Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • April 2021
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Vacant Seat in Parliament

Posted by harimpeiris on April 21, 2021

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 21st April 2021)

One of the more interesting features about the current Parliament of Sri Lanka, is that it has the highest number of parties with representation in that august Assembly, mostly through a plethora of small parties, which have been elected with one or two members to Parliament. Most of these parties are regional in scope and represent specific communities, often ethnic or religious minorities from the Northern and Eastern provinces. Generally colourful almost quixotic political characters have been elected from these single ticket parties, with a couple of them, including the EPDP and the ACTC securing two seats each. They certainly add colour and a vibrant diversity to the composition of the legislature.

Also falling into this same category of a single seat party, from among the minor parties, is the former governing United National Party (UNP), which rather fortuitously through its vote tally in all districts, managed to qualify for a single National List seat in Parliament. The UNP is a small party with a big party mentality and blessed with close links to major national newspapers, its unelected office-bearers and defeated candidates, manage to make the news daily, if rather irrelevantly.

The UNP has rather unusually been unwilling to fill its single seat, making the current Parliament a full house at 224 members, rather than its complete complement of 225. However, political circles are abuzz with talk that finally its longest serving and possibly leader for life, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, will have himself nominated to the UNP’s solitary seat in Parliament. It has to be a record in any country with a proportional representation electoral system, for a party to fall from a governing party with 106 seats, to a solitary parliamentary seat in the ensuing election. Leaving that grand old party with a nice head office, a proud history, and some political personalities who made a serious error in political judgement, when they denied its longtime deputy leader and presidential candidate, the party leadership, resulting in the formation of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) party.

Just over a year since nominations for the parliamentary elections closed on 20th March 2020 and the UNP thinks about finally getting its act together, to nominate Mr. Wickremesinghe to its solitary seat, and the SJB celebrated the first year anniversary of its formation; it is worth examining the implications to politics and national governance, created by the Rajapaksa political vehicle of the SLPP supplanting the SLFP, and on the Opposition side of the House, the even newer Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) of Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, taking over the constituency, the younger generation leaders and the political leadership of the non SLPP/Rajapaksa socio-political forces in the country. The SLPP created its own history in the August 2020 parliamentary elections becoming the most electorally successful political party under the 1978 constitution, securing 145 seats in Parliament, bettering its predecessor UPFA’s result of 144 seats won in the euphoria of the war’s ending in 2010. The SJB also performed approximately comparative to its parent UNP’s 2010 post war performance, securing 54 seats in 2020.

However, the SJB has also made its own mark on the political landscape of the country in its relatively short history. Firstly, by comprehensively wiping its predecessor UNP off the electoral map, and firmly capturing the Opposition political space. It has faced the juggernaut of an SLPP Administration with a super majority in Parliament. In response, the SJB and the Opposition Leader’s approach has been measured, thoughtful and calibrated. Occupying the moral high ground, by claiming that the Opposition should oppose but not obstruct, it has permitted some leeway to the Rajapaksas to implement their mandate; but has been a moral conscience, as well as a check and balance on the government. As a new party it has focused on building up its grassroots capability, and the indefatigable Opposition Leader has been mirroring the President’s own dialogue with the village, by having numerous grassroots level consultations and discussions, albeit without an attendant media circus.

Politically as well, the focus of the SJB has been to bring to sharp focus the shortcomings of the Administration, and accordingly it has been the inspiration for the “sir fail” political concept; a rather direct assault on the performance or alleged lack thereof by the Government and the President, elected as he was among other things as a technocrat who would get things done. Astutely Sajith Premadasa has been careful to refrain from an overly negative assault on his successful rival in the presidential election, focusing instead on the issues and avoiding the personal mudslinging which has been the sorry hallmark of Sri Lankan politics in more recent times. The SJB and the Opposition Leader have sought to adopt a more principled and issue-based politics, rather than on pure personalities and one that is non-sectarian, both distinctions of which are an unusual departure from the norm in mainstream Sri Lankan politics. As the politics of the UNHRC process in Geneva and the cremation issue of the Covid deceased for the Muslim community dominated the political debate in the past few months, the SJB demonstrated remarkable political maturity in taking a principled position opposed to forced cremation based on the WHO guidelines, and then rolling out a newly minted and credible reconciliation policy on the cusp of the Geneva vote, which differentiated it clearly from the Government, arguing that national unity was the best guarantor and contributor to national security.

As a slew of highly charged political issues ranging from exonerating various accused persons from ongoing court cases through a presidential commission, to the controversial proposals for the autonomous Port City Commission come to dominate the political debate in the near future, the SJB will be tested. But Sajith Premadasa took on the Rajapaksas in their home turf of Hambantota for years, and did not flinch from a tough political ask in a local constituency setting. The current challenges are bigger and the setting is the national political stage. One year on, in a game with a five-year cycle, the SJB can take solace and some credit that while the beginning of the end may not have begun for the current Administration, the end of the honeymoon period with the public for the Administration, has clearly already occurred.

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