With only hours to go for nominations for the general election to be closed, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and its major constituent party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is trying its best to overcome its internal differences in what has become a race against time.
The bone of contention is the nominations offered to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his loyalists. The potential accommodation of Rajapaksa has evoked protests not only from parties which supported President Sirisena at the last election but also from within the SLFP itself.
If the UPFA becomes the single largest party in the next Parliament, there is little that the President can do to prevent Rajapaksa becoming Premier. That would be a nightmare for President Sirisena
While other parties are claiming that this is a betrayal of everything that Sirisena stood for at the January election, SLFPers who quit the Rajapaksa Cabinet along with Sirisena are worried at the prospect of Rajapaksa’s return, fearing they would be marginalized and victimized.
The President has declared that even if Rajapaksa does contest on the UPFA list, he will not be a prime ministerial candidate. However, if the UPFA becomes the single largest party in the next Parliament, there is little that the President can do to prevent Rajapaksa becoming Premier.
That is because the Prime Minister needs to enjoy the confidence of the majority in Parliament. Since President Sirisena did not enjoy the backing of a majority within his own party in the last Parliament, it is certain that if Rajapaksa is elected, he can rally the required numbers to become Prime Minister.
That would be a nightmare for President Sirisena because the next Prime Minister will enjoy considerable executive powers, granted through the recently enacted 19th Amendment to the Constitution which was pushed through Parliament by Sirisena himself.
Another issue that is causing concern is offering nominations to former parliamentarians some of whom backed Rajapaksa defiantly and others who have corruption charges against them. Again, the President made a campaign pledge that they would be not be accommodated.
The current thinking is that even if Rajapaksa is granted nominations, some of his loyalists will miss out and names as to who they will be are being mentioned in the media. This forces Rajapaksa into a tight corner, having to forsake some of his allies who stood by him when he was defeated.
As a result of all this, nominations in the UPFA have become a subject of much speculation with the media being flooded with stories that contradict one another. The SLFP and UPFA general secretaries, Anura Yapa and Susil Premajayantha also appear to contradict the President.
Meanwhile, the President has maintained a deafening silence saying only that the ‘January 8 revolution’ would not be reversed. How he can do so while offering Rajapaksa nominations is the question but there is speculation that there could be further changes over the next few days.
It is to guard against the prospect of the SLFP and the UPFA rejecting his nominations at the eleventh hour that the Rajapaksa camp has made other arrangements. Nomination lists have been prepared from another party and should the SLFP or the UPFA reject Rajapaksa, these will come in to play.
The United National Party (UNP) was banking on the SLFP led UPFA breaking up in to two camps to ensure their victory. With the prospect of Rajapaksa entering the fray from the UPFA still being current, the UNP’s election campaign is also affected.
If Rajapaksa contests separately, the UNP would emerge as the single largest party in almost all the districts in the south, earning them about 20 bonus seats under the proportional representation system which could tilt the balance of power in the next Parliament.
That is not a certainty the UNP could count on now. It is also aggrieved that the President won his election mostly because of UNP votes on a campaign that was run at the grassroots level by the UNP, facing up to intimidation from the then government and at the cost of one life.
The UNP is better off getting its act together and confronting its opponents head on instead of waiting for a victory by default. If the UPFA does include Rajapaksa and his allies, the UNP’s cause could be helped as it could claim that those rejected in January are aiming for a comeback.
Just as much as the Rajapaksa camp argues that there is a wave of support for the former President, there is also a rising tide of discontent among moderates who voted for President Sirisena – not necessarily UNPers – who are aghast that Rajapaksa is making a return.
It is up to the UNP to exploit that segment of the electorate to try and get back to winning ways. After six months of a minority Parliament and a President who is increasingly seen as weak and vacillating, it would be in the country’s best interests to have a stable government of whatever hue.