Photo: AFP, Ishara S. Kodiikara via Asia Times

Nominations for the parliamentary elections of 2020 closed late last week and barely an hour after the close of nominations, the Elections Commission made its widely expected announcement that the poll would be postponed until the threat to public health through the rapid potential spread of the Covid-19 or Coronavirus has been contained. How long that would take is anybody’s guess, though the experience in China, the nation where it all began, seemed to indicate that a period of two to three months was needed to contain the worst threat and gear public health systems to deal with the epidemic over a longer-term basis. End May is currently referred to as the earliest possible date when the elections could be held, with June or July a more prudent and likely time frame.

Politically the ruling party was keen to see the election happen sooner rather than later, the President informing his SAARC counterparts in a conference call prior to the close of nominations that the elections would proceed, while to the contrary Opposition and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) leader Sajith Premadasa called for the postponement of the elections, stating that public health and safety was paramount, rather than elections and should be ensured before the polls. The JVP and the TNA, respectively the third and fourth-largest political parties in the country, after the two main blocks, echoed similar sentiments. The Elections Commission concurred. Given that the electoral process requires a mass domestic human migration or movement of people and that campaigning makes social distancing impossible, the decision of the Elections Commission was inevitable. Perhaps in hindsight, the hasty dissolution of parliament when Covid-19 was known as a global pandemic was unwise.

The SLPP and the SLFP unite while the SJB and UNP fail to do so

The most notable feature of the election nominations now concluded, is that the SLPP was able to draw the vast majority of the SLFP into its ranks, baring its Kalutara strongman Kumara Welgama, who formed the new SLFP and joined Sajith Premadasa and the SJB. The SLFP will contest the elections together with the SLPP in eighteen districts with the exception of four districts with sizable minority voters, where it will contest under its own hand symbol. Perhaps acknowledging the futility of seeking to persuade minority voters to vote for the SLPP.  In recognition of the same, the SLPP is not contesting in the Jaffna district, having received single digits levels of support there in the presidential elections and that was when its EPDP allies were campaigning for it. For the parliamentary polls, the EPDP is going it alone and its leader Douglas Devananda is likely to mobilize the EPDP’s customary voter base and retain his seat in Parliament.

It is in the main opposition block, that negotiations, shuttle talks and even direct discussions between Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and his erstwhile political leader, Ranil Wickramasinghe failed to persuade the latter, that rather like his political mentor and uncle former president JR Jayawardena, who graciously, if not entirely willingly, conceded the Party leadership to Premadasa Senior, that he should follow suit and do likewise in this instance. Instead, he has chosen, rather like Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s immortalized poem, to do the charge of the light brigade and for the UNP to contest elections in all districts, with most incumbent UNP MPs and all their political allies, including the JHU, the SLMC and the TPA contesting as part of the SJB. Just as senior British military officers in the Crimean war had not internalized the reality of heavy artillery in open warfare and still believed in the horse-mounted cavalry charge of yesteryear, the UNP leader Ranil Wickramasinghe seems convinced that it is not the political personas, policies and promise, but the party brand, history and most strangely the party symbol which carry weight with voters. The experience of the SLFP vis a vis the SLPP, the TULF vis a vis the TNA, all point to the contrary. Even more concretely, the political acumen of the UNP’s junior partner parties are the most accurate bell-weather regarding which way the political winds are blowing and the UNP has been unable to persuade a single ally to contest alongside it. All are with the SJB and its leader Sajith Premadasa.  In fact, except in Colombo where the UNP is likely to ensure the election of both Ravi Karunanayake and Ranil Wickramasinghe himself,  as well as in Gampaha, it is hard to see in which other districts the UNP can end up anything other than a distant fourth behind the SLPP, the SJB and the JVP and thereby generally fail to secure a seat. It may pick up a single national list seat as well.

The SJB also has the advantage of the presidential elections which was a massive political coming-out party for the young Premadasa. He is generally believed in opposition circles to have acquitted himself quite well in that process. It is a gross error on the part of Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe’s advisors to believe that the younger Premadasa will politically decline rather like then Field Marshall (the General) Sarath Fonseka did after his own unsuccessful run for the presidency in 2010. Sarath Fonseka was an outsider to the UNP as well as inexperienced in politics and it showed up both during the 2010 campaign and thereafter. On the contrary, Sajith Premadasa has spent twenty years in Parliament, a little less than half that time in Government, comes deep from within the UNP, with a generational heritage of leadership in that party, accomplished a self-made rise to the top rungs of the party,  successfully wrested the presidential election nomination away from his leader and post-election weaned away all the political allies away from the UNP to his wider SJB opposition alliance.

Putting politics and elections very much on the back burner, Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans will focus on their public health challenge and overcoming the global Covid-19 pandemic within Sri Lanka’s borders and recovering from a battered economy in the context of a global slowdown, before focusing on electing the next Parliament of Sri Lanka.