It’s all done. It may appear to be dusted too but we can’t really know. That’s the problem when no party secures an absolute majority. Things can change and they can change fast, especially in a political culture dominated by fickleness. This of course does not forbid discussing the winners and losers.
But before we get to that, kudos to the Elections Commissioner, all officers under him as well as law enforcement personnel for conducting the most peaceful election in several decades. The unwavering determination of Mahinda Deshapriya went a long way in this, but he was helped a lot by the climate created by the January 8 result. The rhetoric of good governance and democracy had to be backed with respect for the law. The Commissioner thrived in this situation.
This is not to say that it was all squeaky clean of course. The abuse of the state media was not as scandalous as in the tenure of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his predecessors including Chandrika Kumaratunga, but abuse there was. Incumbency helped. The UNP did not allow other parties, especially the UPFA, to campaign ‘freely’ in most of the districts out of the Western Province. The UPFA of course has no moral right to object, but the people do. The margins of victory, however, are such that it would be hard to claim that had the UNP not tweaked things this way the outcome would have been different.
First, there are the individuals or rather the high-profile candidates who didn’t make it this time. They were punished, one can conclude, or else they were they were victims of poor performance by their parties. There were more losers from the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) naturally.
S.B. Dissanayake, Athauda Seneviratne, Jagath Pushpakuamara, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, Vijith Vijayamuni Soysa, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Thilanga Sumathipala, Eric Weerawardena, Lalith Dissanayake, Rohana Dissanayake, Nandimitra Ekanayake, Nirupama Rajapaksa, Felix Perera, Neomal Perera, Shantha Bandara, Hemal Gunasekera, Piyasena Gamage, Jayaratne Herath and Jayantha Ketagoda are some of the prominent individuals who lost.
Joseph Michael, Rosie Senanayake and P Rajathurai are the prominent members of the United National Party (UNP) who failed to make it. Although the JVP returned 6 to Parliament, an improvement over the 3 they had when contesting with Sarath Fonseka, party stalwart Sunil Handunnetti didn’t get in. Ten individuals associated with the LTTE who represented the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) in the previous Parliament also lost.
It’s been ages since Parliamentary debates have been enriched by stellar oratory complemented by cogent argument and civilized conduct, and so the eviction of seniors will probably not result in great intellectual loss. And anyway, it was the people who decided and that’s something losers have to live with.
The more interesting discussion would be of the performance of parties. The UNP gained and the UPFA lost. The UNF (of which the UNP was the dominant partner) had just 60. This time around, they returned 106. The UPFA dropped from a whopping 144 to a relatively modest 95. Sarah Fonseka’s Democratic Party went down to zero. The ITAK improved from 14 to 16.
Only 4 JVPers got elected which has to be disappointing considering the weight of that party’s campaign. Clearly those who said the JVP would do well or that they support the JVP didn’t vote for the bell symbol. Perhaps the majority were those who were too shy to say they would vote for either the UNP or the UPFA. The NFF, although they probably drew from the SLFP vote base has done creditably to have 5 members elected. Had they contested on their own it is likely that their fate would not have been better than that of the Democratic Party.
A comparison of the performances of the TNA and the JVP makes interesting reading. The JVP, having polled 543,944 votes ended with just 6 seats (4 elected and 2 from the National List) while the ITAK with less votes (515,963) has 16 (14 elected, 2 from the National List). The allocating criteria clearly needs to be revisited in light of what appears to be an anomaly in the electoral system that questions the democratic intent of the exercise.
The UNP appears to have ridden the momentum of the January 8 victory of Maithripala Sirisena which propelled Ranil Wickremesinghe to the premiership in a UNP dominated Government. It is hard to claim that a great performance during the past eight months was the reason for the swing because there was good and there was bad. However, if the January 8 result was a product of a need for change and if hopes raised had not diminished, then it would make sense for the electorate to retain faith in the movers and shakers of the new Government.
It was tough. The UNP went against Mahinda Rajapaksa (more than the UPFA) and he had already got 5.8 million votes. The 6.2 million that Maithripala got would break up with hundreds of thousands going to the TNA, JVP, SLMC and other parties. The floating vote was also an unpredictable factor. What is clear is that the UNP voter, demoralized for years to the point of boycotting election after election, had come out in full force.
On the other hand, even if the UPFA (and the UNP to an extent) tried to frame this election as a for-or-against-Mahinda affair, the fact remains that people could vote for the man only in the Kurunegala District. In other areas other factors such as the track records of the candidates would have come into play. The UPFA lost a million votes from what its candidate polled in January 8. Some may have been demoralized by the defeat. Some may have been dismayed and confused by the strange and anti-party actions of the new leader of the SLFP, Maithripala Sirisena, even though the ardent Mahinda loyalists might claim that it actually solidified the SLFP vote.
For all this, the UPFA still managed to get over 90 seats. Those who were most vociferous in backing the ex-President came on top in their respective districts.
From President to an Opposition MP is quite a come down and what Mahinda Rajapaksa plans to do now would be interesting. He can be assured of continued harassment at the hands of his successor who has made no bones about his contempt and even hatred for the ex-President as well as his supporters. Dragging the SLFP out of the UPFA would not be too difficult. A national government made of the UNP and an SLFP that is totally under Maithripala’s control would force those who ran with Mahinda to reconsider loyalties.
Mahinda can depend on Dinesh Gunawardena, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Udaya Gammanpila, Wimal Weerawansa and the 4 others from the National Freedom Front (NFF). Whether or not others will side with him is uncertain. As things stand, though, he could legitimately expect the support of enough numbers to pip the TNA for the Opposition Leader’s post. He would be sacked from the SLFP though.
Overall, then, the UNP can justifiably be satisfied with the result even though it fell short of the magic number, 113. Indeed, in a context where a two-thirds majority would be needed to see through reform pledged by Maithripala Sirisena, this ‘lack’ which forces the UNP to come to some kind of accommodating arrangement with the SLFP, it is a blessing that is hardly disguised.
Reform would have been tougher or impossible had the numbers been reversed, especially given the bad blood between Sirisena and Rajapaksa, clearly not helped by the former’s scandalous disregard for the spirit of democracy. Had the Rajapaksa-led UPFA won an absolute majority it might have been better for stability, but all things considered political stability is better served by this outcome, whether or not one is thrilled by the prospect of a Sirisena-Wickremesinghe dispensation.
There are those who claim that had Rajapaksa kept out of, the UPFA (led by Sirisena) might have fared much better, but that again is conjecture. Sirisena has proved that only a fool would venture to predict his next move. The SLFP, in hindsight, made a huge blunder by inviting him back to the party. That was like asking one’s would-be executioner to hold the sword while one gets busy keeping neck to the dangediya. No tears for stupidity.
The new government has a lot to prove. Wickremesinghe and his team will have to be conscious of what led to the UNP’s defeat in 2004. Politics, around election time, centers around the Parliament, but Parliament does not contain politics.
The first 8 months of the Sirisena term gave the country a mixed bag. Ranil Wickremesinghe proved that friendship to him is of greater value than doing the right thing. Earlier, though, he was walking a tightrope. Now he is on firm ground. He can prove he is the leader this country needs in the necessary exercise of getting the rules right and in correcting a horrendously flawed institutional arrangement. In President Sirisena he has an ally. He went before the people with a manifesto. Those are a dime a dozen, this is known. He can, however, return to it far more often than his predecessors did. He won’t be held to ransom by errant party members. Not for a few years, anyway. Let’s wish him all the best. (MS)