By Dr Sripathi Narayanan
After two COVID-19 induced postponements in 2020, Sri Lanka’s parliamentary election took place on 5 August. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) was sworn in as the prime minister on 9 August after his party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), secured 145 seats and 59 per cent of the popular vote. With allies, the SLPP secured 151 of 225 seats—the two-thirds majority required for effecting constitutional change. These results and the 71 per cent voter turnout indicate that Sri Lanka not only voted resoundingly in favour of the Rajapaksas but equally rejected pioneering political parties. A closer look at the voting pattern offers insights into the current political priorities and the emerging political landscape in the country.
The SLPP fielded Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) as their candidate in the November 2019 presidential election, and he won, securing 52.25 per cent of the popular vote. He named his brother MR as his prime minister. The SLPP’s sweeping victory in the parliamentary poll is not only a vote of confidence in Rajapaksas’ favour but is also a reflection of the public’s faith in and expectations from the administration on bread-and-butter issues. The poor show by the divided opposition post their November 2019 electoral defeat underscores this further.
Under its proportional representation format for parliamentary elections, Sri Lanka directly elects representatives to 196 of 225 seats. The remaining 29, the ‘National List’ seats, are distributed among political parties based on their vote-share. The SLPP won 128 elected seats and 17 via the National List. Their primary rival, the Sajith Preamadasa-led Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), which split from the United National Party (UNP) in early 2020, won 54 seats (47+7). The UNP, led by three-time prime minister and party boss, Ranil Wickremesinghe, won its lone seat via the National List. President GR’s predecessor, Maithripala Sirisena (of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party/SLFP, which is SLPP’s junior partner) could win his parliament seat only by contesting on the SLPP’s ‘Lotus Bud’ symbol. For decades, the SLFP and UNP have been traditional rivals, based as much on ideology as personalities, until now.
The 2020 election results are thus a reflection of voters’ disillusionment with the status quo. It is also the country’s call for harmony between the executive and the legislature, represented by the president and prime minister respectively. In the context of the Rajapaksas, it is an endorsement of the executive presidential system that they promised to wholly restore. This endorsement is especially from the Sinhala majority, which comprises 75 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population, that too in the midst of anticipated revival of criticism from the civil society and the international community.
Meanwhile, the Tamil-dominated North and the multi-ethnic East—Jaffna and Vanni, and Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara electoral districts respectively—with 22 seats (16 and 6) too sprung surprises. In the traditional ‘backyard’ of the relatively moderate Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), the ITAK-led Tamil National Alliance (TNA) failed to keep its flock together. The TNA is now down from 16 seats in 2015, to 10 in 2020.
In Jaffna and Vanni electoral districts, which comprise the Tamil-dominated Northern Province, two hardliner ‘Tamil nationalist’ parties, namely the Thamil Makkal Thesiya Kuttani led by former TNA Chief Minister, CV Vigneswaran, and Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam’s Ahila Ilankai Thamil Congresssecured one and two seats respectively. Long-time Rajapaksa ally, the Douglas Devananda-led Eelam People’s Democratic Party, won two seats. Another Rajapaksa ally, the SLFP, won its lone seat from here, its first in 40 years. Of the four seats in Trincomalee, the SJB secured two while the SLPP and ITAK won one each. Indicative of ITAK-TNA’s plummeting popularity, TNA leader, R Sampanthan, won the ITAK seat but with a lower vote-share than the Rajapaksas.
With moderate and hardliner Tamil parties securing only 13 of 22 seats, and southern parties like the SJB and SLPP winning seats in the Tamil areas, it is not only a wakeup call for the TNA, but also indicative of the increasing divergence among Tamil voters between ‘rights’ and ‘livelihood’. The message from middle-path voters is that the next time around, they will choose between development and jobs promised by the Rajapakas, and ethnic rights sought by the hard-liners.
The constitutional reforms issue flows from the 19th Amendment (April 2015), which curtailed the powers of the president and restored the two-term upper-limit for incumbents. This Amendment was promulgated during the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, combining some genuine issues caused by the MR administration (2005-15) and non-existent issues for which they considered the Rajapaksas responsible.[D1] Incidentally, much of the internal bickering of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration also stemmed from the 19th Amendment.
When pursued, constitutional reforms will reflect the Rajapaksa brothers’ latest thinking on the executive presidency. Unlike the previous administration, no conflict is anticipated between the president and the prime minister. However, any constitutional change will also have to seek a lasting and sustainable solution to the ethnic issue. This may just have become more difficult to achieve given the altered composition of Tamil representation in the parliament. The question is: will the Rajapaksas choose a path inspired by higher principles, or individual desire as JR Jayewardene did with the current constitution that was introduced in 1978?
The author is an Assistant Professor, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, India. He can be reached at [email protected]