Now that the New Year revelries are behind them, political parties, their leaders and cadres alike all across, are out in the open fighting the much-delayed local government (LG) polls that none other than the Joint Opposition (JO) identified with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa seems wanting. Especially, the ruling duo of President Maithiri Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe should feel uncomfortable at the prospects of the LG poll verdict going the JO way in the majority Sinhala areas, which was the available indication at the end of the parliamentary polls in August 2015.
The reasons are obvious. An unholy, and a unbecoming alliance is in power at the Centre, as mostly has been the case through the post-Independence democratic past. The uncomfortable allies from Sirisena-led SLFP faction and the UNP, where Ranil’s critics have been maintaining a long silence uncharacteristic of them, are still at it together, especially at voting-time in Parliament, not because they love each other, or love their respective leaders, or even their parties’ purported ideology, as understood during thedays of their respective founding.
Instead, they are there because they are already there. They continue to hold the alliance together, despite all sound and fury outside of voting-time in Parliament it is only because they want to continue there as long as they could help. Many, if not most, in the Sirisena SLFP clearly owe their seats to the Rajapaksa campaign. They had no problems when the numbers did not add up for Mahinda to become Prime Minister, post-poll, and Sirisena as President did the constitutionally right thing to hang on further with Ranil & Co from the very day he took office as President.
The LG polls may be a different cup of tea. Going by the events and developments of the past year and more, especially since the Rajapaksa JO reportedly kept winning a swathe of rural cooperatives elections, the Government parties, especially Sirisena’s ministerial SLFP and Ranil’s majority UNP partner gave the impression that they were shy of meeting the voter. At one stage, they were also talking against addressing referendum-centric clauses in the new Constitution, fearing that it would also be a referendum on their own continuance in office.
It is not as if the Rajapaksa JO is feeling as comfortable as they might have sounded and hoped for, as the LG polls approached. They are no more talking about advancing the Provincial Council polls to when due, against the amended constitutional provision of having them together with parliamentary polls, when due. It is another matter none in any political camp or outside, has asked what if political stability rocks Parliament into early dissolution and fresh polls whereas not many provincial councils remain unaffected?
The assumption is that with ‘defection’ ensuring that parliamentary elections are avoided as long as possible, they did not have to apply their minds while providing for ‘simultaneous polls’ while passing the constitutional amendment. The second assumption, they anyone had cared to apply his/her mind even for a minute, would have been that whenever parliamentary instability led to early polls, if at all, then the same would impact on individual PCs, too (barring of course, the Tamil-majority North, at least for now and possibly the near future, too).
It is one thing that most constituents of the disjointed JO are opposed to most crucial provisions of the Steering Committee Report on the Constitution, especially those addressing Tamil concerns on the ‘national problem’. If they were to sweep the LG polls, as they seem to claim, then the nation can forget a new Constitution, unless it is to remove 13-A and such other saving clauses from the past.
Even without it, the very designing of the constitutional questions for the Constituent Assembly was/is only a replay or reversal of the way the UNP, then again under Ranil W, washed out the ‘Chandrika Package’ in Parliament nearly two decades ago. By including contentious issues such as the ‘Unitary State’, Executive Presidency and Buddhism’s place, et al, they drafters have very carefully ensured that the ‘national problem’ too would go down the drain.
It was here that a 20-A, on the lines of 13-A and the rest, would have served an adequate purpose. Anyway, the mood of the Sinhala people and hence the polity on non-ethnic aspects of the constitutional issues were known, and that they were unchangeable and non-negotiable.
Better still, the Tamil TNA’s reconciliatory approach to these issues and willingness to de-link them from power-devolution problem was also known. But by placing the baby in the bath-tub in the first place, they all are ready to throw the baby with the bath-water. Any electoral reversals, and consequent stalemate inside Parliament, and more so outside, would only be yet another ‘justification’ (?), why they could not deliver on their promise to the nation and the Tamils ahead of the unprecedented Elections-2015.
In this background, an advantage, if any, for the Rajapaksa JO in the LG polls would mean that all those SLFP parliamentarians wanting to contest the next round o parliamentary polls, whenever it became to be held, could well cross the floor, one way or the other. If some ‘disgruntled’ allies other than the UNP and individual UNP members, who feel shaky in their native districts/constituencies after the LG polls, then they too could well sent out feelers to the Rajapaksas.
The reverse would be truer, if the JO were to be wiped out in the LG polls. Even if the UNP swept all those votes, seats and local bodies, even then the Sirisena SLFP would feel bolstered and more relevant than ever. The JO camp would be wiped out by the evening. No one is predicting a Sirisena sweep at the LG polls, but should it happen, then the UNP would have cause for worries. Then, party cadres and the second-line would blame the top leadership for feeding a non-existent party through the past three years, to their own peril.
All of it would still mean a political flux, at least until fresh parliamentary elections became due. After 19-A, the President cannot dissolve Parliament until it had completed four and half years of its five-year term, that is till mid-2019. In contemporary Sri Lankan politics, that is a long distance away. A realignment at the national-level is a possibility, what with the UNP encouraging floor-crossing as Rajapaksa would be doing if the JO were to repeat its twin performances of 2015, even while losing both in the real-numbers game.
Alternatively, a piqued UNP could hope to gobble up a majority with inside/outside support from the TNA, but then the leadership of the latter would face internal problems. If the TNA parliamentary group were to split right in the middle, with no loss to the ‘rebel’ camp under Northern Province Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran, just now, then the Sampanthan leadership would have neither the party, nor a share in power, as some may have thought of as a way at integration and mainstreaming.
It is thus that the LG polls has the potential to rock the boat for every stake-holder and political player, across the nation, whether or not individual voters are aware of it. Yet, the question remains, what if the majority Sinhala heartland goes three way, or two-ways as in the parliamentary polls? Then again, there would be readjustments and would have to be readjustments. No one would have the time or energy, again for a new Constitution or the ‘national problem’.
This commentary originally appeared in The Sunday Leader.