Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Sri Lankan Parliamentary Elections- Issues & Options


Anushree Ghisad, 
Research Intern, VIF

After delivering on many of his pre-election promises relating to issues of governance in the ‘hundred day action plan’, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena is currently grappling with the issue of holding mid-term elections after dissolving the current Parliament. It may be mentioned that Maithripala Sirisena had in his election manifesto, pledged to amend the electoral system to make it more fair and equitable through a combination of first-past-the-post system and proportional representation. Holding mid-term parliamentary polls was understandably not in his election manifesto. His other key commitments of improving governance, it may recalled, were curtailing the powers of the President and passing the Right to Information Act (RTI). The former has already been done through the 19th Amendment to the constitution adopted on April 29, 2015. The RTI Act is ready but its adoption has apparently been overtaken by the debate on holding mid-term parliamentary elections.

Obviously, adoption of electoral reforms would be the key to the timing of the dissolution and elections. Obviously again, mid-term elections would have huge political significance and implications for the Sirisena government to set its agenda for the future. This article aims to at analyze the possibilities, challenges and implications of the proposed Parliamentary elections.

Dissolution of Parliament- When will it happen?

Although no firm date has yet been indicated for Parliament’s dissolution, it was widely speculated that it could happen even as early as anytime this month and the country could have a new Parliament by September this year. Earlier the ruling coalition was contemplating to call fresh Parliamentary polls on April 23, but that did not happen. According to an article published in the TIME magazine, it was claimed that the Parliament could be dissolved in the month of May 2015, which again did not materialize. President Sirisena had, however, maintained that the country will be set on the course of general elections after passage of the 19th Amendment to the constitution pertaining curtailment of Presidential powers and the Right to Information Act dealing with transparency and accountability in governance. On May 20, President Sirisena had told editors of local news media in Colombo that Lanka will have a new Parliament by September this year.

Tenure & Composition of 14th Parliament

The present Sri Lankan Parliament was sworn in on 22nd April 2010 for a 6-year tenure. As per the Constitution the new Parliament will have to be constituted and convened before 22nd April 2016. This Parliament consists of 225 members, 196 of whom are elected from the 22 electoral districts while the remaining 29 are come from national list of parties.

During the 14th Parliamentary elections of 2010, United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA with SLFP as it’s main constituent) garnered a massive 60.33% of votes, which earned them 144 seats in total; 127 from electoral districts and 17 from the national list. United National Front (UNF with UNP as its main constituent) could muster only 29.34% votes, which fetched it 51 seats from electoral districts, 9 from the national list, making a total of 60 seats in the Parliament. Other political alliances had relatively much lower vote share with Tamil National Alliance (TNA-2.9%) and Democratic National Alliance (DNA-5.49%), securing 14 and 7 seats respectively. In line with the political developments these numbers started changing. By August 2014, UPFA’s total tally rose to 162 from the original 144 and then gradually dipped down to its present holding of 136. Simultaneously UNF seats gradually went up from their original holding of 60 to the present strength of 88. It may be noted here that in the Presidential election of January this year Sirisena had only a 3.7% lead (51.28 against 47.58 %) in national vote share over the incumbent president Rajapaksa thus establishing the fact the SLFP still had a sizably voter support despite the focused campaign targeting him for mis-governance, corruption and nepotism.

Electoral Reforms:

In this scenario, it’s natural to ask as to who wants electoral reforms and mid-term elections and why? Let’s first deal with the question of electoral reform. Obviously Sirisena wants it since it was an important component of his election manifesto. Again, the minorities and the smaller parties would like to have it since a strengthened PR system would give them better representation and voice in matters of governance. Even for the major parties, this could be advantageous in areas and constituencies where they are equally strong but lose out under the first-past the post system.

Taking all aspects into consideration, the government was working on a proposal to enhance the total number of parliamentary seats to 255 from the existing 225 with a larger quota under the national PR list. The debate became contentious and a compromise formulation was imperative to push through the 20th Amendment to the constitution before setting in motion the process for dissolution of the current Parliament followed by fresh elections. Without such a compromise the legislation would have fallen through in the parliament where the UPFA commands significant majority. Besides, the proverbial sword of Damocles still hangs over the future of 20th Amendment as the opposition was being persuaded not to bring in the intended ‘No Confidence Motion’, which if passed, would have led to Cabinet’s dissolution. In fact Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had indicated last month that no new legislations will be tabled in the Parliament fearing sabotage of bills.

However, in a significant development, the Cabinet on June 9, 2015 approved the proposal for the 20th Amendment after a compromise was worked out between the main political parties including UNP, SLFP and SLMC. Under this, it has now been agreed that the total strength of the Parliament would be maintained at 225 members with 125 MPs elected under first-past-the post system from the electoral districts, 75 MPs representing the districts will be elected under PR system and 256 MPs will be elected from the national list quota. The decision to maintain the total number of seats to 225, it was argued, would ensure against any ‘extra burden‘ on the people. It was further argued that 75 seats from the districts under PR system and 25 from the national list would ensure ‘fair minority’ and regional representation. This development, it is assessed, should clear the way for the smooth passage of the 20th Amendment to the constitution on electoral reforms and set the stage for holding of fresh elections after the related processes of delimitation of constituencies and of course, withdrawal of the no confidence motion by the opposition.

Who Needs Fresh Elections?

Dissolution of Parliament now being a near certainty, in due course the notification and announcement of the actual dates should follow. Some political analysts, however, still maintain that the contradictory and conflicting interests within the ruling coalition could still pose hindrance in the announcement of election dates. Even the process of delimitations of the constituencies could become an issue of contention. Nonetheless, September is still being considered as the most likely period for holding elections.

Despite the well known adage that ‘nothing is predictable in the game of politics’ it would appear to be one of the rare instances in a highly fractured polity of virtually every political stakeholder endorsing the mid-term polls. Ranil Wikramesinghe who heads a minority government would be looking to encash upon the anti-Rajapaksa trend to improve his party’s tally and try to gain absolute majority UNP for the party. A longer wait till next year could dilute the anti-Rajapaksa sentiments in the electorate. An early election will also deny Rajapaksa time to recover from the recent setback and regroup his forces. There were reports of rift between Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Fonseka later denied this but confirmed that he and his wife Anoma will be contesting the next Parliament elections under the banner of his Democratic Party independently. What would his possible emergence in political panorama spell for the UNP can only be assessed once the election process gets going?

For President Sirisena, the stakes are the highest. Apart from getting a clear mandate for future governance, it may provide an ideal opportunity to establish control over the party machinery that would be critical for his political future.

President Sirisena, as the new leader of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), has failed to make major inroad into Rajapaksa’s firm grip over the party machinery with very limited number of MPs switching their loyalty to the new leader. He should be conscious of the fact that the ruling ‘rainbow coalition’ comprising political parties with non-compatible ideologies propelled together to free Sri Lanka from clutches of corruption, nepotism and crony capitalism, without consenting to the basic elements of their agreed common minimum programme, does not provide him the ideal platform to deliver to the people what he has envisioned for them and the country.

For similar reasons, even Rajapaksa and his core supporters in the SLFP would be hoping for a verdict that would reiterate his strong hold over the party and possibly, set the stage for his political resurrection as the next prime minister after the elections. In this context, it must be conceded that the ‘Rajapaksaism’ representing ‘blazing nationalism’ still finds positive resonance in a significant section of the Sri Lankans population. This is reflected in sporadic allegations that the present government was not doing enough for promoting Buddhist cause. Will this translate into actual votes in the elections remains to be seen?

Conclusion:

As of now the assessment is that the proposed elections could run either way. However, to ensure effective governance, the most viable and pragmatic option has to be to go for early dissolution of the Parliament and hold fresh elections. The international stakeholders notably India, China, the US and others wishing for peace and stability, development and progress and the well being of the people of Sri Lanka would be closely watching and monitoring the developments. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe summed it up when he said that the government hoped that the general elections would send the right message to the international community that Sri Lanka has a ‘highly developed democracy that would provide political stability to attract foreign investors to start business ventures in the country. But is the intent as pious as it sounds or has it been shaped by some vested political calculations? Only time will tell whether all these are moves towards true democratization or games of political opportunism?

Published Date: 16th June 2015, Image Source: http://www.cbc.ca
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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