This is my Nation  


Re-alignment of political forces in the coming weeks

The dust has not yet settled on the presidential election, and controversy rages on, but Sri Lanka must soon gear itself for yet another poll: The general election. The six-year tenure of the current Parliament expires late April, and a new Parliament has to be convened.

Given the fact that the ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) candidate, President Mahinda Rajapaksa emerged victorious at the presidential election, the Alliance will be keen to cash in on the ‘snow-balling’ effect of that poll. Therefore, the general election will be announced very shortly.

In many ways however, the general election would be radically different from the presidential poll. As it would also determine the composition of the next Parliament, it will define the Legislature with which President Rajapaksa would have to work with in his second term.

The President’s second term itself was fast becoming a bone of contention in political circles, with some arguing that it should begin right now, and others at the opposite end of the political spectrum contending that it would only begin when he concludes his first term of office in November 2011.

To his credit, the President adopted a very statesman-like approach, referring the matter to the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court. A seven-judge Bench concluded that it should begin in November 2010. More importantly, a vexed Constitutional conundrum had been decided in the best way possible.
With that decided, battle lines are now being drawn again between the ruling UPFA and the Opposition, for the general election. It does appear however, that the UPFA’s initial plans for this poll would have to be revised somewhat now.

It will be recalled that President Rajapaksa, in his final campaign rally, hinted at abolishing the Proportional Representation (PR) system, saying that the ‘manaapa kramaya’ will be no more. Indeed, having the general election under the First-Past-The-Post system would have been very advantageous to the UPFA.
But to do so, the UPFA would have had to rush through a Constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds majority (150 seats) in the current Parliament. There was some attempt to do this, because the Alliance has some 140 members already, but it has been shelved now.

Instead, the UPFA is confident that, if general elections are held soon after the presidential election, it would result in voter apathy in the Opposition, and with the domino-effect of the presidential poll thrown in, a two-thirds majority in the new Parliament is still a possibility, even under the PR system.

A significant factor in this calculation is the mess the Opposition finds itself in. For the presidential election, the Opposition presented a united front, glued together by two factors: Their support for General Sarath Fonseka and their common goal of abolishing the executive presidency.
In fact, even during the presidential election campaign, when questions were raised about a future government under a potentially victorious General Fonseka, the answer was that the constituent parties of the Opposition alliance would contest the general election separately.

But now, it is crunch time for the Opposition. General Fonseka did not win the election and, as a result, the the United National Party (UNP), the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)- Mahajana wing have to decide where they stand.
On the one hand, they have difficulty in agreeing on key issues. The economic policies of the UNP and the JVP, for instance, are diametrically opposite. On the other hand, going their separate ways could spell disaster for the entire Opposition. That is the dilemma they have to contend with.

For the moment though, the Opposition alliance is still intact. What holds them together right now is the dispute over the presidential election results, which the Opposition claims has been tampered with. Wednesday’s joint Opposition rally to protest against the outcome of the poll was somewhat successful.
It is likely that the Opposition will, however, distance itself from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). It is the perception of many in the UNP and the JVP, that taking the TNA into its fold at the presidential election cost them dearly in terms of votes in the South.

While the SLMC will be keen to contest in the East and test its political strength in the region, other Opposition parties are still likely to allow the TNA to contest by itself in the North and East. In any event, contesting in these two provinces would be a logistical nightmare for both the UNP and the JVP.
But the big question is whether these two parties will join forces for the general election. There is pressure from the rank and file of the UNP yet again, to revert to the revered ‘elephant’ symbol, and it is highly unlikely that the JVP will be agreeable to accede to this request.

The UNP hierarchy also knows what it would mean to accommodate the JVP on its list: The SLFP did so in 2004 and are still paying for it, because the JVP nominated only a few candidates for each list, resulting in more preferences for these candidates. Consequently, there were 39 JVP MPs in Parliament.
What General Sarath Fonseka would opt to do would also be interesting. Certainly, after having won 40% of the popular vote at the presidential poll, he can easily get elected to Parliament, but whether he can fashion a political outfit of his own is debatable.

A more likely scenario is for the General to align himself with one of the major Opposition parties, the UNP or the JVP. In this context, it must be noted that, it was the JVP, rather than the UNP, which first mooted a Fonseka candidacy for the presidential election.

Tactics, therefore, are being thought afresh and political strategists are burning the midnight oil these days. The coming weeks will see a plenty of moves and counter moves, with the possible re-alignment of political forces. But then, elections are a necessary evil, if we claim to be in a vibrant democracy.