Consolidating power

Print edition : July 30, 2004

The ruling UPFA headed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga sweeps the July 10 Provincial Council elections, thereby almost consolidating its hold on power.

in Colombo

THE victory of Sri Lanka's ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, in the elections to six Provincial Councils held on July 10 was not unexpected. In an election marked by a lower-than-normal voter turnout, the UPFA romped home in five provinces - Western, Southern, North-Central, Uva and Sabaragamuwa. In the sixth, the Central Province, a traditional stronghold of the Opposition United National Party (UNP), the UPFA won a narrow two-seat majority, thus routing the UNP in an election held just three months after the snap parliamentary polls. The results were yet to be announced officially when Frontline went to print, but the ruling party was coasting to victory based on the seats declared by July 11 afternoon.

The victory comes as a shot in the arm for Kumaratunga, whose UPFA is currently in a minority in the 225-member Parliament; with 105 seats, it is eight short of a majority. The main constituents of the UPFA are the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the left-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

The state-run Daily News quoted Kumaratunga as saying that the results proved that "whatever the balance of power in Parliament under the distorted election system, the people's overwhelming mandate is in fact for the UPFA".

As results started coming in on the night of July 10, the UPFA's victory was becoming a certainty. Provincial-level counting closed on July 11 and the results were to be officially announced on July 12.

In the coming weeks, the politics of the hilly Central Province is likely to take centre stage thanks to the new equations. According to unofficial results, the UPFA won 28 seats, the UNP 26 and the pro-UNP Upcountry National Front (UPF) two in the province. The Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC), which contested the polls with the UNP but maintained that it would follow an independent political course, could tip the scales - the possibility of it joining the ruling combine is not ruled out.

Under Sri Lanka's electoral system, every voter exercises a double franchise - the first one for a political party and the second to indicate his preference among the candidates who have been listed under the various political parties contesting the polls. With the results of the Preference Vote yet to be announced, the true measure of the UPFA's victory will depend on the number of SLFP and JVP councillors elected.

THAT the JVP is the single largest beneficiary of the bitter political confrontation between the SLFP and the UNP was obvious in the April 2 parliamentary elections. The JVP, which for all practical purposes holds the reins of power in the UPFA by its sheer strength of numbers (40), appears set on a further expansionist course, with its eye set on the next presidential election.

Between the general and the provincial polls, the party chose to focus its attention on grassroots-level issues that have a high emotional content. For instance, it demanded the portfolios of Culture, Agriculture and Lands in the Cabinet. The evolving political equations in the south, the centre of power, will largely depend on the number of seats the JVP wins in the provincial polls.

The conclusion of the Provincial Council elections marks the terminal phase of the latest political outmanoeuvring, which started this January. Paradoxically, the party that was in power when the electoral ball was set rolling, the UNP, is now in the opposition.

It may be recalled that the political moves that completely changed the island's governance - the dissolution of Parliament and the holding of a snap general elections - were set in motion when the island was gearing up to face Provincial Council polls earlier this year. The ruling UNP had proposed to hold elections to all the provinces on one day. The UNP, which was riding on a popular craving for the continuation of peace, hoped to consolidate its position in the provinces. By winning the Provinces, it thought it could further strengthen its legislative muscle across the island. More than anything else, it would have given the UNP the moral high ground that it had the mandate of the people. For Kumaratunga's SLFP, another UNP victory in the provincial polls would have meant a political body blow.

The UNP's plans went awfully askew when the SLFP and the JVP teamed up to steamroll it in the April snap poll and set in motion an entirely different political dynamics. In addition to the recent victory in six provinces, the UPFA had won the elections to the North-Western Provincial Council held in late April, thereby emerging as the ruling party in all three tiers of the island's elected governance. Under Sri Lanka's unitary Constitution, the directly elected Executive President is the head of Government. Parliament is the second tier, and the Provincial Councils constitute the third.

The UPFA's consolidation, however, will be complete only if it manages to win over the CWC in the Central province. The CWC, which has kept its options open, is likely to strike a hard bargain at both the provincial and national levels.

A successful political bargain with the CWC is the next imperative for the UPFA on two counts. First, it would become the ruling party in all provinces - barring the temporarily merged North-eastern province for which polls have not been held - thereby making its political consolidation complete. At the national level, the CWC's eight MPs could practically convert the minority UPFA to a majority in the 225-member House.

A hurdle to such a successful outcome, however, would be the stated position of the majoritarian, hardline JVP, which does not want any alignment with minority parties - either Tamil or Muslim. The coming months would also see the differences between the SLFP and the JVP come to the fore.

Now that the phase of southern political consolidation is over, it is imperative that Sri Lanka's ruling coalition puts together a credible and acceptable negotiating position with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and work towards resuming peace talks to arrive at a political settlement that meets the aspirations of all sections of the plural society.

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