Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for March 4th, 2020

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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