New political landscape emerging

With barely ten days to go for the general election, campaigning is gathering momentum but the two leading political parties were battling demons within: the ruling party trying to settle squabbles for the preference vote and the main opposition party still embroiled in the Moneragala fiasco.
The ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) has not been coy about seeking a two-thirds majority. In fact, that has been the major campaign slogan of President Mahinda Rajapaksa who has asked that he be freed from the shackles of a hung Parliament where he would have to dole out ministerial portfolios to ensure the continued support of MPs.

That in itself is a reasonable argument. However, where the UPFA is faltering is in also appealing to voters for a two-thirds majority to enact constitutional reforms without specifying in detail what those reforms are.
There have been sporadic reports and interviews given by the leading lights of the government hinting at possible changes. However, the only definite pronouncement has been with regard to the Proportional Representation (PR) system of voting, with President Rajapaksa publicly stating that this would be the last poll to be conducted on the PR basis.

That apart, there has been little elaboration as to what the UPFA would do with the executive presidency, the thirteenth amendment, the seventeenth amendment or even its proposals to redress ethnic-based grievances. This week, there were some hints of the Donoughmore style committees being reinstated. Nevertheless, the overall picture is confusing with no clear cut enunciation as to what the proposed reforms would exactly entail.
President Rajapaksa last week added another dimension to the UPFA campaign, telling voters that a vote for the ruling party would amount to marking their first ‘manaape’ for him. While that underscored the intensity of the battle for the preference vote in the UPFA, it also meant that the President understood that candidates standing for re-election were not as popular as he was, in their respective electorates.

The cut-throat nature of the preference vote contest as well as other recent events such as the attack on a media organisation are likely to impede the UPFA’s march towards a two-thirds majority which anyway is a statistical Mount Everest to scale. Yet, UPFA leaders are still keen on targeting this objective, knowing that bartering away portfolios after the polls in order to win over opposition MPs would be an even harder task.
That the ruling party is keen to push the opposition with no quarter given was evident last week when a fresh dispute arose over the dissolution of Parliament and the status of Johnston Fernando and Indika Bandaranayake, MPs who had earlier crossed over from the United National Party (UNP).

Fernando and Bandaranayake had dropped the legal challenge to their expulsion from Parliament as Parliament had been dissolved; however, with the legislature being reconvened for the extension of the emergency, they found themselves to be ex-MPs with the Commissioner of Elections already gazetting the appointment of fresh MPs from the UNP.
This week, Minister G.L. Peiris, a former professor of law, was to opine that the composition of Parliament could not be changed as it had already been dissolved and because it was being re-convened only for a specific purpose.

The UNP’s legal expert Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa swiftly countered this claim saying the decision of the Commissioner of Elections was final and could only be challenged in a court of law. However, more legal fireworks could be expected on this issue in the next few days, even if it is a largely academic exercise, given the fact that the new Parliament has to sit before the end of April.
On another flank, the UNP was still battling its renegade MP from the Moneragala District, Ranjith Madduma Bandara. Even the party’s General Secretary Tissa Attanayake came in for some flak from the party hierarchy for attempting to engage Madduma Bandara in a dialogue.

The party first attempted to stifle its own nomination list-which was allegedly tampered with and another name inserted-through a court order. Then it was wooing an independent group, trying to get voters to support them, but that proved to be a difficult task and the party leadership was apprehensive about the prospect of voters habitually marking their preferences for the time tested ‘elephant’ symbol.
Now, the UNP has decided that it would adhere to the list submitted on nomination day, even if it contains names not sanctioned by the party. However, the party would campaign for candidates other than those backed by Madduma Bandara.

In a sense this is a last resort option. It gives Madduma Bandara a free hand to contest and win if he can, even if his own party is campaigning against him. Being a sitting MP, Madduma Bandara does have considerable clout at the grassroots level and the election will surely test his popularity.
The more relevant concern though is that given the current levels of acrimony between Madduma Bandara and the party leadership, there is a real likelihood of Madduma Bandara switching allegiance to President Rajapaksa after the election, if he is elected. That could in turn open the floodgates-and then, conceding a two-thirds majority to the UPFA could become a real possibility.

While the UNP grapples with this issue, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was waging a different kind of struggle-with former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka as the centre of attraction. The JVP too has made no secret of the fact that the Fonseka issue is their key campaign slogan, the argument being that it reflects on the lack of good governance by the ruling party.

The party has not made much headway either in terms of getting Fonseka released through the courts or in increasing its support base in the country at large and there is an uneasy sense that the JVP will be destined for hard times after the poll.
Thus, a new political landscape that will shape the future of the country for the next six years is slowly emerging and how much of it will be blue, green or red will be determined in the crucial next few days to come.