Three ifs and four buts about Sri Lanka election

In the past, Rajapaksa has proved to be a past master in 'under the table' deals.

 |  3-minute read |   17-08-2015
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Forecasting elections is hazardous in Sri Lanka. And the general election held on Monday makes the job even more difficult. Three seasoned political stalwarts - former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, president Maithripala Sirisena, his foe within the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), and Ranil Wickremesinghe leading the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) - are jockeying for power.

Though poll forecasts had predicted Wickremesinghe's coalition having an edge over Rajapaksa's UPFA, at least twice in the past they were proved wrong. Rajapaksa won the presidential poll in 2009 and lost it in 2014, belying the predictions. The possibility of both the UPFA and UNFGG coalitions ending up without a majority in the 225-seat Parliament looms large now. Much depends upon Rajapaksa regaining public credibility for his coalition to win.

A number of ifs and buts, however, make the post-election environment hazy.

Three "ifs"

1. If the UPFA gets a majority in Parliament, pressure on Sirisena would increase to nominate Rajapaksa as the prime minister. He may not be able to prevent it if his constituency within the coalition loses out.

2. Even if the UNFGG gets a marginal majority, Wickremesinghe has said he would form a national alliance government of all parties. This could tempt winners from the UPFA to join the government as they did earlier.

3. Sri Lanka has no anti-defection law. So if neither coalition wins a majority, whoever can do political horse-trading better can count on forming the government. In the past, Rajapaksa has proved to be a past master in such "under the table" deals.

Four "buts"

1. Both Rajapaksa-loyalists and Sirisena-loyalists of the UPFA are working to undermine each other's candidates. This is likely to reduce the coalition's chances of winning. This could, moreover, give a free run to Wickremesinghe's coalition, particularly with the added attraction of a national government.

2. The last presidential election showed that a massive turnout of minority voters could decide the winner. But parliamentary election in the 22 electoral districts that elect 195 members is different from the presidential poll; there are a number of local issues which will come into play in this election. How many of them would be drawn to the polling booths now? The electoral system has also been modified for this election. Both Wickremesinghe and the minority parties appear to be aware of this and have been focusing on national issues. But how much will that excite the minority voters to exercise their franchise?

3. Rajapaksa has been plugging Sinhala nationalism in his campaign. He was defeated in 2009 despite diluting the nationalist credentials because allegations of corruption and misuse of power had clouded his image. Has he regained the credibility of Sinhala voters who had generally supported him? More importantly, would the swing voters prefer his reincarnation as prime minister?

4. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has always managed to win most of the seats in the northern and eastern parts of the country. However, it always had internal differences regarding the struggle for preserving the Tamil identity. With the exit of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), the goal of the Tamils recovering from the post-war trauma is to survive rather than pursue their quest for a Tamil Eelam. The TNA had not been able to deliver its election promises in the past owing to both Colombo's inaction and its own inability to articulate a common agenda. TNA's internal differences have now become deeper. How much it would affect its performance? Wickremesinghe has said that he supported a federal solution for the Tamil issue which is one of the articles of faith of the TNA. But the moot question is how much the TNA can push it through even if it wins most of the seats. In the past, it failed because it had not developed the fine art of political opportunism. In a Parliament without either coalition winning a majority, can it change its style of politics?

By Tuesday afternoon the picture will clear on who is winning and who is losing. And the great game of horse-trading may well begin after that.

Writer

Colonel R Hariharan Colonel R Hariharan @colhari2

The writer is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia with rich experience in terrorism and insurgency operations.

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