The passage of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution allowing the re-introduction of the first-past-the-post (FPP) system in combination with the existing proportional representation (PR) system has remained elusive, despite the best efforts of President Maithripala Sirisena.
Although all major political parties publicly support the reforms, they have different agendas as to when it should be introduced. It is now becoming blatantly obvious that the United National Party (UNP) is the main stumbling block against seeing the 20th Amendment through Parliament.
When the UNP was attempting to pass the 19th Amendment that reduced presidential powers, it was the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that was trying to stall the changes, which it did for some weeks, insisting on various amendments to the original legislation.
At the time, the UNP was accusing its political rival of playing party politics instead of having the country’s greater interest at heart. The UNP though is now doing just that, focusing narrowly on the objective of returning to power at the next general election.
This stems from the need to be in absolute control of the government if it does win – or at least, emerges as the single largest party – after the next elections. That is because its last two stints in power in 2001 and now have been under Presidents from the SLFP.
Presently, it is working well with President Sirisena who is under obligation to the party because he became President with mostly UNP votes but in 2001, the Ranil Wickremesinghe government was at constant loggerheads with then President Chandrika Kumaratunga though they see eye to eye now.
Kumaratunga dismissed three UNP ministers and appointed three of her own to the UNP Cabinet. This uneasy cohabitation ended when Kumaratunga prematurely dissolved Parliament in 2004. So, the UNP is keen to have a free hand in the next government and avoid history repeating itself.
The UNP also feels that if the FPP system were to be introduced for the next elections, it would be at a disadvantage. This fear is based on the results of the January 8 elections where, at an electoral level, President Sirisena, the de-facto UNP candidate, lost many southern ‘electorates’.
The UNP is on the ascendancy but its support at the grassroots level may not have shifted significantly, especially in the deep South of the country to guarantee victories under a FPP system. Hence its apprehension about this and the dilly-dallying on the 20th Amendment.
There are, however, some pitfalls in this strategy. The UNP’s lack of support for the 20th Amendment has led to a delay in the dissolution of Parliament. Any further delay will only add to the UNP’s burden of incumbency, strange though that may seem for a party in office for only a few months.
A case in point is the Treasury Bond scandal involving the Governor of the Central Bank. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe insists the Governor is innocent but the issue doesn’t sit well with the public which was promised good governance and transparency by the new regime.
Another factor that the UNP is reluctant to take into consideration is the emergence of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as a third force at the next election. This seems almost a certainty now after developments that emerged last week which suggest that the crisis in the SLFP is worsening.
President Sirisena was categorical in declaring to partners of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) that he was not in favor of giving nominations for Rajapaksa as a candidate let alone his demand for prime ministerial candidate status. This came as a shock to many in the UPFA.
Rajapaksa has since responded through his media spokesman, stating he would definitely contest the forthcoming polls. This can only mean one outcome: Rajapaksa would have to run as a separate entity and compete with the SLFP for ‘opposition’ or ‘anti-UNP’ votes.
This will enable the UNP to sweep the board if the elections were held on a FPP system but that wouldn’t be the outcome if the polls are conducted on the present PR system when the spoils would have to be shared between the UNP, the mainstream SLFP and the party that puts forward Rajapaksa.
Sadly though, the UNP is sticking to its original game plan: early elections on the PR basis and trotting out the argument that even if the 20th Amendment is ratified Parliament, it would take many months more to be implemented. This is not the case because its utilization can be expedited.
Mahinda Rajapaksa put himself before the country’s interests and lost. Maithripala Sirisena put the interests of the country before the risks of running against Rajapaksa and won. If the UNP continues to play party politics it might be in for a rude shock from the Sri Lankan voter, come election time.