Sri Lanka’s general election proved to be a tight race between its 2 main contenders, the United National Party (UNP) and the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition, leaving neither side with the simple majority required to form a government on its own.
The centre-right UNP that won 106 seats in the 225-member parliament – 11 more than its rival – will need the support of smaller parties to pass laws. The situation gives leverage to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which came in third with 16 seats in the north and east, where Tamil and Muslim minority communities are concentrated. The Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which had hoped to be a ‘third force’ in parliament, came in for disappointment, getting just 6 seats.
On Wednesday, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe called on all parties to join together to create what he termed a ‘National Government’. Making a US-style statement to the press on the manicured lawn of Temple Trees (the prime minister’s official residence) he said ‘I will take oaths as Prime Minister and have a discussion with President Maithripala Sirisena on the need to take this concept forward, where we will build a consensus on our national policies.’ Sirisena, who is from the same party as former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, defected to oust Rajapaksa in the January presidential election. Wickremesinghe’s UNP facilitated his victory. Wickremesinghe was thereafter appointed prime minister by Sirisena, and led a minority government for 6 months. Rajapaksa, who contested the 17 August election from the Kurunegala district, a Sinhala stronghold, will enter parliament as an MP of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which leads the Left-leaning UPFA coalition.
Although crossovers have become commonplace in the aftermath of Sri Lankan elections, there is hope that the inter-party collaboration Wickremesinghe seeks will go beyond the opportunism of simply ‘joining the winning team’. Dr Godfrey Gunetilleke, Chair Emeritus of the Marga Institute, an independent think tank, noted that both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe explicitly said during the presidential and parliamentary election campaigns that they would try to form a national government.
‘I think the present balance of power offers an unprecedented opportunity for the formation of a national government which would be both stable and acceptable to the large majority of the electorate,’ Gunetilleke commented.
Support for the idea was also expressed by Professor Rajiva Wijesinghe, leader of the Liberal Party, who had in fact backed Rajapaksa’s come-back bid. ‘If there were a national government, it would be President Sirisena’s national government, owing allegiance primarily to him and his presidential manifesto. I think that would be a good idea, and it is eminently possible if the president asserted himself, as I think he will be able to do now, given the election result,’ Wijesinghe said.
The election has brought changes that present a complex political landscape. Days before the poll, Sirisena sacked the secretaries of the SLFP and the UPFA (of which he became leader when he became president) and replaced them with his loyalists. At a time when the SLFP is divided between Sirisena’s followers and Rajapaksa supporters, the move has produced mixed reactions.
‘I was in the south when I heard the news, and there was much indignation there,’ said Wijesinghe. ‘In Colombo, however, there was a greater sense that any means that lay to hand were justified to stop a return of Mahinda Rajapaksa.’
The post-poll electoral map showed that Rajapaksa had lost support from the minorities, who mainly voted for the UNP, while the majority Sinhalese electorate was divided between the 2 mainstream parties which have traditional constituencies. Some political parties representing minorities, such as the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, contested on the UNP ticket. Ironically, even the Sinhala nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) made common cause with the UNP to defeat Rajapaksa.
Gunetilleke warns of the challenges posed by attempting to form a national government:
‘First neither of these parties are well-knit, ideologically homogeneous bodies. They are riven by internal factions and rivalries which will come into play in the sharing of power. Second, forming a national government means re-negotiating the agendas with which they campaigned.’
Whatever uncertainties lay ahead, most Sri Lankans would agree that one of the most heartening aspects of the election was its remarkably peaceful character compared to previous polls. Both local and foreign election monitoring groups hailed it as credible, saying it met the criteria of democratic elections and reflected the will of the people.