Local Elections and Bond Effects: How wounded is the PM? How wound up is the President? What of Basil’s SLPP?
Posted on January 6th, 2018

Rajan Philips Courtesy The Island


The pundits have already declared the February 10 local government elections as a national referendum on the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. The President’s statement on the findings of the Bond Commission report now provides a specific context or framework for that referendum. The implications of that framework will be endlessly parsed and presaged by pundits. But what effect will the President’s revelations from the Commission report have on the voting public? That is the question that will keep political junkies curious for the next four weeks. A no less curious question is how the report and its handling by the President will change the internal dynamic within political parties/alliances, and between them – especially within the government and between the Siamese twins that the SLFP has become. The ‘internal dynamic’ may or may not be significant enough to influence the local vote, but the results of the local vote will have quite an impact on the post-election relationships within and outside the government. Even the continuation of the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government might come into question.

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The uniquely depressing aspect of the whole political business of today is that it is not at all about anything seriously political. There are no serious political issues, ideas or programs driving this so called national referendum over national politics. There is nothing in it that is comparable to the great political controversies of the past. The country and its politics may have taken, and they sure did take, the wrong turn at critical moments, but political leaders in the past were serious about the positions they took. And however politically mistaken past leaders may have been in their positions, there was nothing in it for them personally or for their families as it is so crassly now. There is nothing seriously political that differentiates one party or alliance from another. It is a sad commentary on contemporary politics to see seasoned commentators, yours truly not excluded, formulating current electoral politics in terms of old political questions. What we are really doing is trying to re-live the serious politics of the past in the crass and charlatan politics of the present.

Political Superstructure

It is futile to look for underlying social and political forces to make sense of the ongoing political parody. The political superstructure has got a surreal life of its own. The electoral base can only play with the candidate cards that are dealt before it by political party leaders and their servile party bureaucrats. We have seen how inconsequential the nominally historic victory of January 2015 and its sequel in August 2015 have so far proved themselves to be. So it is fair to ask the question as to what worthy consequence can we expect from the February elections to local bodies – the lowest rung in the political ladder. Nonetheless and at long last there will be local elections at considerable expense and effort, election campaigns with no less expense or effort, and there will be results. There are a host of questions to excite the politically excitable. Who will win the largest number of local bodies, and who is going to end up third? What will be the national vote breakdown between parties and alliances? Who will win control of the prize municipality of Colombo and other major urban centres – Galle and Kandy? How will the elections play out outside the seven provinces – in the North and East?

In the aftermath of the bond report, there will be equally exciting questions about the campaign tactics of the President and the SLFP, the rearguard defences of the PM and the UNP, and the palpably wrong-footed and unexciting campaign start of Basil Rajapaksa’s SLPP. The larger speculative question is about the effect the report will have on the shifting voting trends from 2006 through 2011 to 2015. More importantly, what impact will the bond revelations have on voter enthusiasm and voter turnout? The most responsible national concern ought to be about the gross neglect of local issues and local priorities in local government elections. None of the political parties or alliances, perhaps with the partial exception of the JVP, is taking any interest in local issues. All of them are officially considering the local election to be a national referendum to flex their muscle and throw mud at one another.

This will not be first time that local elections are going to be a parody of national politics. The rot started in 1988 when the system of local government based on municipalities, urban and town councils and village councils was replaced by a plethora of Pradeshiya Sabhas, and the election of ‘ward members’ gave way to voting for a list of party candidates. Local government was uploaded and centralized, and local democracy was usurped by party bureaucracy. The February 10 elections are going to be on a system of mixed representation – 60% comprising first-past-the-post ward members, and 40% according to proportion of votes in each local body. And 25% of the elected officials are guaranteed to be women. Will their presence in the campaign and in elected councils make a difference? Or, are they to be mere appendages to male-dominated party establishments?

Any prospect for fundamental changes will not depend on who wins a majority of the local bodies – but how the campaign and the results will change the internal structure and dynamic of the UNP, the SLFP(s) and their alliances. To be brutally frank, can any one of the main parties be of any promise to the country so long as their current leaders remain in leadership positions? Do these parties have the rebellious resources to push out the old and bring in the new? Do the old fogey leaders have the wisdom to prepare for orderly succession and avoid disorderly exits? It is too much to expect the local elections and the bond report to trigger any or all of these changes. But they could at least show us which way the country and its politics are heading.

Voting trends and prospects

In the last two local elections in 2006 and 2011, the UNP was simply decimated. The Rajapaksa juggernaut did to the UNP what the UNP juggernaut under JRJ and Premadasa had been doing to the SLFP in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. In 2006 and 2011, the SLFP virtually swept the board in the seven provinces and made gains in the Eastern Province through its minority proxy parties. The only oasis of respite for the UNP was the Colombo municipality, where the Rajapaksas came up short despite fielding star mayoral candidates: Vasudeva Nanayakkara from the Left in 2006, and Milinda Moragoda from the Right in 2011. The situation is reversed now, with the UNP as the leading government party and aiming to do well in the local elections overall, while also eying to keep its big trophy in Colombo and parading Rosy Senanayake as its star candidate for Mayor.

It is reasonable to expect the UNP to do better in 2018 than its performances in 2006 and 2011. It cannot do worse even if the bond scam is the only election question. But how much better can the UNP do? Ordinarily, UNP strategists would have taken much comfort from the vote shifts between 2011 and 2015. But they would be stupid to take anything for granted in light of the Bond Report and the stink it has created. This is what anyone could glean from the vote shifts between 2011 and 2015.

In the 2011 local elections, the UNP alliance hit its absolute nadir in national vote, polling only 2.7 million (32%) against the SLFP/UPFA’s 4.8 million (56%). All the others combined for a total of one million votes. The total valid votes were 8.5 million representing 65% voter turnout. The UNP won majority in only nine local bodies as opposed to SLFP/UPFA’s massive 270. Even the TNA fared much better than the UNP with 32 local bodies for a vote tally of 255,000.

Fast forward to 2015 January presidential election and the parliamentary election in August: In the presidential election, Mahinda Rajapaksa polled 5.8 million votes against Maithripala Sirisena’s 6.2 million votes, and the total valid votes were 12.1 million. In the August parliamentary election the SLFP/UPFA vote (including both Rajapaksa and Sirisena factions) dropped to 4.7 million, a million lower than in January, and 100,000 lower than the local elections in 2011. The vote for the UNP alliance shot up to 5.1 million in contrast to its 2011 nadir of 2.7 million. The total valid votes in August were 11.2 million (about a million less than in January), and the non-major parties totalled 1.3 million with the TNA and the JVP each polling over a half a million votes. The voter turnout in August 2015 was 77%, 12% higher than in the 2011 local elections.

Now there has been much commentary that the UNP alliance’s 5.1 million votes in August 2015 should not be taken as votes in the bank for the UNP in the upcoming local elections. The breakdown of votes between different parties presents a more optimistic picture at least for the UNP about its support base. The 6.2 million votes polled by Maithripala Sirisena as the common opposition candidate drew from multiple parties but the vast majority of the votes came from the UNP. In the August election almost all the other common opposition parties contested separately amassing a grand total of 1.3 million votes. There were not significant vote gathering parties in the UNP alliance in August 2015 to make a claim to a significant portion of the alliance’s 5.1 million votes. The only unknown, to my mind, is the number traditional SLFP votes that may have gone to the UNP alliance. Admittedly, there were a handful of SLFPers who were contesting as UNP alliance candidates but the vast majority of the SLFP votes would have stayed with the SLFP/UPFA alliance.

My point in all this is that ordinarily, the vote shifts between 2011 and 2015 would have placed the UNP in a pretty comfortable position for the upcoming local elections. The split of the SLFP base between Sirisena (SLFP/UPFA) and Rajapaksa (SLPP/JO) would have been an additional fillip to UNP fortunes. The partial (60%) re-introduction of the first-past-the-post system would also have been of advantage to the UNP. While the UNP could not have repeated the SLFP/UPFA sweeps of the local bodies in 2006 and 2011, the UNP could certainly have done much better than it did either in 2006 or 2011. Of the three main contestants, the UNP could have won control of most of the local bodies.

However, in the aftermath of the Bond report and revelations, the UNP cannot take anything for granted and nothing is certain for anybody. The UNP’s predicaments do not necessarily give much advantage to the SLFP/UPFA or the SLPP/JO. The latter two have their own problems. Overall the elections in the seven provinces are a three-horse race, but none of the three horses are fit and ready for the race. In the North, the TNA will have to deal alone with its provincial detractors, while in the East the TNA is likely to have electoral arrangements with Muslim parties to keep its detractors at bay. The bond issue is unlikely to be echoed in the two provinces, but the TNA will be forced to show what benefits it has obtained for the war-affected areas and victims. Equally, it will be asked to outline its plans for the future in light of the goings-on in Colombo.

Bond Effects

There is no question the Bond Report is hurtful to the UNP. The effects will be two fold – among the party organizers and in the party’s support base. It was already known that there were rumblings among UNPers that the first bond scandal cost the party its parliamentary majority in the August 2015 election. How much more rumblings there will be if the UNP fails to win control of a majority of the local bodies on February 10? It is unlikely that UNP voters will vote with their feet by going over to Maithripala Sirisena or Mahinda Rajapaksa, but if they are disgusted enough by the bond scandal they may end up not turning out to vote at all. Voter apathy was certainly the main factor in the low vote tally of 2.7 million in the 2011 local government election. Along with apathy, there could be real anger this time over the bond scandal.

But there is also the difference that the UNP is now a governing party unlike in 2006 or 2011 when it was hopelessly out of contention for power. It would be instructive to see if the UNP leadership would try to counter the fallout from the bond scandal by displaying its governmental power to its supporters. That could backfire the way it did when Mahinda Rajapaksa brazenly tried to run for a third term in office. The UNP version of the Rajapaksa brazenness would be to allow Ravi Karunanayake play a leading role in the local election campaign regardless of the Bond Commission’s damning findings against him. Obviously, the Prime Minister has not shown he has the gumption to fire the former minister from the party hierarchy. The question is if the PM will at least show moral sensibility and ask Ravi Karunanayake to stay out of the election campaign. There have been reports that several UNPers have started asking to cut loose Karunanayake from the campaign team. Will their prayers be answered? How will Rosy Senanayake rate her chances in the Colombo mayoral contest with Ravi Karunanayake as her campaign chaperon?

As I indicated in the title of this article, how wounded is Prime Minister Wickremasinghe by the bond scandal? There is no question that the political responsibility for the whole sordid mess is his and his alone. He may get away with the local government election, but he is far too much damaged to be a future presidential candidate. He may not be the most appropriate person to lead the party even in the next parliamentary election. In British parliamentary politics, political parties devour their leaders even when they are Prime Ministers. There is a long list of consecutive Tory Prime Ministers from Churchill to Thatcher brought down by their own parties. That is not the tradition in Sri Lanka. Nor is there a tradition of voluntary retirement from party leadership. Wouldn’t it be apt and decent for our party leaders to start such a tradition and work out their own orderly succession?

For all its predicaments, the UNP can still count on the difficulties of its adversaries. President Sirisena has deservedly carved out a yahapalanaya niche for himself by launching the Bond Commission and reaping its findings. But his efforts are not obviously helping him to consolidate the SLFP. Nor are they sufficient to make an impact on the local elections. He must be relentless in seeing through the full implementation of the recommendations of the Commission including the indictments. He should equally initiate and persist with other probes into misdoings both before and after 2015. But he runs the risk in overplaying the bond scam and the Commission’s findings for electoral purposes. Beyond a certain point, his use of the Bond Report is not going to help the SLFP garner more votes or win more local bodies. But the risk in overplaying it is in alienating the Prime Minister and breaking up the partnership between the two.

The difficulties facing the Rajapaksa camp are not surprising. Like Prime Minister Wickremesinghe pretending that it is all business as usual for his side of the government regardless of the bond scandal, the Rajapaksas have been pretending to themselves that they can just slide back into power regardless of their own scandals simply by holding rallies and fielding candidates. The unpopularity of the government would be enough to storm them back to power – that has been the premise. The new party (SLPP) that Basil Rajapksa and GL Peiris (what a pair!) launched has hardly taken a flying start to this campaign. It has run into all kinds of organizational difficulties and internal acrimonies. Those who were gung ho about a JO victory have gone quiet. They are even quieter about the fact that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, their prize fighter for the next presidential election, has taken leave of absence from Sri Lankan politics and is now resting in the US until the local elections are over. Apparently, he was not happy with the way his brother Basil handled and botched the unity talks between the two SLFPs.

No one should be surprised if the voters return a ‘hung verdict’ – no one emerging as a clear winner and each party claiming selective victory. A hung verdict will be most pleasing to President Sirisena, that is to say he can save face if he is in a pack of three with close tallies rather than ending up a distant third behind the other two contenders. The reality is that after the election and for the next two years, just as it is now, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe cannot be without one another. One cannot get rid of the other, and the two need each other to remain officially relevant. They are also the only two people with an agenda for government that most Sri Lankans can relate to and hold them accountable far. The bond scam has scuppered the agenda and whatever prospect there was for good governance. Regardless of the outcome of the February 10 elections, the President and the Prime Minister will have two years left to see if they can salvage something before their day of reckoning finally arrives.

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