Sri Lankan General Elections 2015 - An Assessment
Anushree Ghisad

1. In my earlier article on the Sri Lankan General Elections (‘Curtain Raiser’, VIF 07-2015) various possible out comes of the elections were out lined. As was mentioned therein, the electoral contest was mainly between the two key alliances namely the Ranil Wickremesinghe led United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) and President Sirisena led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) which also included former president Mahinda Rajapaksa in the fray as an SLFP candidate but not the future alliance prime minister. As suggested in probable outcome no.1 in that paper, UNP under UNFGG finally emerged as the single largest p-arty in the coalition. Rajapaksa, as predicted, albeit with a sharp decline in his following, won his seat but his supporters within the SLFP were not in a position to dictate terms for the formation of the government.

The Statistical Details:

2. The 15th Parliamentary Elections witnessed a voter turnout of 77.66 percent, far greater than the 61.26 percent scored in the last parliamentary elections held in 2010. Following table depicts the vote share of political parties along with distribution of district seats and bonus seats. Number of Bonus seats, also called ‘National List’ seats, is directly proportional to percentage of total votes fetched by an alliance or political party.

3. With a total of 106 seats, UNP led UNFGG witnessed a huge change of fortune compared to its 46 seats in the 2010 General Elections. On the other hand, SLFP led UPFA witnessed a massive decline of 49 seats from its tally in the last elections. As a result, no single party or alliance managed to get clear majority in a ‘hung’ parliament.

4. Compared with the votes cast in the January 2015 Presidential election wherein Srisena secured 51.28% of votes against 47.58% in favour of Rajapaksa, the difference of 3.7% between them is almost maintained in this election at 3.6%. The difference is of course in the final result when in January 2015 Sirisena emerged as the clear victor, this time around, this has given a hung parliament. But this would not be a fair assessment since clearly a large number of Sirisena supporters must have voted for the SLFP led UPFA while some supported his platform of good governance under the UNFGG. It could thus be argued by his supporters that Sirisena’s commitment of good governance still maintains its resonance with a vast majority of the electorate.

5. A more relevant comparison would emerge from the results of the 2010 general Elections wherein the SLFP led UPFA had secured 60.33% of votes compared to 42.38 in this election-a sharp decline of 17.95% and the corresponding gain made by the UNFGG which as UNF had secured only 29.34% in 2010 as against 45.66% this time- a gain of 24.32%. This clearly reflects Sirisena’s continued popularity as well as the massive decline in Rajapaksa’s political fortunes.

6. Another significant point that needs to be noted is the rise in TNA vote share from 2.9% in 2010 elections to 4.62 % now enabling it to win 16 seats against 14 last time. JVP however lost some support from 5.49 % to 4.87 % without any significant loss of seats.

Government Formation:

7. Even though the numbers thrown up at the elections technically constituted a ‘hung’ parliament, government formation was still a no-brainer. While UNFGG (106) and TNA (16) could have formed a coalition government with a combined tally of 122 seats, this would not have appropriately reflected the will of the people whose mandate was in favour of ‘good governance’-a platform espoused by Sirisena. So the two major alliances had no option but to come together to form a kind of national government with a massive parliamentary majority of 201 in the 225 member house. In the unintended bargain, the TNA with 16 seats, for the first time got the honour of being designated the main opposition party and its leader R.Sampathan appointed as the Leader of Opposition. Sampathan is the second Tamil leader to be chosen as Opposition Leader after A.Amirthalingam of Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in 1977.

8. Accordingly, shortly after the announcement of election results, SLFP agreed to form a National Government with UNP initially for a period of two years. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed the new Prime Minister for the fourth time in his long political career. In other words, this outcome has re-endorsed the ‘silent revolution’ of January 8 Presidential election.

Government’s Stability

9. The main threat to government’s stability, if any, would obviously come from MR and his supporters within the SLFP. Analysts believe that his political ambitions seem to be neutralized for a while. For the moment has to settle with simply being a Member of Parliament. There has been clear erosion in his electoral support base to the extent of receiving close to ten lakhs less votes compared to the Presidential elections early this year. And this is likely to diminish further as he is not at the center of power. Yet, the fact remains that he still gave a decent fight to his detractors. His alliance has secured 42. 38 percent votes and UPFA candidates won commendable number of seats all over the island barring Batticaloa and Jaffna. MR still retains the support of those who cannot forget his contribution in ending the 26 years long war. Going by this legacy, he would like to create troubles within the party just as he did in the run up to the General elections. But the difference is that his weapons are much blunted now. The ongoing investigation into corruption charges against many big shots of the Rajapaksa family including Gotabaya Rajapaksa (currently being grilled by Presidential Commission of Inquiry), Basil Rajapaksa (on bail while his wife is under scrutiny) and such others.

10. Another factor that could impact the stability of the regime could be internal conflict between the core issues between the major coalition partners. While they may be on the same page as it were on basic policies, there could be differences in their respective approaches to attaining the desired objectives. It must be noted that this is not unusual in any political alliance particularly when such are differences are perceived by either party as critical to their overall political agenda. Of course, as is the norm in any coalition arrangement, these conflicts take time to emerge and still further time to turn into a state of confrontation and are usually resolved through consultations in a spirit of accommodative political readjustment.

Challenges before the New Government:

11. In this scenario, the Sirisena-Ranil government should face no problem in mustering the requisite two third majority in Parliament for passing any constitutional reforms bills for the next two years of the initial validity of the alliance and perhaps for a much longer term as well, as long as the inherent schism within SLFP remains dormant or controllable. In other word, one should expect a fairly smooth sailing for the government for as long as MR’s influence in the SLFP and his capacity to create hurdles in the way of Sirisena administration remains under control. Analysts maintain that according to current indications, MR’s mischief making potential within the SLFP is being over-assessed since he has been effectively isolated and will continue to remain so for many years. In this context it is also being speculated that the ongoing criminal investigations against his close supporters and relatives mentioned above, could spring some surprises for him that may even finish his political career!

12. If the foregoing assessment maintains its validity, and there is no real reason to the contrary, Sirisena can swiftly move ahead to deliver on his electoral promises of devolution of power, establishment of a new style of governance that is transparent, inclusive and accountable, deal with corruption and favoritism, pass the RTI, set up proper systems of monitoring etc. The regime should also be able to move on its declared economic and foreign policy priorities that would set the stage for economic revival.

13. There could however be some uncertainty in co-opting Tamil mainstream politics into a new era in Lankan politics. This could act as a bulwark against unabated ruckus created by fringe elements of Tamil Diasporas, who complain about perpetual discrimination. The newly added political responsibilities may cast a moderating effect on TNA, which in turn can help in defeating Sinhala and Buddhist demagogues. But the minorities, particularly the Tamils and the Muslims would be seriously looking for a fundamental change in the government’s agenda on devolution, reconstruction and rehabilitation. How far and how fast the government would be willing to walk this path remains to be seen. The Singhala hard liners would also be closely watching governments moves on these issues to ensure that the country does not slide back into the past, negating the gains of the war on terror. It may however be noted that both Ranil and former President Chandrika are known to have a fairly positive approach to the resolution of the Tamil issue and Sirisena should not face any serious hurdles in this regard.

Implications for India

14. With the expected commitment of the new government to pursuing a positive, balanced and non-aligned foreign policy, which the new government terms as ‘pro- Lankan foreign policy’, India should expect a fair reappraisal and rebalance in its dealings with the major powers including China and the Us. It would be unrealistic to expect the new government to completely re-write the China policy of the previous regime but there are growing indications of the new government exercising restraint and caution while dealing with China, so as not to create regional imbalance. In brief, it is expected that India’s sensitivities would be duly factored in the government’s foreign policy initiatives. Even before the Presidential elections, UNP was concerned about Sri Lanka slipping into the Chinese ‘clutches’. UNP has a well formulated vision for economic partnership with India, and its party members have been publically advocating advantages of Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement (CEPA). To add to this Sirisena too would like to go along this route.

15. In this context it may be mentioned that the two countries have already started showing signs of a new synergy in their relations with a series of high level bilateral exchanges in quick time. Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera visited New Delhi in January 2015 on his first overseas official visit after the Presidential election. The newly elected President himself came to India on a four-day visit in mid-February followed EAM Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Colombo in early March. The ‘big one’ happened a week later with PM Narendra Modi visiting Sri Lanka on 13-14 March, 2015 during which he also travelled to Anuradhapura, Talaimannar, and Jaffna. And now,after the parliamentary elections of last month, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's visited India from Sept.

16. During PM Modi’s visit, a number of agreements were signed, the most notable being on cooperation on peaceful uses of nuclear energy under which the two sides will facilitate cooperation in the transfer and exchange of knowledge and expertise, sharing of resources, capacity building and training of personnel in peaceful uses of nuclear energy including use of radioisotopes, nuclear safety, radiation safety, nuclear security, radioactive waste management and nuclear and radiological disaster mitigation and environmental protection. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe during his visit reiterated his government’s position that India would remain its ‘largest partner’ in defence training programme, and the two countries would continue to expand cooperation in this area. The two sides signed four agreements on cooperation in healthcare and space science. These augur well for India- Sri Lanka all round cooperation in the years ahead. Of course, both sides will have to exercise caution to move at a well calibrated pace with India recognizing the need to be generous and accommodative towards the special needs of its neighbour.

Conclusion

17. General Election results have shown that whipping up of chauvinistic rhetoric or inciting a section of people to strive for separatism is not enough to win the elections. People want clean governance within a democratic framework, coupled with transparency and accountability to ensure stable, prosperous and peaceful life. Every successive government had shown desire to work at it, but it is under President Sirisena that UNP led national government has backed that desire with requisite action. President Sirisena needs a special mention for ultimately it is he who has contributed a lion’s share in UNFGG’s win, while successfully preventing the looming split in his party; SLFP. UNFGG could attract a considerable section of Sinhala votes owing to his tacit backing to the alliance. The newly formed National Government has got an overwhelming majority of 201 seats in the 225 member parliament and both the president and the prime minister have great deal of experience in governance to deliver on their promises.


Published Date: 7th October 2015, Image Source: http://www.aljazeera.com
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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