Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, battle lines between the two major parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) are emerging prior to local government polls.

They are due around March next year and would, in the usual course of events, be of little significance since both the presidential and general elections have been held. The current political landscape though, with a national government and a divided SLFP, adds a new dimension to the polls.

This is my NationAt the presidential elections, the SLFP was a strong political entity, contesting as the largest party in the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), despite the defection of candidate Maithripala Sirisena and a handful of his loyalists. That had changed noticeably eight months later.

When the general elections were held, the power struggle between the two factions of the SLFP led by President Sirisena and his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa came to the fore. Licking his wounds after his defeat at the presidential poll, Rajapaksa was making a bid to be Premier.

That was not to be. Rajapaksa had to be content with becoming a Member of Parliament for Kurunegala. Since then, he has kept a low profile but has not been shy of releasing the occasional statement castigating the government and the President, most recently on the UNHRC issue.

The local government polls will create a few political conundrums. The UPFA still exists but the Sirisena camp fervently believes that the SLFP should go it alone at the elections because the smaller parties need the SLFP more than the SLFP needs them.

The other reason for this strategy is that the smaller parties in the UPFA, notably the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna led by Dinesh Gunewardena, the Democratic Left Front led by Vasudeva Nanayakkara and the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna led by Wimal Weerawansa are all avowed Rajapaksa loyalists.

There is speculation that these parties may form an alliance of their own and seek to enroll SLFPers disgruntled with the Sirisena administration. These groups have no other option: if they were to contest the election as separate parties, their performance would be abysmal.

Another issue the SLFP has to factor in is that most sitting members of local councils are Rajapaksa loyalists. It would be difficult for the party hierarchy to exclude most of them because of this affiliation. On the other hand, these members may also switch allegiance to President Sirisena.

The President will be keen to use the election to gain total control of his party, which eluded him during the general election. This dented the SLFP’s prospects at that poll with Sirisena loyalists claiming that they lost because Rajapaksa’s supporters actively worked against them.

The more interesting dynamic of this contest is the tussle between the UNP and the SLFP. In the presidential poll, the UNP supported candidate Sirisena. At the general election, the UNP and the UPFA ran against each other but President Sirisena did not participate in the UPFA campaign.

If the SLFP were to extricate itself from the UPFA and contest on its own, President Sirisena would, for the first time since declaring his candidacy for President, have to conduct an election campaign against the UNP which is the majority stakeholder in the national government he formed and leads.

A bone of contention in this would be the format the election would be held under. Several years ago, a parliamentary committee headed by Dinesh Gunewardena recommended that local government polls be held on a combination of the first past the post and proportional representation systems.

There was a clamour for a similar combination just before the general elections as well but the UNP was not too keen to push it through a divided Parliament because they feared they would lose out on representation under such a system. Now, the question is being debated again, albeit for a lesser prize.

The UNP, the majority stakeholder in the ‘national’ government, is dictating government policy. At the grassroots level, its popularity surged in the months leading up to the general election. This will be further tested in March and the party can gauge whether it is still more popular than the SLFP.

To do so, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP’s ministers will have to perform well in the sectors that they control. They will be mindful that the President and SLFP ministers also control key portfolios. If the cohabitation between the parties was uneasy, this poll will make it more difficult.

Local government elections hardly generate the enthusiasm that presidential or general elections do. But the polls tentatively scheduled for March will be watched with greater interest, for it will be a unique political experiment that could well redefine the national government.