Sri Lanka Perspectives: February 2018
by R Hariharan on 05 Mar 2018 1 Comment

National unity coalition of the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) so far has not been able to evolve a coherent action plan to recover its lost ground after they suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa-backed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) in the local government elections held on February 10, 2018. 


It has hurt the images of both President Maithripala Sirisena (SLFP) and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP) and they are trying to retain their hold on party leadership. Acting under such stress, their efforts to subsume disagreements between the two coalition partners and take measures to tackle adverse public opinion on their performance so far have not yielded positive results. Instead, they have courted derisive comments than appreciation.


President Sirisena’s cabinet reshuffle saw the swearing in of six cabinet ministers and his refusal to swear-in former army chief Sarath Fonseka as minister of law left a lot of red faces.

In the local government elections for 340 local bodies (24 municipal councils, 41 urban councils and 275 divisional councils), the newly formed SLPP came on top, securing 44.65 per cent of votes. The UNP was a distant second with 32.63 per cent votes and the National Peoples Freedom Alliance (NPFA) polled a dismal 8.90 per cent. The SLFP led by Maithripala Sirisena came off with the worst performance securing only 4.46% votes. The results have increased the chances of Rajapaksa successfully returning to the political mainstream.


The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R Sampanthan speaking in parliament tried to play down the significance of Rajapaksa’s victory in the local government elections. He said Rajapaksa “has always been below 50 percent at the Presidential Election, at the Parliamentary Election and at the Local Authority Election. Rajapaksa had never polled more than 45 percent in local elections so there is nothing to get excited about.”


But the point is, the local government elections were as much a reality check of Rajapaksa’s political relevance as the mid-term performance of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo. Rajapaksa was fighting with his back to the wall, trying to regain his place in the sun after successive defeats in presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015. Over three dozen cases of corruption, misuse of office and many other such criminal offences against Rajapaksa’s family and siblings are still in various stages of investigation and prosecution.


Even under such circumstances, Rajapaksa has managed to retain bulk of 47.58 per cent voters who supported him in the 2015 presidential poll indicating that most of the loyal SLFP followers have voted for the SLPP. Energised by the election results, Rajapaksa is riding the crest of confidence as the results have increased his hopes to stage a triumphant reentry into the national mainstream.


On the flipside, the UNP, NPFA and the SLFP together have polled 45.99 per cent votes in the local government election. So there is hope for their chances of survival if they maintain unity in the face of adversity and work hard to redeem public confidence. The coalition has to quickly get its act together in all three fronts of good governance – speeding up action to prosecute those involved in acts of corruption and misuse of office during the Rajapaksa rule, complete structural reforms through the new constitution and address the national question to resolve minority grievances. Its longevity will be determined only by sustained improvement in performance.


Perils of election campaigning


The TNA leader R Sampanthan in a hard hitting speech in parliament on the local government election, referred to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement, “The Eelam is likely to bloom after the Local Authority Elections if the people are not careful,” during campaigning. The TNA leader said that this message was propagated “amongst the innocent Sinhala people” who were told, “this is a referendum for Sinhala people in this country. If you vote for the UNP, it will result in an Eelam being created. So do not vote for them. Vote for the Lotus Bud [the election symbol of SLPP].”


Explaining that the TNA stood for a unified Sri Lanka, he branded the statement as “a malicious, fallacious, false propaganda” on the part of Rajapaksa and the SLPP. He cautioned that if they proceeded with the agenda, Eelam would bloom, not on account of Tamils, but on account of him and the SLPP. He added, “Your Lotus Bud will bloom into an Eelam… Therefore, please resist your temptation to achieve cheap political gains by carrying on such false propaganda”.


The ethnic issue continues to be on a short fuse. During the elections, it is capable of kindling explosive ethnic confrontations. So Sampanthan’s warning has not come a day late, as the SLPP, buoyed by the election success, may well use Tamil Eelam scare as the core issue of its campaign in the provincial council and parliamentary elections. The furore created after the recent recall of Brigadier Priyanka Fernando, defence adviser in Sri Lanka High Commission in London, is an example of how a single mindless act can trigger ethnic passions. On the occasion of independence day celebrations, the Brigadier made a gesture of slitting the throat at a group of LTTE flag-waving sympathisers demonstrating in front of the High Commission on February 4, 2018. When a video showing the Brigadier’s unseemly conduct went viral, he was recalled to Colombo.


The army headquarters’ contradictory statements on his recall showed the dilemma of the government in handling the incident. Under normal circumstances, the Brigadier would have been given a warning to conduct himself better while handling such provocative demonstrations of pro-LTTE crowds. But the incident degenerated into Sinhalas versus Tamil issue at home, providing a field day for rival political parties.


Courtesy Col R Hariharan

South Asia Security Trends, March 2018 issue;

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top