For a new term

Print edition : November 06, 2009

President Mahinda Rajapaksa. His popularity is at an all-time high.-N. RAM

PREDICTABLY, it is mega election(s) time in Sri Lanka. The three-decade-long military conflict is behind it. President Mahinda Rajapaksas popularity ratings are at an all-time high. The Southern Provincial Council (SPC), which went to the polls on October 10, is completely in the bag of the ruling party. In a clear sign that a presidential poll, followed by general elections, is in the offing, the Cabinet presided over by Rajapaksa on October 6 decided to present a vote on account to Parliament instead of a full-fledged budget for 2010.

The term of Parliament is scheduled to end in April next year. In an interview to The Hindu published in July, Rajapaksa had declared that he would seek re-election as President before the parliamentary elections.

Minister of Mass Media and Information Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, who is also the Cabinet spokesman, told a news conference that since Parliaments term was to end in April, the presentation of the budget for the whole year was not the accepted custom.

Under the Constitution, the President is empowered to call the presidential election once he/she completes four years of the six-year tenure. Rajapaksa completes four years in office in the third week of November. In the event of a presidential election held upon the incumbents completion of four years in office, the person elected to the office shall take oath only after the incumbent completes his/her full six-year term.

In his July interview to The Hindu, in response to a question on the much-needed and awaited political solution to the ethnic problem, Rajapaksa said:

I know what to give and I know what not to give. The people have given me the mandate, so Im going to use it. No way for federalism in this country. For reconciliation to happen there must be a mix [of ethnicities].

Even tomorrow I can give that [political solution] but I want to get that from the people. I am waiting, but it will be after my [re]election [as President].

Observers are of the view that Rajapaksa wants an early second term as his popularity ratings in the south are high after the military defeat of the LTTE in May and the death of its leader Velupillai Prabakaran.

Managers in the Presidents camp believe that if Rajapaksa is re-elected for a second term he will have a firmer grip on ruling party candidates for the parliamentary elections and be better placed to seek a clear majority for the alliance led by him in the new House.

At his rally on October 6 for the SPC, Rajapaksa asserted that the people of the south would react accordingly to international allegations levelled against the leaders who pioneered the humanitarian mission against the ruthless terrorists. His supreme confidence vis-a-vis the rest of the world is not difficult to understand. Barring the Northern Province, all the other eight provinces where elections were held after the commencement of Eelam War IV in August 2006 (it concluded in May 2009) voted in favour of the Rajapaksa-led alliance.

Were Rajapaksa to gain a two-thirds majority in Parliament, he would have the votes to change the Constitution in a bid to evolve a political consensus to hammer out a solution acceptable to all stakeholders in the ethnic strife.

There was never any doubt on the outcome of the SPC elections, and the debate centred only on the margin by which the ruling combine would take over the Council. The English daily Island, in an editorial on the day of polling for the SPC, wrote:

Suffice it to say that the JVP may consider it an achievement, if it could secure at least one seat in the 53-member Southern Provincial Council (SPC). And the UNP [United National Party] will have a good reason to be happy if it could fare a wee bit better than it did in Uva.

And the government will have won only if it could surpass itself in its stronghold, the South. That is, it will have to better its last performance in Uva, where it polled a little over 72 per cent of the valid votes. Even if it wins without achieving that target, it will leave room for the Opposition to claim [that] the end of the Rajapaksa regime has begun!

The UNP is already in the throes of a debilitating crisis, and it could only get worse if its leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, a former Prime Minister, fails to evolve quickly a suitable strategy to face the impending presidential election and the general elections.

As things stand, Rajapaksa is a sure winner if he chooses to seek a second term as his popularity is at an all-time high despite the fact that the minorities, Tamils and Muslims are not going to be on his side.

Whether the equation holds for the parliamentary elections as well is difficult to say now. In the past one year and five months, the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) has been on an electoral roller coaster, winning all eight P.C. elections: Southern, Eastern, North Central, Sabaragamuwa, Central, North Western, Western and Uva.

The first P.C. election held under the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa was to the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC). It was held after a gap of 20 years, on May 10, 2008. But more crucially, it was the first P.C. election held after the separation of the East from the North-East Provincial Council (NEPC).

In order to muster more support, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem, along with two other party stalwarts, chairman Basheer Segudawood and general secretary Hasen Ali, resigned their seats in Parliament to contest in the predominantly Muslim East.

The UPFA, along with the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP) led by former rebel leader Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan (Pillaiyan), emerged victorious in the election, winning 52.21 per cent of the votes (308,886) and obtaining 20 seats (including two bonus slots) in the 37-member Council.

The opposition UNP, as part of which the SLMC contested, won 15 seats, obtaining 250,732 votes (42.38 per cent). The JVP and the Tamil Democratic National Alliance (TDNA) won one seat each, obtaining 1.53 per cent and 1.3 per cent respectively of the votes.

In the history of the Proportional Representation (PR) System, this was the first time a Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led coalition won in the East.

However, Rajapaksa and his ruling combine would be entirely mistaken if they interpreted the electoral victories as a complete endorsement of the programmes and policies of the regime. Sri Lanka will continue to be polarised unless the government, with the support of all political parties, moves quickly to address the core issues pertaining to the legitimate grievances of the minorities in general and Tamils in particular, which gave birth to militant politics on the island.

B. Muralidhar Reddy

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