Following the landslide victory of his new party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), at the local government election held on February 10, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa Monday demanded that the SLFP-UNP alliance government hold snap parliamentary elections.
Declaring that the local body election results have indicated without doubt that the government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has lost the popular mandate they were given by in 2015, Rajapaksa insisted that parliamentary elections should be held before the 2020 Presidential elections.
The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) won 239 local government councils obtaining 44.65% of the total votes, while the UNP won 41 councils getting 32.63% of the votes, while the Tamil Party the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) won in 34 local councils and the SLFP in an unprecedented historic defeat, won only in 10 councils.
Appearing jubilant and commanding, Mahinda Rajapaksa was the sole speaker at Monday’s press briefing although flanked by his key Joint Opposition members, amongst them, Professor G. L. Peiris, Wimal Weerawanse and Dinesh Gunawardena who separately addressed the media on Sunday soon after initial indications of SLPP’s sweeping victory.
When asked if he would join with the SLFP to form a government, a laughing Rajapaksa quipped ‘all supporters and workers of the SLFP are already with me.’
Rajapaksa’s sweeping victory at the local government polls was due to his new party attracting SLFP votes. This indicated that Rajapaksa, the former head of the SLFP before giving the reins of the party to President Maithripala Sirisena in January, 2015, was the main attraction in the elections.
“Only the SLFP leaders are with the party now,” Rajapaksa added. According to sources many key SLFP senior members, some of them holding ministerial positions with the current Unity Alliance government had soon after the SLFP’s debacle defeat Sunday, met Rajapaksa.
The former President declared that all economic projects have come to a standstill under the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe alliance. But he refused to answer the question as to what his current views were on China and India.
Prior to his defeat at the Presidential election in 2015 January 08, Rajapaksa was seen being as heavily pro China, having embarked on several signature projects with Chinese funding such as the Mattala airport and the Hambantota port project.
“People want development projects to be undertaken. They are in a hurry. They want a functioning government. They want economic progress. They want the maintenance of Sri Lanka’s unity and integrity and the safeguarding of its armed forces,” Rajapaksa declared, stating that the SLPP plans to rectify the damage done to all these areas under the rule of the current government.
“In our time, we borrowed from abroad for comprehensive projects that benefitted the people. Our government ended the war spending just US$ 2 billion while the present one has gone on a borrowing at a tangent and showing no proof of any development projects whatsoever.”
Rajapaksa’s statements indicated the common sentiments of the people who made their decision clear by their overwhelming vote on February 10 for the SLPP.
The current government was increasingly seen by Sinhala nationalists as pandering to the West while the liberals saw Sirisena as being keen to get on the ‘nationalist turf,’ by not moving in a significant manner on any of his promises to the minority Tamils, such as the ushering in of a new constitution with the aim of laying the foundation for long term peace and stability.
However, one of the main reasons for the defeat of the SLFP and UNP in the local bodies, is the Unity Government’s disarray in matters pertaining to development and the non fulfillment of its image as a ‘good governance’ champion, having itself got trapped in the infamous Central Bank bond scam that cost the country 11 billion Rupees.
However, despite the unpopularity of the current regime and the consistency of the popularity of the former President with the masses, as evident in May day celebration of his Joint Opposition in 2017, some critics were skeptical of SLPP winning comprehensively in the local bodies election as it was a totally new party.
The unpopularity of the current regime was recognized by a majority of media analysts, including those in media institutions that strongly backed the current leaders three years ago.
Meanwhile, several analysts also saw the trend of switching back to a previous leader, as an indication that Sri Lanka lacks a political option. Reports confirmed Monday that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, brother of the former President and the all powerful former Defence Secretary who was out of the country in the past weeks had returned to the island. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa expected to be the 2020 Presidential candidate of the SLPP.
Rajapaksa’s demand for snap polls vs the UNP
According to sources as of the night of Monday, Feb 12, despite the humiliating defeat of the United National Party (UNP), it is insisting on staying on in power, and is planning to form a government with some defectors from the SLFP.
Neither Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe or President Maithripala Sirisena had issued any formal statement on their plans but President Sirisena was quoted in the local media as telling his SLFP members that that he will soon bring about a ‘strong change.’
Meanwhile there were reports which were circulating Monday night, which indicated that President Sirisena was not against the UNP forming a government, while there were also reports that Sirisena has denied supporting the UNP to take reins over the government.
However, the President and Prime Minister are in a huddle with their respective parties. A source said that the parties in alliance with the UNP will meet the President on Tuesday.
If President Sirisena backs the UNP in their plan, he will be totally isolated by the SLFP, whose members may cross to the SLPP, keeping in mind their long term political future.
For Sirisena, to envisage a tie up with his arch enemy Mahinda Rajapaksa would be anathema but he would also be fully aware that he no longer has even a vestige of support within the SLFP.
Although constitutionally, he will be President till 2020, when the next presidential and parliamentary elections are due, he will also be aware that to call a snap general election now would lead to a clear victory for Rajapaksa’s SLPP.
The other option for Sirisena would be to allow the SLFP to negotiate a tie up with the electorally successful Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which will be akin to political suicide for Sirisena.
Despite their low performance in the local bodies poll, the UNP is in a reasonable position to negotiate with Sirisena as it needs only seven more MPs to form a government with a simple majority.
It was the UNP which enabled Sirisena to come to power as President as it’s common candidate. However, in any current negotiations with Sirisena, the UNP will be mindful that the President in the local government poll campaign of the SLFP as its leader, insisted that he would take away the economic portfolios which are held by the UNP.
According to sources in the meetings of Monday between Sirisena and UNP members, the UNP has vehemently objected to economic portfolios being taken away from them, insisting that they can deliver economic progress in the next two years if there is no ‘interference.’
Technically, the UNP has the ability to form a government on its own. It has 106 members in the parliament of 225, but needs seven more MPs to back it to give it a simple majority which they hope to obtain from the SLFP camp, hoping ministerial positions that could be offered will be considered attractive by them. According to the present schedule, parliamentary elections are due only in August 2020 and as per the constitution, a mid-term election can called only one and a half years prior to that date.
However, parliament can pass a resolution with two thirds majority to have an election even earlier than that.