Five months after the presidential elections, Sri Lanka is yet again in the grip of an election fever. President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved the parliament on June 26, following his inability to get the 20th constitutional amendment passed, although the 225-member house had its tenure till April 2016. Elections to the new parliament will be held on August 17 and its opening session is slated to begin on September 1. Sirisena and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa are trying to poach on each other's followers, trying to isolate each other. It will be interesting to see who will emerge successful in this power struggle.
The governing coalition, comprising the United National Party (UNP), the Sirisena faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and some parties belonging to the United Peoples' Freedom Alliance (UPFA), was in a minority in the parliament and could not present some key money bills fearing defeat. It had no chance of getting the two-thirds majority required to pass the 20th amendment of the constitution on electoral reforms, which was a key promise of the Sirisena government. The Rajapaksa faction is opposed to Sirisena's proposals on electoral reform. The UNP, too, has a different view on the amendment. Rajapaksa, who will be a key player in the elections, has made it clear that he will contest only from the UPFA led by the SLFP, despite Sirisena’s vehement opposition to making him the prime ministerial candidate.
Sources belonging to a committee which is trying to unite the SLFP said Rajapaksa had not asked for the post of prime minister and that he only wanted to work for the victory of the SLFP. Dilan Perera, MP, said the committee's meeting with Rajapaksa was cordial and that he accepted some of the proposals put forward by them.
The ground situation still remains hazy. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe leads the UNP, which is united after years of dissent. For the UNP, the dissolution of the parliament is important, as it can pitch for a majority in the next elections while exploiting the divisions in the SLFP and the UPFA. The party has a steady voter base, which it can consolidate and expand if it stands united. It is a formidable multiethnic force with the backing of the minorities, including the Sri Lankan Tamils (who voted for the Tamil National Alliance in the presidential elections), the Tamils of Indian origin and the Muslims.
The Rajapaksa faction enjoys the upper hand in the SLFP and the UPFA. However, although he is hugely popular as an individual, Rajapaksa needs a strong political party to back him. That is why he and his supporters want to stay with the SLFP and contest as part of the coalition. Sirisena, moreover, has the advantage of the president's office. He is also the chairman of the SLFP and the UPFA. Although he is under pressure to accommodate Rajapaksa, Sirisena is wary about the former president, who is a direct threat to him. Sirisena contested the last presidential election in alliance with the UNP, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and other smaller parties. But this time, those parties are not with him. It remains to be seen how well will he fare on his own.
As political parties prepared for the electoral campaign, Mahinda Deshapriya, commissioner of elections, said officials who misused state resources could be jailed for up to three years. He asked candidates to refrain from using the national flag or religious flags or symbols in their campaigns and advised against using places of worship for campaigning. Deshapriya said under the 19th amendment of the constitution, the powers of the commissioner had been increased and he warned that, if officials were found to be favouring any political party, he would not accept the excuse that they were acting on “orders from the top”.
According to initial opinion polls, the UNP could win the largest number of seats, followed by the Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP, with the official SLFP alliance led by Sirisena finishing third. It may have left Sirisena with no option but to allow Rajapaksa to lead the campaign. Rajapaksa has reportedly said he will not 'contest', but will campaign for the party. It could result in sympathy votes and if the SLFP wins big, someone may resign and offer the seat to Rajapaksa so that he could be nominated as prime minister. Rajapaksa's official announcement regarding his plans is expected in a day or two. Until then, poll watchers and politicians have to keep their fingers crossed.