junior partner parties are the most accurate bell weather regarding which way the political winds are blowing and the UNP has been unable to persuade a single ally to contest alongside it. All are with the SJB and its leader Sajith Premadasa. In fact except in Colombo where the UNP is likely to ensure the election of both Ravi Karunanayake and Ranil Wickramasinghe himself as well as in Gampaha, it is hard to see in which other districts the UNP can end up anything other than a distant fourth behind the SLPP, the SJB and the JVP and thereby generally fail to secure a seat. It may pick up a single national list seat as well. The SJB also has the advantage of the presidential elections which was a massive political coming out party for the young Premadasa. He is generally believed in opposition circles to have acquitted himself quite well in that process. It is a gross error on the part of Ranil Wickremasinghe’s advisors to believe that the younger Premadasa will politically decline rather like then Field Marshall (the General) Sarath Fonseka did after his own unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2010. Sarath Fonseka was an outsider to the UNP as well as inexperienced in politics and it showed up both during the 2010 campaign and thereafter. On the contrary Sajith Premadasa has spent 20 years in Parliament, a little less than half that time in Government, comes deep from within the UNP, with a generational heritage of leadership in that party, accomplished a self-made rise to the top rungs of the party, successfully wrested the presidential election nomination away from his leader and post-election weaned away all the political allies away from the UNP to his wider SJB opposition alliance.

Putting politics and elections very much on the back burner, Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans will focus on their public health challenge and overcoming the global Covid-19 pandemic within Sri Lanka’s borders and recovering from a battered economy in the context of a global slowdown, before focusing on electing the next Parliament of Sri Lanka.

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Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) of Sajith Premadasa

Posted by harimpeiris on March 4, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 03rd March 2020)

A successful challenge to the SLPP led Rajapaksa Administration will require the coming together of the disparate forces arraigned against its largely mono ethno-religious political constituency and its singular interests.

Even as Parliament is dissolved on the night of March 2nd to pave the way for parliamentary elections in April, dominating the news, is the formation of the main opposition political force, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) headed by Sajith Premadasa. The former housing minister and UNP Deputy Leader, garnered a respectable forty two percent (42%) of the national vote, in his unsuccessful bid to do the near impossible and halt the demise and bring about the reelection of the hopelessly fractious and consequently ineffective Yahapalana Administration at last year’s presidential election. Consequently, the political mantle of the leadership of the non-Rajapakse political forces in the country, including the office of the Leader of the Opposition fell upon Mr. Premadasa. These did not come to Mr. Premadasa by default but through the conscious decision of the opposition political forces in the country, who see in Mr. Premadasa, the most viable and likely democratic alternative to the SLPP led Rajapakse Administration.

A broad alliance

The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), literally meaning the national peace force, is a rather quixotic though entirely appropriate name for a political alliance in a polarized and deeply divided society. A political force which in peace, brings together (as its name suggests), a wide range of political opinion and interests, ranging from the Sinhala nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), to the ethnic minority parties of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Tamil Peoples Alliance (TPA) and including such socialist parties as the United Left Front (ULF). The nature of the SJB’s composition, including as it does, Sinhala nationalists and ethnic minority parties, contain the contours and outlines of the political alliance which will eventually be needed in 2024 to mount an effective challenge to the newly elected SLPP Administration. It is particularly significant, because contrary to the claim to be inclusive and heterogenous, the SLPP still largely draws its support from Sri Lanka’s majority ethno-religious community, with little attraction outside of it. A case in point, is the voting patten of the largely Sinhala but Catholic Christian Negombo electorate, where Mr. Premadasa won 53% to 38% and the adjacent but albeit more religiously diverse Wattala electorate which he also won more narrowly by 47% to 46%. This in the Gampaha district which was overall won handsomely by his opponent 59% to 34%. So, the Sinhala but Roman Catholic / Christian Negombo, bucked the trend in the largely Sinhala south, to support Sajith Premadasa. This should also be salutary to some elements of the Roman Catholic Church, which regrettably and notwithstanding the 2019 electoral cycle, threw numerous brickbats, perhaps justifiably so, in the context of the Easter Sunday attacks, at the then Yahapalana Administration, only to find its bastion of Negombo voting for the Yahapalana standard bearer, showing a healthy political disconnect between the basilica and the electorate. Roman Catholic Christian majority Mannar District voted 85% to 10% in favor of Sajith Premadasa. It is also a recognition that in the aftermath of the dastardly Easter bomb attack, that then Minister Sajith Premadasa was quick to demonstrate decisive political leadership, not only visiting all three bombed churches, including the Pentecostal and largely ethnically Tamil, Zion Church in Batticalo but also visited the mosques the North Western Province, which were opportunistically attacked with impunity and damaged in the mini pogrom which followed the said attacks. He was quick to dispense reconstruction funds through the common amenities section of his housing ministry budget for the reconstruction of the damaged places of religious worship, both Roman Catholic, non-RC Christian and Muslim. Truly a national peace force and a force for peace.

The SJB though currently in political opposition, presents an inclusive and civic alternative to what is a dominant, majoritarian and exclusivist view of Sri Lanka. A successful challenge to the SLPP led Rajapaksa Administration will require the coming together of the disparate forces arraigned against its largely mono ethno-religious political constituency and its singular interests. Similar to the rainbow coalition which dislodged a deeply entrenched and populist, previous Rajapaksa Administration in 2015. It doesn’t require a particularly astute political scientist or a sophisticated political analysis, to recognize that the parliamentary elections of April 2020, will not result in a reversal of the manner in which Sri Lankan the public voted in the November 2019 presidential election. In fact, a significant decrease in voter turnout among opposition supporters, the usual trend following an electoral defeat, especially in the more rural electorates, is likely to result in a significantly greater public mandate for the SLPP. Providing the interesting phenomena, that Mahinda Rajapaksa leading the parliamentary elections for the SLPP will get a bigger mandate through a higher percentage of the popular vote, than President Gotabaya Rajapaksa did at last November’s presidential poll.

A non-event regarding the JSB symbol

The current imbroglio regarding the electoral symbol of the SJB is a storm in a tea cup. The real issue is political support and this is largely with Mr. Premadasa. What matters is policies and political personalities and not symbols. In all this the younger opposition leader is ahead. The dispute over the symbol is reminiscent of the internecine conflict over the presidential candidature last year. The UNP and then opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe kept insisting until the eleventh hour that he will be the presidential candidate and then had the nomination wrested from him, by the political realities of the wishes of the political forces comprising the opposition. Those same realities resulted in him having to concede the position of leader of the opposition to his younger deputy, Mr. Premadasa, when his attempt to stay on as Prime Minister under the newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapakse was unsuccessful. Mostly due to the immediate resignation, once the election results were known of key members of his Government, including then Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who insisted on stepping aside gracefully and respecting the wishes of the people reflected in the clear mandate given to the SLPP. The vast majority of the UNP’s active politicians, like its key allies are supporters of Sajith Premadasa. This support is not personal but political. Sajith Premadasa increased the share of the UNP voter base from the dismal 24% it polled in the Elpitiya Pradeshiya Saba local government election in October 2019 to considerably more nationally one month later. However, there is no reason why Mr. Wickremesinghe cannot like his erstwhile partner in government, former President Maithripala Sirisena now ensconced as Chairman of the SLPP led alliance, be accommodated as Chairman of the SJB, be promised space and facilities at the Opposition Leader’s office at Marcus Fernando Mawatha and in parliament and be given pride of place in representing the UNP in its membership meetings, dealings and activities with the International Democratic Union (IDU), all roles for which Mr. Wickremesinghe is ideally suited. A graceful promotion upstairs for him, rather like iconic Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike became a non-executive senior in the SLFP, in favor of her daughter, former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 1993/94. A united UNP within the Jathika Samagi Balawegaya (JSB) will provide the best bet for the highest possible opposition representation in the 9th Parliament of the Republic of Sri Lanka, to be elected in April 2020.

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