Monday’s general election returned the United National Party (UNP) to power, although it fell short of an absolute majority. As the UNP prepares to govern the country for the next five years, battles within the factions of the opposition United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) are intensifying.
For the UNP, it has been a remarkable turnaround. Its own internal divisions were threatening to extend its stay in the opposition for decades. Today, it is in government, albeit with a President from the rival Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). It will need the SLFP’s support to form a government too.
Voting at the election shows that in general, the public has retained the decision they made in January this year to end Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rule. The UPFA lost all the districts which voted against Rajapaksa in January. Kegalle and Matale which Rajapaksa won, also voted for the UNP on August 17.
The power bases of the two parties show a remarkable regional demarcation. The UNP derives its strength in the multi ethnic constituencies in Colombo, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Badulla. The UPFA holds sway in the predominantly Sinhalese south of the country – Galle, Matara and Hambantota.
This is not surprising given the different campaign strategies of the two main parties. The UNP led alliance included Tamil and Muslim parties and emphasised ethnic reconciliation. The UPFA was keen to woo the Sinhalese vote, raising the possibility of a resurgence of terrorism if the UNP won.
In fact, President Maithripala Sirisena himself made reference to this when he fired a damning letter to his predecessor Rajapaksa, a few days before the election. In it, he noted that the SLFP was engaging in communal politics which will be to the party’s detriment. His prediction has come true.
At the height of the Eelam war, it was a strategy that paid off handsomely for Rajapaksa and the UPFA. Now, six years after the war ended, the electorate is less concerned about terrorists and worry more about economic prospects and allegations of corruption. The thirty year war is a distant memory.
The UPFA was also handicapped by the power struggle between the Sirisena and Rajapaksa factions. This was evident both in the party’s corridors of power in Colombo and at the grassroots level in the electorates where Sirisena loyalists were marginalised and were jeered at rallies. Many of them lost.
The UPFA still managed to win 95 seats and has the potential to be a potent opposition. However, its divisions continue to drag it down with the two factions now fighting for control over the party’s National Lists. It is hoped saner counsel would prevail and that President Sirisena will take control.
The role Rajapaksa would play in the SLFP and UPFA is still unclear. Publicly he has declared he will attend Parliament. There could also be a tussle for the Leader of the Opposition post for which Sirisena would want one of his loyalists appointed. Rajapaksa has expressed no desire for the job.
The UNP will breathe a sigh of relief after nearly twenty years in the Opposition. However it will not find governing easy. It has to rely on the SLFP to retain its majority in Parliament. It also has to accommodate diverse groups such as the Jathika Hela Urumaya and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.
It must also be wary that the UPFA, with 95 seats, is within touching distance of a majority in the House. All it needs is for 18 parliamentarians to switch loyalties and it could be in power. This would not have escaped Rajapaksa, who at 70 years wouldn’t want to spend five years in the Opposition.
The biggest disappointment on Monday was the performance of the JVP. It had arguably its best chance of gaining a high level of representation in Parliament as voters appears to be unhappy with both the UNP and the UPFA. Unfortunately but not unfamiliarly, this did not translate into votes.
The JVP still evokes fear and uncertainty in a generation of Sri Lankan voters. They haven’t done enough to reduce that in the psyche of the public. They also seem to cling on to socialist policies at a time when most of the world has jettisoned them. These are issues for the party to reflect on.
In the North of the country, the Tamil National Alliance, in the absence of any meaningful opposition, emerged easy winners. Its leader R. Sampanthan has pledged to ‘work with’ the new government indicating that its unrealistic demand for federalism would have been only for propaganda purposes.
Despite the different fortunes of the various political parties contesting the election, its most redeeming feature was its free and fair nature. Allegations of vote rigging were unheard of and the poll was peaceful. For that, Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya deserves unstinted praise.