Now it is almost official: Parliament will be dissolved within the month, possibly after the passage of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution that will usher in electoral reforms and a general election will be held in a few weeks. The poll though, will be held on the proportional representation (PR) basis.
These impending political developments emerged last weeks in talks President Maithripala Sirisena had with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The ruling United National Party (UNP) is certain to welcome the move but the President’s own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) will not.
The rationale for the early election is that the changes wrought by the 20th Amendment will take up to one year, to implement. That is because it incorporates complicated measures such as redefining electoral boundaries and educating voters and officials on the new modus operandi.
The current Parliament is already in disarray. The party with a majority is in the Opposition. A party with a minority governs. It is not a state of affairs that augurs well. This was manifestly evident when the government attempted to pass the 19th Amendment. It was approved but after a raft of changes.
The UNP is very aware that an early election is to its advantage. It can then carry through the momentum it generated at the presidential election. It has a modest record in government in the past four months with the striking exception of the scandal involving the Central Bank Governor.
The UNP’s ‘mini-budget’ offered a series of concessions to the average citizen. If an election is delayed, these will be soon forgotten by the voter. Also, the cash-strapped government will be forced to rein in public spending and impose unpopular economic measures to fill the state coffers.
The other advantage to the UNP is that an early election will ensure it will be held on the PR basis. The party’s popularity is on the rise, but it is debatable whether it can command a majority of votes in the deep south of the country. At the presidential poll, the UNP nominee lost these regions.
If the election is held totally on the PR basis, the party can still win a decent number of seats from these areas and command a vast majority of the seats from the more urban and cosmopolitan regions. This will give the UNP its best chance of forming a government since 2001.
Its cause will be helped by the dilemma the SLFP finds itself in. In an eerie re-run of the leadership squabbles of the UNP only a few months ago, party faithful are now divided between President Sirisena and his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is likely to be a long-drawn-out tussle.
When Rajapaksa met the President for talks aimed at reconciling the two factions last weeks, the demands he made were impossible to concede. The only request from the Sirisena camp – cancelling a ‘bring back Mahinda’ rally in Kurunegala – was rejected by Rajapaksa and the talks were a stalemate.
There is one piece that is still to fall in to place for the general election line up: will Rajapaksa do what is best for the SLFP and, along with his loyalists, contest from the party or will he strike out on his own, in partnership with Wimal Weerawansa, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Dinesh Gunewardena?
If he opts for the former, President Sirisena will have no choice but to accommodate Rajapaksa and at least some of his nominees on the SLFP ticket. That would allow Rajapaksa to get his foot in the door for a return to politics and possibly even the Premiership. It will also unite the SLFP.
If Rajapaksa chooses to contest as a separate entity, it will not only split the SLFP vote, it will also extract some party stalwarts to the Rajapaksa camp which can be very damaging at an electoral level. The UNP and even the JVP, which will also attract the anti-UNP vote, will benefit if this happens.
The JVP, and even the Jathika Hela Urumaya for obvious reasons wishes the polls to be held on a solely PR basis. That is because, while they each command a significant slice of the national vote, it will find it difficult win at an electorate level under the first past the post system.
A parallel could be drawn from the recent elections in Britain where the United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP) polled 12.6% of the national vote but won only a solitary seat in the 650-seat Parliament. Under the PR system, it could have won about 80 seats!
The political theater has been full of drama in the past six months, ever since Maithripala Sirisena declared his ‘common’ candidacy on November 21 last year. Now, Sirisena has declared polls would be held soon and more intrigue is on the cards.