Photo courtesy of Hindustan Times

The results of Sri Lanka’s parliamentary election held on Wednesday show a seismic shift in the country’s electoral map as well as the balance of political power in the new legislature.

The near two-thirds parliamentary majority, easily achieved by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP – Sri Lanka People’s Front) by reducing all opposition parties into insignificance, has only one parallel from the past – the electoral victory with a 5/6th parliamentary majority in July 1977 scored by the United National Party (UNP), then led by J. R. Jayewardene.

Key Trends

The SLPP has won 145 seats in the 225-member parliament while the United National Party (UNP), the former ruling party, has suffered the most humiliating of defeats, retaining just one parliamentary seat. Even that is from the National List. The UNP failed to secure even a single seat on the basis of district constituencies and vote count in many electorates recorded only a few hundreds. The Samagi Jana Balavegaya, (United People’s Movement), a breakaway part from the UNP and formed only a few months ago, has fared quite creditably. It has come in second with 54 seats, thanks to the system of Proportional Representation. It is also the SJB that has prevented total annihilation of the parliamentary opposition in the face of an electoral avalanche.

The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has meanwhile allowed itself to be swallowed up by the SLPP. Its leader, former President Maithripala Sirisena and a several other SLFP stalwarts contested the election under the SLPP list and some have won seats. Ironically, the only MP elected on the SLFP’s venerable symbol of the hand is a Tamil citizen from Jaffna, a scion of an elite Tamil political family.

The SLPP’s comfortable win was not unexpected. What has come to be seen as a ‘victory beyond all expectations’, as the SLPP’s spokesperson has quickly admitted, seems to have been also made possible by large scale absenteeism by the UNP voters at almost every electorate. Meanwhile, the overall electoral turn out of 71% is comparatively low in Sri Lanka’s rather high standards of voter participation at any election.

There are two other notable trends in the electoral outcome. The first is the decline of the ethnic minority representation as independent political entities. The Ilanka’s Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), the main and most vocal minority party in Sri Lanka’s parliament, has lost its electoral strength, coming down to 10 from the 16 seats in the previous parliament. Six seats from the Northern and Eastern provinces have been secured by smaller Tamil parties, two of which are aligned with the SLPP.

The fragmentation of Tamil political representation is paralleled with the decline of the Muslim representation as well. Muslim parties have managed to retain just two seats for their community in the districts they contested alone. There can be a few more minority MPs affiliated to the SJB.

The JVP’s failure to secure any improvement in its electoral strength is rather disappointing. There is slight rise in the votes its candidates have polled, but it is not strong enough to increase its seat count.  In many constituencies, the JVP finds itself in the third place, far behind the SJB. But there is a considerably long distance for the JVP to travel between being in the third place and becoming a third force in Sri Lanka’s electoral politics.

The second is the fact that the two big parties in the new parliament, the SLPP and SJB, are of very recent origin, and they have been formed by breakaway sections of the two main traditional parties. With their electoral assertion – in this regard the SLPP is far ahead of the SJB – the two new parties represent a new order within Sri Lanka’s political party system

Key Reasons

Four factors seem to have made this dramatic shift in Sri Lanka’s political landscape, led by the SLPP, possible.

The first is the dismal failure of the previous coalition government, which came to power in January 2015 by defeating President Mahinda Rajapkasa.

The Yaha Paalanaya (Good Governance) coalition, jointly led by Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena, achieved a surprising victory at the presidential election in January 2015. Its promise of democratic revival, promoting peace and reconciliation, establishing corruption-free governance, and ending the habits of rule through excessive concentration of power had a sympathetic response from the electorate. However, in power, the Wickremesinghe-Sirisena regime’s record of governance has been one of utter passivity towards fully realizing those noble goals.

The return to corruption in no time, disunity within the ruling coalition, hostile factionalism, power struggles between the President and the Prime Minister, and the resultant crippling of the administrative and security apparatus also gave a particularly bad name to the very idea of ‘governance by democracy.’

That regime had also failed to defend and sustain the gain of 19th Amendment to the Constitution, its most important political achievement. The Amendment had drastically reduced the arbitrary powers of the President and restored Sri Lanka’s parliamentary democracy as well as the system of checks and balances on executive and legislative authority. Although a new constitution was to be drafted to further advance the political reform process, the failure of the President and the Prime Minister to cooperate and provide effective leadership showed that neither of the two leaders was willing to take new political initiatives.  Two years in power, the yahapaalanaya coalition government entered a phase of inertia and stagnation. A key shortcoming of the two leaders that became quite clear during the early period of internal disputes within the government is their inability to steer their political coalition out of its minor disputes and then consolidate it as an effective instrument of governance, policy reforms and political management.

This failure also gave the SLPP one of its most effective electoral slogans with potentially lasting and far reaching political consequences  – a radically new political alternative for Sri Lanka with a strong leader, a strong government, a strong administration with military participation, with just one strong centre of power with no checks and balances. The stress has been on the word ‘strong.’

The landslide victory of the SLPP at the Presidential election held in November last year and the parliamentary election three days ago can thus be seen also as a crushing punishment delivered by the voters to the UNP and its leadership. The voters have obviously not forgiven the UNP leadership for its letting them down so badly during the four and half years of its irresponsible, quarrelsome and ineffective governance.

There are also other major reasons  for the voters to be so powerfully attracted to the SLPP. A relatively new political party formed in 2016 by the powerful Rajapaksa family, the SLPP in its programme, ideology and reform agenda has an enormously attractive ‘populist’ dimension.  Its slogan for a strong state led by a strong leader has been couched in Sinhala-Buddhist patriotic symbolism and discourse. This indeed constitutes its core appeal to the voters across all social classes in the Sinhalese society.

The SLPP’s rhetoric of economic and anti-Western nationalism, coupled with the promise of bringing back elements of the welfare state, always had an appeal among the poor and middle classes who had been left out by the neo-liberal reform policies so ardently pursued by the UNP-wing of the previous government.

Amidst widespread social discontent caused by a sluggish economy trapped in debt crisis, a campaign built on virtues of developmentalist populism, national security and political stability under a strong leadership obviously had much allure over a return to weak democratic governance with a fractured authority structure.

Meanwhile, President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s efficient handling of the public health challenge caused by the Covid-19 seems to have convinced the vast majority of the Sri Lankan electorate that a new form of efficient government, with open participation of the military and personally handled by the President himself, would be the model of a new political experiment worth giving a chance.

Two months of a relentless war against the dreaded drug barons, with massive media publicity given for sensational discoveries, raids and arrests, gave the President’s camp not only a decisive electoral edge over the entire opposition. It also showed that Sri Lanka is ready to follow the global trend in new right-wing populist politics of romanticising law and order regimes that promise to instill a new sense of security to the citizens which the old-style liberal democracies have of late failed.

The last, perhaps the most important, point of the SLPP’s electoral promise of radical reform package-in-waiting is its subtle suggestion that Sri Lankan citizens are in urgent need of a post-democratic political order in which national security, law and order, political stability, regime continuity, economic prosperity, and religio-moral regeneration are given utmost priority.

Shift in Party System

Finally, the parliamentary election results also indicate a dramatic shift in Sri Lanka’s established political party system.  Two grand old parties – the UNP and the SLFP – have been literally wiped out from parliament and the SLPP, a new populist party, has emerged as the single dominant party.

The UNP has irretrievably lost its familiar role as the main parliamentary opposition party, and it has now been taken over by the SJP, led by Sajith Premadasa, who broke away from the UNP only a couple of months ago. Only an effective and assertive SJP can prevent Sri Lanka from institutionalizing a dominant one-party system.

Legislative Agenda

The SLPP has so far been careful not to spell out its constitutional and legislative reform programme. Yet, it has given enough indications that there would be major constitutional changes aimed at bringing back a fully-pledged presidential constitutional system and offering an administrative role to the military. Presidential term limits are likely to be removed too. The existing balance of power between the executive and the legislature is likely to be altered too, in favour of the former.

However, a major alteration of the 19th Amendment, which has given more power to the Prime Minister and Parliament than under the 18th Amendment, would be a politically complex challenge for both the President and the Prime minister who, as individuals, happen to be brothers. In constitutional terms, what the Sri Lankan voters have elected in November is a President with a relatively weak constitutional authority and a just a few days ago a parliament with greater power and authority.  The fact that the President and the Prime Minister also have their own constituencies and power bases might make this an exceedingly interesting case study of political bargaining and compromise within a family-centric regime.

Meanwhile, amidst the inevitable euphoria after such a massive victory, the SLPP government will have a truly challenging time ahead. Sooner than later, the impending economic and social crises of unprecedented proportions, sharpened by the likely global economic collapse caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, may force the government leaders to review many of their plans that were probably forged well before the pandemic.

In this uncertain context, Sri Lankan citizens need a humane government, not merely a strong one. More democratic and consultative governance, and not any less of it.

J. R. Jayewardene, soon after he received the 5/6th parliamentary majority in July 1977, declared that he was quite aware of the pitfalls of having such a mammoth mandate. Jayewardene also went on to say that he would use that massive parliamentary power with caution and prudence. Yet, Jayewardene’s legacy has been one that belied what he promised to himself. Sri Lanka’s past experience shows that every regime with a massive parliamentary mandate has failed to resist the temptation of using that power in a tyrannical manner and in turn creating greater instability in the country.

In these uncertain times, this is a lesson that President and Prime Minister Rajapaksa might find it useful to reflect on.