The countrywide Local Government elections last week were meant to elect representatives at the grassroots but they caused not just a ‘Gamperaliya’, which Martin Wickramasinghe’s famous 1944 Sinhala novel depicted about the break-up of village life, but a near ‘aandu-peraliya’ or break-up of the Government. The impact of the newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna [...]


National instability amidst power games


The countrywide Local Government elections last week were meant to elect representatives at the grassroots but they caused not just a ‘Gamperaliya’, which Martin Wickramasinghe’s famous 1944 Sinhala novel depicted about the break-up of village life, but a near ‘aandu-peraliya’ or break-up of the Government.

The impact of the newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) at the February 10 elections is what has made the shaky National Unity Government almost fall apart. Ex-facie, the SLPP had a resounding victory, coming first in most of the 340 councils, especially in the south. The two ruling parties of the Government came second (UNP) and third (SLFP).

However, there is also merit in the argument that the SLPP camp obtained about the same vote it received in 2015, i.e. 44.6 percent (4.9 million votes) in 2018 which is not sufficient to win a national poll. The SLPP winning the councils in the south is still insufficient when considering the votes garnered by all the anti-SLPP forces combined.

The worry for its main contender, the UNP, though, is that the pro-President SLFP vote (13 percent) when added to the SLPP, which is a break-away faction of the SLFP would surpass the magic 50 per cent plus one vote which is the figure needed to win the next major election – the Presidential election in 2020.

Last week’s election results no doubt, sent the SLFP leader and the cabal around him into a spin, as it did the rank and file of the UNP. They all looked for a ‘fall guy’ for the debacle and found it in the Prime Minister. Had they kept cool heads, they would have realised that more than one-third of the 340 councils that were elected ended with a chance of the party coming first (mostly the SLPP) being overthrown at the first sitting of the council and in the election of the chairmen. That was a possibility if the pro-Yahapalana alliance (UNP-SLFP-JVP) stayed together. But, they panicked.

Too much blood-letting had taken place during the run-up to the elections within this alliance. Bipartisanship, or what was left of it, flew out of the window. They contributed to their own downfall jointly and severally. Eventually, they all paid the price for it.

The resultant flurry of political activity all of this week has seen the President putting the blame for the rout of the coalition partners squarely on the Prime Minister and the UNP. Clearly under pressure from this cabal of his own party Ministers who find themselves political orphans if they don’t join the breakaway faction, the President had asked his Prime Minister to step down in a brief 20 minute meeting on the very night the election results were completed. The Prime Minister responded the next day by saying his party, the UNP, would go it alone by forming its own Government should the need arise.

It was going to be the end to the rocky marriage of the two major political parties trying to run a National Government. Altruistically meant to end decades of party rivalry and work together for the benefit of the nation, the fact is that some SLFP Ministers had their bodies in the President’s camp and their hearts in the former President’s camp. They were beholden to the President for accommodating them in the cabinet despite some of them losing at the August 2015 parliamentary elections, but while wanting cabinet jobs in a National Government they also knew their political fortunes could be doomed if they remained in it any longer.

The dilemma for the President is that he is in power and place because of the votes the UNP gave him in January 2015 and now he is under pressure to virtually bite the hand that got him elected. Moreover, he is party to manoeuvres in forming an SLFP Government by enticing Opposition MPs to his side and embracing his bete noir, the former President. Long ridiculed by the breakaway faction of his party (now the SLPP) for doing a ‘Judas’-like act, having supped with his then leader and gone against him the next morning, the President now stands accused of doing it again: this time a ‘Brutus’-like act by ousting the Prime Minister whose party made him become an unlikely Head of State and Head of Government.

The President himself came a cropper at last week’s elections. He tried desperately to patch up with the breakaway faction, even at the last minute. Then, he went all guns blazing with anti-corruption rhetoric which failed to convince the voter. Instead, he kicked the ball into his own Government goal. Many blame him for presenting himself for the January 2015 presidential election as a ‘Common Opposition Candidate’ against the then powerful incumbent with the promise of ending the Executive Presidency and becoming a non-partisan statesman, but ending up just another politician wanting to cling on to the Executive Presidency.

All this panic in the Government ranks since last Sunday was grist to the mill for the SLPP hierarchy by then not only smelling blood in the opposite camp, but sniffing a return back to political office. The whole of this week was filled with the familiar numbers game in Parliament; who can command the majority of the House, from which party, and who are the frogs in national dress willing to jump from one side to the other. By Gad, they will all justify this as being done in the national interest.

As the week progressed, one thing was clear. The National Government was for all intents, passé. At best, it will be back to a Cohabitation Government like that of 1994 and 2001-2004 where the President was from one party and the Prime Minister from another. Or else, it was going to be a new alignment of political forces with the SLPP leadership pulling the strings of a lame-duck President struggling to stay afloat in turbulent waters.

In the latter scenario in particular, it is a matter of time before the President surrenders even his party chairmanship to the cock-a-hoop SLFP breakaway faction. He must rue the fact that he did not remain the ‘Common Candidate’.

Come the 2020 Presidential election, the abolition of the Executive Presidency is not on the agenda of any of the parties. The next best option for the President would be to agree to the abolition of the Executive Presidency and opt to remain the ceremonial Head of State, but not the Head of Government. By trying to oust the UNP leader from his post as PM, he is effectively trying to disqualify a potential opponent of his at the 2020 election.

While the politicians engage in their power-games, it is likely that instability will be what rules the country in the months ahead. Public servants, police officers and even judges will take cognizance of the evolving political minefield, and independent as they are supposed to be, individually they will all weigh in their options.

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