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This is my Nation


 Polls in 2009 and possible pitfalls                                                                       

In fact, during this year’s budget debate, some Opposition Parliamentarians chastised the operation to liberate Pooneryn claiming it was an operation to swing the Budget vote. But, if the collective Opposition had been hoping for a repeat of the theatrics of 2007 in the Budget vote, they must be quite disappointed by now.

The Budget vote-and the margin with which it was approved by Parliament-signifies a striking swing in the balance of power in the legislature. And it does have even more noteworthy consequences for the political decisions that would invariably follow

If the Budget for 2009 began ominously for the Government with the Supreme Court ruling that some of its provisions were inconsistent with the Constitution, its second reading sailed through Parliament last week with a majority of 42 votes.
This was in stark contrast to the high drama witnessed last year when the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) kept everyone guessing until the eleventh hour, and there was speculation-and indeed quite a possibility-that the Government would fall after losing the Budget vote.

In fact, during this year’s budget debate, some Opposition Parliamentarians chastised the operation to liberate Pooneryn claiming it was an operation to swing the Budget vote. But, if the collective Opposition had been hoping for a repeat of the theatrics of 2007 in the Budget vote, they must be quite disappointed by now.

The Budget vote-and the margin with which it was approved by Parliament-signifies a striking swing in the balance of power in the legislature. And it does have even more noteworthy consequences for the political decisions that would invariably follow.
There is a sense of expectation that 2009 would be an election year. A general election needs to be called only in April 2010, but there has been speculation that it will be held next year, especially since the Government experienced difficulties in the vote on the Budget last year.

Speculation

That speculation has only heightened after the Armed Forces liberated the Eastern province and set up a Provincial administration there, and then recorded a string of victories in the North with the capture of strategic towns and camps. Pooneryn was only the icing on the cake.

No doubt there would be some in the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) who would argue that the Alliance should cash in on the military victories, and go for a general election when the benefits of the sense of national euphoria over ‘winning’ the war would accrue to the ruling party.

This is supported by the fact that the Opposition is now in disarray with the two major opposition parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the JVP both hopelessly divided with a faction each from both parties unabashedly supporting the Government and President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

There is some merit in this argument but a realistic look at the Budget vote in 2009-and the ease with which it was approved by Parliament-will indicate that a general election may in fact not be the best option available for the ruling party.
It is a stubborn fact that the will of the people-as it was expressed at the last general election in 2004-has now been irreversibly distorted in the current Parliament. So many MPs elected from the Opposition UNP now support the Government, that party spokesman Lakshman Kiriella remarked that UNPers at times forget which MPs support the Government and which of them do not!

The reverse is true too. The JVP entered into a clever electoral agreement with the UPFA in 2004 to garner more than thirty members of Parliament. Thus, although they are elected on a proportional representation of the pro-Government vote, they now sit with the Opposition and vote against the Government.

Key factor

The key factor though is the defection of some JVPers to form the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna (JNP). The support of these MPs has been crucial to the Government, and helped swing the budget vote decisively in favour of the Government this year.

There have been other strokes of ‘good fortune’ for the ruling party. Several MPs elected on the Government list who may have rebelled against the UPFA have passed away and been replaced by more amenable Parliamentarians, and a JVP MP was asked to resign by his party and his vacancy has been filled by a loyal Sri Lanka Freedom Party member.

The net effect of all this is that by whatever means, the ruling party now appears to control Parliament comfortably- in contrast with the situation prevailing in the legislature one year ago. Then the critical question is whether, if a general election is held now, the UPFA could muster that kind of working majority.

It is true that there is a perception that the war is being won, and that this would provide an electoral windfall for the Government. But a general election-in comparison with a Presidential election, for instance, is a different political game.

It is a recognised fact that while President Rajapaksa’s popularity is at a high, the same cannot be said about his honourable members of Parliament, some of whom have been conducting themselves in a not so honourable manner.

Besides, a general election will be fought not on the first-past-the-post basis, but on a proportional representation system, and that would mean parties such as the UNP would retain their block vote-and a proportionate number of Parliamentarians.

In the current Parliament, this has not happened because MPs elected on the UNP ticket on the strength of the UNP block vote, are now supporting the Government and only about 40 UNP MPs vote with the Opposition. Therefore, paradoxical though it may seem, the UNP can only increase its numbers in Parliament if a general election is held now!

That is not a prospect the Government will relish because it will entail a fresh round of back-room brokering with all its attendant problems. Therefore, although popular thinking is that a general election is on the cards, that may not materialise because the Government’s political strategists are surely aware of the pitfalls of such a poll.

The year 2009 may still be an election year though-because some Provincial Council polls are yet to be held and indeed they must be held sometime next year.

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