Battle lines are being drawn for the upcoming general election by all major political parties despite the hullabaloo about the dissolution of Parliament, the 20th Amendment to the Constitution and the reconstitution of political alliances in the post-January 8 scenario.
The United National Party (UNP) made no secret that it was yearning for an early dissolution. It was keen to cash in on the goodwill generated by the party’s support for President Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential election and aware that any delays will diminish its returns.
Having cajoled the opposition in to granting them a two-thirds majority to bring forth the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, it watched with great expectation and masterful inactivity when the 20th Amendment was presented as it believes a first-past-the-post system will be to its disadvantage.
That the UNP is hesitant to endorse a first-past-the-post system suggests that it is still not confident about its support base in the country. The other reason why it was enthusiastic about early elections was the factional infighting in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
The UNP’s concerns are valid. Its popularity has not really been tested recently at a major election. The January presidential election, while being productive for the UNP indicated the cumulative effect of disenchantment with Mahinda Rajapaksa, support for Maithripala Sirisena as well as the UNP vote.
That is not an accurate barometer of the UNP’s level of support. The last occasion the party contested a national election was at the 2010 general election when its vote slipped to a record low of 29 percent. That too was not a correct reflection because the UNP was swept away in the post-war euphoria.
Still, this is the UNP’s best chance to return to power in a meaningful manner in twenty years. Its previous attempt in 2001 was undermined by then President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Now, they are fortunate because President Sirisena is obliged to the UNP for its support at the polls.
In the SLFP, confusion reigns. President Sirisena is struggling to enlist the support of all his party men. Some are standing with him. Others are openly defying him. A third group, including party seniors Nimal Siripala de Silva, Susil Premajayantha and Anura Yapa are wavering.
The President has categorically stated that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa would not be accommodated in the SLFP’s nomination lists where he has the final say. Despite this, some SLFPers are still talking to the party hierarchy to try and unite the two leaders.
It appears to be a futile effort as the President has remained firm in his stand. His position is that he won the election on a mandate to remove Rajapaksa from office and bring his era to an end. To nominate him again would negate that and his credibility is at stake, the President argues.
This poses a problem to many SLFP parliamentarians. They would prefer to run on a SLFP ticket because of the party’s vote base. However, at least some of them are uncertain whether to switch allegiance to the Rajapaksa camp because the former President’s mass appeal still attracts votes.
Meanwhile, the Rajapaksa faction is going full steam ahead with plans to run as a separate entity at the election, in the event of being denied nomination from the SLFP. Its frontrunners will include Dinesh Gunewardena, Wimal Weerawansa and Vasudeva Nanayakkara apart from Rajapaksa.
Predictably this will divide the SLFP vote. This will happen with some regional variation with the Rajapaksa camp attracting substantial votes in the Matara, Hambantota, Ratnapura and Kurunegala districts. The quantum of this vote is the most significant unknown variable at this election.
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress are arguably the two largest ‘minor’ parties in this election. Both fought hard to thwart an electoral system that would give weightage to the first-past-the-post system. That would have been disastrous to these two parties.
The problem these parties have is that while their support base is spread throughout the country, they are unlikely to emerge frontrunners in any particular region. They won’t emerge on top at the election by any means but if one party fails to secure an absolute majority, their support could be crucial.
It is significant that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has hardly voiced an opinion regarding the 20th Amendment. That is because their representation is assured in the North and East, regardless of the electoral system. There is also potential for the TNA to join a new government after the polls.
Current indications are that the general elections will be a three-cornered tussle between the UNP, the SLFP and the Rajapaksa-led alliance. Who forms the next government though may well be decided on who wins the endorsement of the ‘minor’ parties.