Sri Lanka: Chicken or the egg moment

There is no doubt that those number have surged and no longer holds true. Minorities, both religious and communal, have not yet shown their hands.

by Manik De Silva

What will come first, the presidential or the parliamentary election? That is the multi-million dollar question. But Basil Rajapaksa, American citizen recently back from his second home in the U.S. where his family lives, and recently replaced as the pohottuwa’s national organizer by nephew Namal, muddied the waters a little more last week by telling a television talk show that both elections can be held together on one day. Despite shedding his title, BR remains the eminence grise of the SLPP, and must be taken seriously. Whether two elections are possible on the same day or not, we do not know. But the elections commissioner went on record a few days ago saying his department was geared to hold two elections this year though only the presidential election has been funded by the budget.

JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake [Credit: X/anuradisanayake]

As is now well known, BR floated a straw in the wind a few days after his return from a long sojourn in the U.S. by going public with the view that holding a general election before the presidential election would be the fairer sequence. He correctly said that if the presidential poll is held first, the vaasi paththata hoiya (hurrah for the winning side) principle will hold sway and the new president, empowered like the incumbent, to dissolve parliament at any time now as two and a half years of the present term of the legislature has passed, is very likely to seize the initiative before Aug. 2025 when the next parliamentary election is mandated. He would naturally take advantage of his victory to reap the biggest possible dividend at a parliamentary election as quickly as possible. This is similar to what JRJ did after his presidential election victory in October 1982. He did not dissolve parliament but called a national referendum in December of that year to keep it going for a further term without an election.

It has been widely alleged that the referendum was rigged. While this has not been conclusively proved, the people are very well aware that the law of not displaying symbols (lamp for ‘yes’ and pot for ‘no’) was flagrantly violated. JRJ tried to apply a veneer of respectability to what he had done by getting MPs who did not get the majority in their electorates at his own (that is JRJ’s election) and at the referendum to resign their parliamentary seats and run at consequent by-elections. But there too he made exceptions like Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel (who was moved from his previous Devinuwara seat to Bulathsinhala without facing a by-election) and at Panadura where the UNP funked running against the late Dr. Neville Fernando.

While there is no word yet of any parliamentary election this year, it is common knowledge that the presidential election is constitutionally mandated and must be held some time between next September and October. NPP/JVP leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake who is making another attempt to win the presidency and is campaigning both at home and among Lankans domiciled abroad has made bold to predict Sept. 28 or Oct. 5 as likely days for the poll. Elections are usually held on Saturdays and AKD has predicted two possible Saturdays for the contest. Critics, of course, says Dissanayake is not the elections commissioner and he has no business predicting likely polling dates. Be that as it may, let us get back to Basil Rajapaksa’s suggestion that both elections be held on the same day. There are neither constitutional nor legal barriers to this but most will believe that it will impracticable to run two elections on the same day.

While the president had not yet personally declared his candidature, his intimates have done so and it’s clear that an RW election machine is now rolling. If RW should fall in with the wishes of Basil Rajapaksa and dissolve parliament in the near future, the constitution requires him to hold an election with resources from the consolidated fund drawn as necessary. But if the president will not play ball, parliament by a simple majority of those present and voting can compel an election. But many sitting MPs on either side of the House, not having served five years to qualify for a pension, will not favour an early election. Having stridently demanded any election after GR’s ouster, most opposition MPs will find it difficult to vote against a dissolution.

SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa has issued an edict to his party members not to speculate on a possible candidate for the party ticket at the forthcoming election. SLPP leaders say they will take a decision at “the proper time.” Billionaire business tycoon Dhammika Perera who had signaled an interest in running for the presidency have in recent weeks being keeping a low profile.

As of now there appears to be three runners – Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake. The ressident can, of course, decide not to run if he expects to be beaten and serve out GR’s term till November. There is a public perception backed by various polls that the NPP/JVP which has, as in the past, displayed formidable organizational muscle and been touted as a front runner by various polls, has moved forward substantially from the 3.16 percent vote share it polled at the November 2019 presidential election and the 3.84 percent polled by the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) under which banner the NPP/JVP of today ran a the August 2020 parliamentary election.

There is no doubt that those number have surged and no longer holds true. Minorities, both religious and communal, have not yet shown their hands. There are other hopeless hopefuls too but whether they will eventually toss their hats into the ring is an open question. Dummy candidates will, as usual, be fielded by the front runners looking for the various facilities candidates are entitled to or splitting the votes of some of their opponents. However all that be, the country will be treated to interesting times in her political scene in the forthcoming weeks and months.

Manik De Silva is the Editor of Sunday Island, a Colombo based weekly published by Upali Newspapers Ltd.