Election campaign in Sri Lanka despite Covid-19
If the parliamentary election in Sri Lanka were held as scheduled in April of this year, then the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) would have had a clear home run. Propelled by the 2019 November Presidential win of their party’s candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and a fractured and weakened opposition, the SLPP’s dream of obtaining a two thirds majority would have been a cake-walk.
The influence of COVID-19 on the election
But then, Sri Lanka reported its first COVID-19 patient in March, and all plans of conducting the poll in April went awry. The Election Commission attempted to fix an alternate date on two occasions, but, as the number of Corona patients rose, it was finally decided to hold the poll on August 5th.
With President Rajapaksa’s win, the government of the time resigned, paving the way for the SLPP to form a government, which went into caretaker mode when Parliament was dissolved in March of this year. Since then the President has ruled without the aid of the Parliament, despite the opposition requesting that parliament be reconvened to help pass the funds necessary to deal with the COVID-19 situation and other economic issues the country faced. The opposition has repeatedly questioned the legality of the allocation of funds for various purposes without Parliamentary approval. But the President chose to rule by fiat, appointing Task Forces, made up primarily of retired Military personnel to deal with various issues. Secretaries to some ministries, including Health are also Military men.
The President’s older brother Mahinda is the caretaker Prime Minister and he will retain that position after the elections, as most indications are that the SLPP will win at least a working majority in Parliament.
Sri Lanka is a heavily debt ridden country, whose economic situation has worsened with the spread of the Corona virus. It has hit the three biggest foreign exchange earners, Tourism, remittances by migrant workers and earnings from exports such as apparels.
The government has also mishandled a couple of other situations. One is the issue of overseas migrant workers, whose foreign exchange earnings the country is heavily dependent upon and who are angered by the government’s failure to repatriate them as soon as the corona virus began to spread around the world. Instead, the first to be repatriated were those Sri Lankans studying overseas and state sector workers who were on training. The government has justified their decision by stating that the students were the most vulnerable group.
For the SLPP, this is a one-issue election campaign. The 19th amendment to the Constitution, introduced by the previous government, and voted in favour by a wide parliamentary majority, has now become a bone of contention, as it has considerably reduced the powers of the President. Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his SLPP want to reverse that, but need a two thirds majority in parliament to accomplish their goal.
What was a lackluster start to the election campaign, and an SLPP victory a foregone conclusion, has now turned into a much tighter race.
The contesting parties
Two political parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), have ruled Sri Lanka in turns, ever since the country gained independence from the British in 1948. For at least twenty years, the SLFP has ruled through alliances with various other political groups, while the UNP held its own for the most part. It went into an alliance with some members of the SLFP and other smaller parties to contest the Presidential and later the parliamentary elections in 2015. That dalliance came a cropper even before it could actually get down to the business of governing, with allegations of financial fraud against the UNP and a Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP) and President, Maithripala Sirisena (SLFP) who failed to co-operate for the good of the country. It was also during that period that the current Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa originally of the SLFP formed the SLPP. The August 5th election is being contested by the SLPP with SLFP a junior partner. Former President Sirisena is among the candidates.
And what of the UNP? A party that formed along lines of favouring free markets has been dealing with internal issues for a couple of years. It held together to field a presidential candidate in 2019, though there were many signs even at that time that all was not well within. In February this year, its Presidential candidate, Sajith Premadasa, son of former President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, formed a separate alliance known as the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) which is contesting the parliamentary election, along with several other political groups. The UNP is doing it alone.
Though the SJB got off to a shaky start, it has made considerable gains in the last few months, and is now seen as a strong opponent of the SLPP. Both alliances are made up of smaller parties, including Tamil and Muslim groups.
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which has twice tried to overthrow elected government through violent insurrection has had, for the longest a time, a strong backing amongst the rural poor, predominantly the youth. Having failed to gain power through terror tactics it has entered mainstream politics and is now seen by many as a party that is not corrupt and one that has continued to function within its socialist ideals. Contesting as an alliance as the National People’s Power (NPP), it has drawn the interest of many voters owing to its ‘clean’ image and members of the National Intellectuals Organisation throwing in their lot with them.
Another major player is the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which represents the aspirations of the Tamils of the country, specifically those in the North and the East.
The TNA has continued to seek election to parliament to better the lot of their people and has backed any party prepared to offer a satisfactory solution to the ethnic issue which has dogged the country for decades.
A very reduced election campaign due to COVID-19
Under normal circumstances during elections Sri Lanka country turns into one big battlefield of massive rallies, with one party trying to outdo the other in a show of popular strength. Posters and giant pictures of contestants adorn every available space with loudspeakers blaring election speeches late into the night. However, COVID-19 put paid to all that, and the public breathed a sigh of relief. With health guidelines in place, campaigning has been limited to pocket meetings and small gatherings and Television talk shows. Social media has become the best method of communication for most contestants, though the major parties have held open-air rallies, mostly in areas outside the capital Colombo.
The Independent National Election Commission, created through the 19th amendment has also been able to apply election laws more stringently which has resulted in an absence of cut-outs and posters. No rallies or meetings can be held in the 48 hours before Election Day.
The options for the electorate and an outlook
The SJB, NPP, TNA and the UNP are seen as the parties that advocate democratic reforms. As mentioned earlier, it was the UNP/SLFP backed by the JVP, TNA and other parties, that introduced the 19th amendment and it was during that government which came to power in 2015 that the Right to Information Act was introduced and many of the curbs on press freedom put in place by the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa regime were removed.
Those advocating for more democratic reform fear that an SLPP government under the Rajapaksa brothers will result in militarisation and a disregard for fundamental rights. The President meanwhile has been telling the electorate that a two third majority will give him the powers to turn the country into a self-sufficient developed one.
The electorate is divided, with a majority seeing the President as a man who would get things done and not allow corruption, while others fear that the progress made on democratisation would stall. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was President until 2015, has his own appeal; having led the country to victory against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, he is revered by most, who believe that only the Rajapaksas can develop the country.
The election on August 5th will be a defining one for the country. Sri Lankans have to decide whether they will strengthen Parliament and the democracy in the country, or opt for more authoritarian rule.