April 04, 2020
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The Face Of Change

UNP's win is a loss of face for the President. Can she now co-exist with its leader?

The Face Of Change
The Face Of Change
Even her much-talked about charisma couldn't save Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga's People's Alliance (PA) from a defeat at the December 5 elections. Seven years of erratic, arrogant misrule of the country seems to have left the 12-million strong electorate craving for change. And they voted for it.

The United National Party (UNP) of Ranil Wickremesinghe and its allies swept 16 of the 17 electoral districts in the south as well as the eastern Trincomalee district. The newly-formed Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won the other four districts in the north and east. The United National Front (unf) and its ally, SLMC or the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, are expected to win an absolute majority in the 225-seat Parliament.

"People wanted a change. They wanted progress and not economic collapse. In the final analysis, the people wanted this country to be a modern country," says prime minister-elect Wickremesinghe.

A complete rout of the ruling party was avoided only by the system of proportional representation. Under the system, 196 seats are allocated according to the proportion of votes gained by each party in 22 electoral districts. After voting for their party, voters cast three preference votes for a list of candidates of each party in the electoral district. The candidates toting the highest preferences are elected to Parliament. The party leaders appoint 29 others from a national list. The number of seats allocated for each party is based on the proportion of votes won at the national level.

There was much for the Opposition to base its campaign upon: the collapsing economy, massive bribery and corruption and general misrule by the PA and promises of solving the 18-year-old Tamil separatist war by having talks with the Tamil rebels. The ruling party, however, ran a single issue campaign. It accused Wickremesinghe of having a secret pact with the ltte which would grant minority Tamils a separate state in the north and east of the island. The ruling party was in trouble once the Opposition toppled the government by triggering a series of defections from the ruling alliance.

In the first week of October, 11 MPs, including two senior ministers from Kumaratunga's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), crossed over to the Opposition just hours before a no-confidence motion was to be debated. Kumaratunga dissolved the Parliament and called for snap general polls. One of the ministers, S.B. Dissanayake, also the powerful SLFP general secretary, launched a blistering attack on the President accusing her of unprecedented corruption and incompetence. "I am saying this with a great sense of responsibility. She is by far the most corrupt leader in the history of this country," he declared on every TV and radio talk show.

With the UNP's decisive win, Kumaratunga stands effectively checkmated. Throughout the campaign, she kept saying she wouldn't work with Wickremesinghe or call him to form the government. With these results, she will clearly have to call upon the unf to form the next government and such a government will be led by Wickremesinghe. "Personal and political differences between the President and the leader of Opposition aside, the people have given a decisive verdict," says Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director, Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Now to whether Wickremesinghe wants to work with the country's chief executive. "Both sides will have their demands for co-habitation. On paper, the balance of power is heavily weighed in favour of the Executive President.But Wickremesinghe will no doubt claim he's received a decisive mandate to rule," says Dr Saravanamuttu.

The two other big winners were the Tamil parties alliance, the TNA—which won 17 seats and swept the north and east—and the left-wing People's Liberation Front (JVP) which increased its numbers from 10 seats to 15. "The TNA will interpret that victory as a mandate for a recognition of the ltte as sole representative of the Tamil people," says Loganadan Kethishwaran, coordinator, conflict and peace analysis at the Centre for Policy Alternatives. "The expected leverage in the run-up to the polls is now somewhat diluted with the emergence of the unf. The key factor now is to what extent the TNA can forge a realistic Tamil position at future negotiations for a settlement of the ethnic problem."

The unprecedented violence—68 killed and nearly a hundred seriously hurt—in the one-month campaign and on polling day has rendered Wickremesinghe's task all the more difficult. "The priority is to solve the ethnic problem and improve the economy," says Wickremesinghe. For that, he'll first have to unite a nation badly fractured by ethnic and political violence.

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