Where from here after the LG polls?


by N Sathiya Moorthy

Grant it to Basil Rajapaksa’s political acumen and electoral organisation. At last count, his pre-poll prediction of Mahinda R-led SLPP would bag 225-250 local government institutions across the nation has come closer to the truth. The last time round, his calculations were equally correct in that he predicted that for incumbent Mahinda to win the presidential polls in January 2015, they would require a minimum of 25-30 per cent of the Tamil and Muslim votes. Mahinda did not get them, and lost.

The Basil predictions of the day hid another tale, which went mostly unacknowledged. That Mahinda R still held a substantial share of ‘majority Sinhala votes’ then, as since. There is no denying that Mahinda’s 47-per cent vote-share in the presidential polls, down to 42.38 per cent in the parliamentary elections eight months later in August 2015, and now marginally up, to 44.65 per cent, in the local government polls of February 2018, are mostly personal and/or personalised votes. That again holds a story of its own.

There is no denying that victorious presidential candidate Maithiripala Sirisena’s vote-share came mostly from his UNP ally (?) since, and also the ‘minority’ Tamils and Muslims. If one were to go by the UNP vote-share of 45.66 in the parliamentary polls and TNA’s 4.62, and JVP’s 4.87, Sirisena possibly did not (!) bring in any vote to call his own in the 51.28 per cent he polled in 2015. Yet, his SLFP (4.4 per cent) and UPFA (8.94) together have got 13.34 per cent votes.

In the LG polls, Mahinda has yet got more than their SLFP’s parliamentary poll figure under their joint stewardship. One back-of-the-envelope possibility is that ‘swing voters’ who went with the UNP in the presidential and parliamentary polls have now gone back to Mahinda the man, as in the post-war presidential polls of 2010. Even more simplistically, Mahinda R and the UNP (45.66 pc / 32.63 pc) have swapped places between the parliamentary polls and the LG elections now, at least in terms of vote-share, with a minor segment of the swing-voters still preferring Sirisena SLFP, which has a woefully dwindled share of cadre and party votes from the past.

Yet, there is no denying that the UNP has once again proved to be the single largest party in the country with a steady vote-share, though it also means that it cannot win any election on its own, without ‘imaginative’ allies of the Sirisena type, who could ‘shock’ the voter into disbelief and then hope. The question now is if the Ranil leadership still has more of the kind in its bag, or if the UNP has another leader who has the time, energy and acceptance level within the party to be able to work for larger, voter-acceptance.

Bandaranaike legacy

No prize for guessing who has got it, be in Sirisena’s native Polonnaruwa district (where the margin of vote-share loss was a relatively respectable 5,000 votes overall), or SLFP scion CBK’s Gampaha (where the SLPP got five times as many votes as the parent party, and much less than the UNP, which was the distant second with a district-level margin of 200,000 votes). Who then laughed at Mahinda’s pre-poll claims to being the ‘inheritor’ of the Bandaranaike legacy in the SLFP? If at all anyone has it now, it is either he, proved thrice in a row unaffected by war and victory, or it is just not there, in political and electoral terms.

Already, the SLPP-JO has demanded that President Sirisena invite Mahinda R to become prime minister in Ranil’s place. The other two cannot complain, or even protest too much, whatever the justification for denying the same to Mahinda now. Having used the presidential poll results to replace his own SLFP prime minister of the day with a UNP rival in January 2015, Sirisena, if he wished so, could do it again, the JO having pointed out that they now have more MPs than what Ranil had then.

Needless to point out if Mahinda now wished, he could have more of MPs, definitely from the official SLFP but possibly also from other parties. Already, the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), the parent-party of Upcountry Tamils, as different from the Sri Lankan Tamils’ TNA, is joining hands with the SLPP to head at least two local government bodies in that region. Though not to the same extent as in the past, the CWC has still not recovered some of the past ground, indicating that their own people are not happy with the claims and performance of the pigmy parties that came to replace the CWC with promises, which seem to remain worse than that.

TNA’s woes

In his early reaction to the early LG poll results, Mahinda R reportedly claimed SLFP leadership and official recognition as the main Opposition in Parliament, which position he would occupy. The TNA, whose R Sampanthan now occupies the seat, has lot more to worry about, but then they all knew that it was not theirs by vote but by choice – the choice of Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who could not but have it otherwise, considering that the ruling duo would have none of Rajapaksa or his stand-by in Dinesh Gunawardene.

Even without it, the TNA has a lot to worry about. Despite having retained overall control of the Tamil-majority areas in the North and the East, at least in percentage terms, their shared has fallen by about a third– from 4.62 per cent in the parliamentary polls to 3.07 per cent in the LG elections. No points for guessing again, as the non-TNA, anti-TNA Tamil parties have gained the upper-hand in many places, if their votes are added. Less said about the technical calculation of adding all non-TNA votes in a single pool the better it is for the TNA.

Even without it all, the TNA has a lot to worry about. True, the incumbent government does not want the provincial council polls just now. It includes that for the Northern Province, which is otherwise due later this year. Maybe, chief minister C V Wigneswaran may not have won a vote for his hard-line stance in the LG polls either, as with the parliamentary elections, but then that does not automatically guarantee as clean a sweep as in the past for ‘the moderate’ TNA leadership any more.

Though only by a periphery still, the TNA leadership has cause to worry for being dubbed ‘B-Team’ of Ranil at times, Maithiri on occasions, and of both, almost always. Now with Mahinda’s SLPP gaining the upper-hand and his partners in the JO already talking about dumping the proposed Constitution, the TNA would have a lot more to tell its voters as to what they were doing for the larger Tamil cause over the past three years of the love-hate co-habitation with the ruling duo (other than lining some pockets, as was alleged from inside).

Conciliatory reference

Mahinda did make some conciliatory references to the ‘national problem’, however oblique it was, in his first reaction to the LG polls. But then, his energies are going to be drawn into yet another round of political one-upmanship within the majority Sinhala polity, where he has to ensure that he remains on the top, and also that the other two do not join hands all over again. This can happen if and only if he is able to frighten the SLFP-UPFA parliamentarians with apprehensions about the next parliamentary polls than presidential elections, which he cannot contest directly.

Mahinda should also be worried even more about his ability to ‘transfer’ all his votes to a presidential candidate of his choice, as he is barred under 19-A to try his luck a fourth time (having lost the 18-A facilitation in 2015). It cannot be Sirisena even if they patched up. It could be Gota R, between now and then, the Rajapaksas would have to be busier than ever, staying away from more court cases, and prisons, this time around through final verdicts, at least of the trial courts.

Sirisena may not have much to worry about. He was a ‘usurper’ at least as far as the SLFP leadership is concerned, just as Mahinda was when he replaced CBK as party chief. Sirisena also continued to behave like a usurper, not only viz the party post but also as the nation’s President, which he had won through a legitimate poll process. If his stars seem to be sinking, it is only in proportion to the return of Mahinda’s to its place. But then, á¹€ahinda today needs Sirisena as much as the President of the nation, and not as the president of the divided SLFP, but then the Rajapaksas would also need to decide if they want to conquer the old party or retain the new imagery – that they do not require other identities than theirs to win and retain voter-support bordering on loyalty.

Ranil’s troubles

The same cannot be said of Ranil and the UNP. Those that had been living daggers drawn at Ranil in the name of his leadership losing a series of elections over the past several years could do nothing but to stand silent when the ‘Sirisena coup’ worked against the Rajapaksas, and also worked for the UNP. Now is then the time for ‘em all to put Ranil in the party dock, and demand replacement, as Ranil’s possible future elevation as president and their own hopes to become prime minister under a UNP-led dispensation look dim ‘especially under this leadership’.

The question is if the likes of Sajith Premadasa, who have had maintained stoic silence all along when Ranil, despite being Prime Minister, was taking the party southward all over again, could derive traction from the party cadres after a gap. True, the ‘urban elite’ fight for succession in the UNP may have dimmed after Ravi Karunanayake burnt his boat on all sides, from within the Central Bank bonds issue, under his care.

But there are others like Wijedasa Rajapakse, a urban-rural mix, who has an SLFP past too, and who jumped the boat before the fire engulfed it, and Harsha de Silva, who seemed targeting the other over the former’s ‘Hambantota retrieval’ statement as minister and would not sleep until Wijedasa was sacked from the ministry. But any or all of them would require to ‘market’ the self to the party first and against one another, before having the time and energy still left to market himself or herself to the people, either collectively or otherwise. It should also be insurance enough for Ranil W, in the interim at the very least.

But then, having deliberated over delaying the LG polls for three years and together at it, and having deliberately upping the stakes, to making it a national election fought on national issues, instead of village and street-level concerns, none can complain now, that the other party did not win or lose the way they claimed to be. If nothing else, even in its post-poll observations, the UNP is only saying that SLPP does not have the votes to make Mahinda R, president again, forgetting that they too could not make Ranil or anyone else, nor could they hope to string together another alliance of the 2015 kind, and expect the Sri Lankan voters, including the war-affected Tamils, to trust them, still, starting with their claims to unity and even more on ‘good governance’.

That is where also Mahinda’s immediate success remains, not in his ability to win elections on his own, either for the self, or for another Rajapaksa or any other of his choice for the presidency. The rest of it can wait, for Mahinda and also for his adversaries – but then that wait can become costlier than already for the nation and the people, who have had enough and more of it, long after the end of the war, which used to be the convenient punch-bag of the polity in the past, not anymore!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@gmail.com)

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