- The UPFA led by Mahinda Rajapaksa, had obtained 60 per cent of total votes and 144 out of 225 seats in Parliament – only six seats less than the two-thirds majority in 2010
- It was UNP General Secretary, the late Gamini Athukorale who led the first rebellion against Wickremesinghe
- The SLPP seems to be banking on the split in its main rival, the United National Party (UNP)
It might not be ethically correct to predict result of any election, especially of a tightly contested election as it might influence the constituency. Yet, the result of the parliament election that is scheduled to be held on August 5 is a foregone conclusion and it also seems not to be a closely fought race.
However, the much touted slogan of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to obtain two-thirds of seats in parliament at the next week’s election is a very difficult target under the current Proportional Representation (PR) electoral system. Nevertheless it must be recalled that once, a political party – in fact a coalition – led also by Mahinda Rajapaksa, had almost reached that target under the same system.
The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) led by Mahinda Rajapaksa, the current leader of the SLPP had obtained 60 percent of total valid votes and 144 out of 225 seats in Parliament – only six seats less than the two-thirds majority in the House – at the general election held in 2010. The context of the election was extraordinary, as it was held amidst a huge euphoria in the 17 districts of the Southern part of Sri Lanka over the war victory by the armed forces against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The UPFA was able to exploit the air of triumphalism in the south at the presidential and parliamentary elections held in 2010, as it was the ruling party under President Mahinda Rajapaksa when the last stage of the war was fought and the victory was achieved. And his brother, the current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa along with the then Army Commander Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka played a tremendous role towards that victory. Besides, a considerable section of Muslims and the plantation Tamils too, stood by Rajapaksa at that election.
"Both main parties of yesteryear, the UNP and SLFP have divided now, and two new parties – SLPP and SJB – have emerged"
This time the SLPP is seeking a two-thirds majority power in parliament in the absence of these favourable conditions. But the party seems to be banking on the split in its main rival, the United National Party (UNP) and the possible psychological impact on the voters of the results of two nation-wide elections held in the last two consecutive years – the local government elections in 2018 and the presidential election last year.
Both main political parties of yesteryear in the country, the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) have divided by now, and two new parties – SLPP and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) – have emerged as the main players at elections. SLFP has joined hands with the SLPP but the UNP is all alone.
"The result of the parliament election that will be held on August 5 is a foregone conclusion and it also seems not to be a closely fought race"
In fact, the split in the SLFP or the UNP could not be attributed to any policy issues, despite the division within the SLFP in 2014 was largely seen as a conflict over democracy, especially the executive presidency. Yet, it was a well known fact that the then SLFP General Secretary, Maithripala Sirisena would never have revolted against President and SLFP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, had he been appointed the prime minister. The slogan against the executive presidency was used only to bind all anti-Rajapaksa groups together.
There was not even such an overt policy issue behind the UNP split and was openly a leadership tussle. It is also well evident from the allegations levelled by both groups against each other. The SJB while having with it so many former MPs who attempted to cover-up the Central Bank bond scandal and later defended the suspects of the scam, now use the scandal to undermine the UNP leadership. On the other hand, UNP leaders who once praised Sajith Premadasa’s housing programmes are now ridiculing the same.
The rebellions against UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe were almost two decades old and had always been triggered by the assumption that he was a weak leader and had been the cause for the party’s continuous election defeats. However, even after four revolts against his leadership, rebels failed to remove him and Wickremesinghe still stands tall as the leader of the grand old party.
"The then SLFP General Secretary, Maithripala Sirisena would never have revolted against President Mahinda Rajapaksa, had he been appointed the prime minister"
In fact, it was the SLFP leaders who had instilled the notion that the UNP cannot win elections under Wickremesinghe’s leadership in the minds of the UNP’s rank and file in late 1990s, and hence, would have the credit of the split in the party, at least after two decades. Ironically, the SLFP under the leadership of the late Sirima Bandaranaike faced the same situation, failing in all national and local elections for 17 long years, between 1977 and 1994.
It was UNP General Secretary, the late Gamini Athukorale who led the first rebellion against Wickremesinghe in 2001, which fizzled out with the party’s parliamentary election victory in December the same year. The UNP was also on the verge of changing the history of the country - for better or worse - by winning the presidential election under the same leadership in 2005, which was thwarted by the LTTE, by enforcing an election boycott in the North.
Another wave of agitations against Wickremesinghe’s leadership led by Sajith Premadasa in 2014 was eclipsed by the presidential election victory by Maithripala Sirisena which was in the UNP’s favour and was engineered by the party under Wickremesinghe. Therefore the assumption that the UNP with Wickremesinghe being in the saddle cannot win elections, is not
"The UNP & Wickremesinghe missed the opportunity to change history by not persuading President Sirisena to dissolve parliament immediately after the 2015 presidential election"
However, the UNP and Wickremesinghe missed the opportunity to change history again, by not persuading President Maithripala Sirisena to dissolve parliament immediately after the 2015 presidential election. Had they done so, the UNP would have obtained the absolute majority in parliament, instead of running a hung parliament. Then the party would also have fared well or at least not been so humiliated at the 2018 local government elections.
Whether the notion about Wickremesinghe’s capacity to win elections was true or not, when a majority of parliamentarians, local govt. councillors and the supporters of the UNP sided with Sajith Premadasa, Wickremesinghe failed to understand the pulse of the party’s rank and file and act accordingly, allowing the party to split. He might have had more leadership qualities, experience and maturity than Premadasa, but the party preferred a change. Also one may argue that Premadasa should have taken a backward step following the presidential election, as the UNP then, had faced one of the worst situations in its history. It seems that the leaders’ ego has thus brought in a precarious situation for the members and supporters of the UNP/SJB.