A magnificent victory | Sunday Observer

A magnificent victory

9 August, 2020

The victory of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) at the August 5 General Election was a foregone conclusion, but its scale (just a few seats short of a two-thirds majority) once again confirmed that the SLPP has become the de facto choice of voters in just a short span of two years. Despite fewer votes being cast overall, the SLPP held on to its 2019 November vote base and percentage in many areas, even though it is unfair to compare that election and the General Election, where local and provincial issues also come into play.

The SLPP was a refreshing change in a political landscape that had remained staid for many decades. Most people called it the Thattu-Maru system of politics whereby the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) or alliances led by the two parties, ruled the country alternately.

The genesis of the SLPP lay in the Good Governance Government of 2015, in which the SLFP was a partner. While many SLFP MPs did indeed join President Maithripala Sirisena’s side, more than 50 MPs remained loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

This ‘Joint Opposition’ which also included MPs from some other parties was not recognised as the Opposition in Parliament due to a technical issue, which coincided with the Mahinda Sulanga movement to bring Mahinda Rajapaksa back into politics. It was clear to many political observers that Mahinda Rajapaksa was still a potent political force that might command a sizeable vote on its own.

This thinking was not lost on former Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who floated the idea of forming a separate political entity under the de-facto leadership of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Many were apprehensive of this proposal at first, but Basil Rajapaksa stood his ground and the SLPP was eventually formed with the now-famous symbol Flower Bud. Its first litmus test was the February 2018 Local Government polls, which it won in a landslide, pushing the established SLFP to fourth or even fifth place in many areas. The SLPP had well and truly arrived on the national political scene.

The rest is history, as they say. It was only logical for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to choose the SLPP as the vehicle for his Presidential bid in November 2019, even though he was a non-politician with no membership in any political party. At this point, only the SLPP’s policies resonated with the voters countrywide. With this magnificent victory, it was only a matter of time before the SLFP almost folded. At this election, the SLFP contested only four electoral districts separately and got only one National List seat.

The other major development in this election is the emergence in second place of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), the UNP breakaway group led by its former deputy leader Sajith Premadasa, the UNP’s Presidential candidate in 2019.

The electorate has sent a strong message to Ranil Wickremesinghe by shifting their allegiance to the SJB, that he has perhaps overstayed his welcome as the leader of the UNP, a post he had held for nearly three decades.

The fate of the UNP, which trailed even behind the JVP-led Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) in most areas, and received only one National List seat, was simply astounding. It is also not clear whether the two parties will merge or go their separate ways, a la SLPP. It is, however, doubtful whether the SJB can replicate the same level of success as the SLPP in the long run.

However, between the SLPP and the SJB, the two parties have clearly dramatically transformed the traditional UNP-SLFP two-party model. Their emergence and performance also proves that the Sri Lankan voters have no ‘written in stone’ preferences for political parties and are pragmatic enough to identify dynamic changes.

Indeed, if someone had been under a rock for the past 10 years and suddenly woke up listening to the election results, it would be very difficult for him or her to comprehend what was going on.

But now, the time has come to focus on the next five years ahead, leaving political analysts to do the job of dissecting the results. Both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa have alluded to this.

The President has spoken of the need to form a strong Cabinet from among the team who will be elected, while the Prime Minister has also stressed the need to form a strong and stable SLPP-led Government. Judging by the challenges that lie ahead of the Government, there is every possibility that certain Opposition members may also pledge support.

The main challenge that lies ahead of the Government is reviving the economy that has been battered by the adverse effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. This is easier said than done as some sectors of the economy will almost have to be started from scratch. The Coronavirus itself remains a challenge, even though the health authorities and Security Forces personnel have contained the social transmission of the contagion. A second wave must be avoided at all costs. The debt burden, the rising cost of living and unemployment are among other issues confronting the nation.

The SJB-led Opposition must also play a constructive role in Parliament, urging the Government to correct course in case it takes any wrong decisions. They must abandon the practice of opposing just for the sake of opposing, which is usually what the Opposition parties do in Parliament. The challenges ahead are indeed daunting and the Government needs the cooperation of all to take the country forward. We hope that the Opposition will live up to this challenge.