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This is my Nation


This is only the beginning!

The President is well aware that general elections must be called for in less than two years. He could, of course, do so now itself – that is the opposition demand as well – but President Rajapaksa obviously has reservations about such an exercise. On the one hand, the government is not exactly at the apex of its popularity right now. That is primarily because of the rising cost of living affecting the average citizen to an alarming degree. Then, the flagrant abuse of power displayed by many ruling party politicians does not help either. The President’s saving grace is the government’s military effort against the LTTE

When these columns are being read, the results of the provincial council polls in the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provinces would be trickling in. The elections have been described as being too close to call and it would be foolhardy to predict the outcome. Nevertheless, the contest has the hallmark of being a pivotal moment in the fluctuating political fortunes of our land.

The ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) only commands a wafer-thin majority in Parliament. This is because President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s main ally during the presidential election campaign, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), has abandoned him now, mostly over a series of policy differences.

But the President is a consummate politician and he has made amends not through his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – which itself is divided – but by inveigling members of the JVP and the United National Party (UNP) to support him in Parliament.
The President is well aware that general elections must be called for in less than two years. He could, of course, do so now itself – that is the opposition demand as well – but President Rajapaksa obviously has reservations about such an exercise.

On the one hand, the government is not exactly at the apex of its popularity right now. That is primarily because of the rising cost of living affecting the average citizen to an alarming degree. Then, the flagrant abuse of power displayed by many ruling party politicians does not help either.

The President’s saving grace is the government’s military effort against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The main opposition party, the UNP, has not still taken a militaristic stance against the LTTE – although the JVP has done so – and that has helped Rajapaksa no end.

Then, the UNP is also in disarray because there have been leadership battles within the party. Given these internal distractions, some stalwarts have left the fold, others are disgruntled, and as a result it is yet to get its act together and function as the well-oiled political machine it once was.

Despite these advantages which the President enjoys, there must be other concerns weighing on the minds of the President and his close coterie of advisors, which is why provincial polls – rather than a general election – are being held as a means of testing public opinion.

A general election has its inherent dangers for President Rajapaksa. Unlike a presidential poll where two individuals are pitted against each other and the country – as one electorate – decides which one is more suitable to lead the nation, a multitude of other factors come into play in a general election.

Regional issues, the personalities of the contestants, caste and religious factors are all considerations in a general election. Then there is the ‘manaapa’ battle within each party and each district, which at times is to the party’s disadvantage. As such, a general election has many intrinsic issues which make a clear outcome that much more difficult to predict.

Also, because the general election will be contested under the Proportional Representation (PR) system, it would mean the JVP would gain a significant number of seats – seats which President Rajapaksa would lose support from, in a new Parliament.
There are other confounding factors as well, if general elections were to be called right now. And chief among them will be the fate of those supporting the President in Parliament while being in ‘opposition’ parties – the Karu Jayasuriya faction of the UNP and the Wimal Weerawansa faction of the JVP.

Jayasuriya may well be ruing the day he decided to join the Cabinet. Had he been in the mainstream UNP now, he would almost certainly have been its leader given the uprising against UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in the aftermath of the party’s defeat at the eastern provincial polls.

It is all but a certainty that if and when a general election is called, the Jayasuriya and Weerawansa factions will not be accommodated by their respective parties and they will look upon President Rajapaksa to not let them down in their hour of need. But Rajapaksa will have his work cut out to try and incorporate them into his party’s nomination lists without causing heartburn among SLFPers.

Of course, for Rajapaksa, the bottom line is votes and how many votes these factions can muster by themselves is a moot point.
The mainstream JVP itself probably has a 10 to 12 percent vote base in the country at best. Therefore, what fraction of that can be garnered by the Wimal Weerawansa-led Jathika Nidahas Peramuna (JNP) would be questionable indeed. The JNP is, no doubt, a useful ally now because it has about 10 sitting members of Parliament, but that could all change if a general election were to be held.

The fate of the Jayasuriya clan is, in a sense, worse. They do not constitute a separate registered political party and therefore will have to earn their votes individually. How many votes the likes of G.L. Peiris and Milinda Moragoda can gather personally is debatable indeed!

For all these reasons, the President would probably prefer to hold off a general election for as long as he can. That would provide him with sufficient time to restructure his political alliances and also provide time for the military to make a decisive push towards Tiger-held territory in the north. This latter, if it can be achieved, will be a decisive weapon for the President in any general election that would follow.

But President Rajapaksa would be keen to gauge public opinion in the remaining provinces as well. Therefore, yesterday’s elections are certain to be only the beginning of many more elections to come. The Opposition, however, would be hoping that it would be the beginning of the end of a UPFA reign.

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