Sri Lanka’s elections to fill parliamentary void

Sri Lankans go to polls on August 5 to elect a new parliament

SRI LANKA-ELECTION/ People wearing protective masks wait in a line to cast their vote outside a polling station during the country's parliamentary election in Colombo | Reuters

Sri Lanka’s parliamentary elections being held today assumes importance because it will determine the political, economic and social future of the island nation. These elections would rejuvernate the country's parliament, which was dissolved on March 2. Sri Lanka’s Constitution states that a new parliament must be sworn in within three months of the old one’s dissolution, as on June 2 in this case. Also various civil society groups and opposition parties had filed petitions to protest the postponements on constitutional grounds, but Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court dismissed all the cases. These elections were twice delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the outcome is most likely to shift the island nation closer to China and away from India.

The ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Party’s (SLPP) paramount political priority is to accomplish a two-thirds parliamentary super-majority, which would allow President Rajapaksha Gotabaya’s administration to alter the country’s political structure: specifically, repeal the Constitution’s 19th Amendment, a measure that the previous government designed to limit presidential powers relative to parliament and the judiciary. Differences between the president and prime minister on earlier occasions led to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka in 2015. It prevents the president from dissolving the parliament before it completes four and a half years of its term. Only a two-thirds majority vote in parliament would permit the president to dissolve parliament before its designated term of office.

The 19th Amendment, which created a dual executive, made the prime minister’s position secure from the arbitrary actions of the president. Therefore, the office of the prime minister falls vacant only under limited circumstances, which entails death, voluntary resignation, loss of support in parliament, rejection by the parliament of the budget, and ceasing to be an MP, are these circumstances.

The SLPP is a merger of the Sri Lanka National Front (SLNF) and Our Sri Lanka Freedom Front (OSLFF) and relaunched in 2016. The SLPP accommodated members of the United People's Freedom Alliance loyal to its former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa. The front's leader is Mahinda Rajapaksa and chairman is GL Peiris, with Sagara Kariyawasam as secretary. Today the SLPP enjoys brand equity, effective organizational structure, enormous funds, a friendly news media and a charismatic leader.

The only political opposition to the SLPP are two parties, namely the United National Party (UNP) and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJP), besides the Janata Vimukhthi Peramuna (JVP), a Marxist left leaning party. However, the odds are stacked against the SJB, a breakaway faction of the UNP —one of the island’s oldest political parties. Tragically the campaign trails of both these parties are marked by infighting and backstabbing to settle old scores rather than mount a credible challenge against the SLPP. The SJB is expected to improve its performance this time around at the expense of UNP. The JVP is a shadow of its former self and is fighting to retain parliamentary space and plays the anti-India card for this purpose.

The ruling SLPP espouses Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and contests Tamil nationalism. Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism is an amalgam of Sinhalese culture and ethnicity with Theravada Buddhism, the majoritarian ideology of most Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. Sinhalese Buddhist ideology in a unitary Sri Lankan state aims to create laws, rules, and structures that institutionalize such supremacy and attack those who disagree with this agenda as enemies of the state. This nationalist ideology asserts that Sri Lanka belongs to Sinhalese Buddhists and that Tamils, Muslims and Christians are accommodated in the island nation only thanks to Sinhalese Buddhist generosity.

In 1956, Solomon Bandarnaike's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) came to power on a wave of Sinhalese nationalism. The SLFP made Sinhala, rather than ethnic-neutral English, the national language through the Sinhala Only Act, and promoted policies that further disenfranchised the Tamil minority, including increased restrictions on Tamil access to citizenship. These majoritarian policies fueled Tamil nationalism, which is the conviction of the Sri Lankan Tamil people, a minority ethnic group, that they have the right to constitute an independent or autonomous political community. Today the Tamil National Alliance represents the country's Tamil communities and has done so since 2001.

In Sri Lanka, Sinhala Buddhism as a majority religion is associated with a ‘national identity’ model like Israel, Ireland, India, Poland and Pakistan. One religion is numerically superior to other minority faiths and adherents of the numerically dominant religion tend to influence their beliefs in public policy. Countries with their majoritarian religions invariably accommodate minority religions through reservations in education and employment opportunities in order to preserve democracy.

However, the problem is that such a national identity model tends to mix religion and politics. In the process, religious minorities often feel insecure and could face discrimination on religious grounds which in turn adversely impacts the principles of democracy. To that extent, the rise of the SLPP coupled with the concentration of power in the hands of the President would amount to the death of democracy on the island nation.

Apart from domestic dynamics, geopolitical factors also contribute to the electoral outcome in the island nation. Two major powers, India and China aim to increase their political and economic influence in Sri Lanka, especially in the backdrop of their recent border clashes. New Delhi and Beijing both seek to exploit the island nation’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean to promote military and trade benefits that would accrue.

The SLPP is expected to win a comfortable parliamentary majority in the forthcoming general elections, considering its political rivals constitute only a handful of smaller parties, drawn from candidates who represent Tamils, the country's largest minority, the Muslims, the second largest minority, and the Jana Vimuktha Perumana. Clearly the parliamentary seats that these political parties secure could determine the degree of influence the SLPP wields in the next legislature.

(The writer is a former Professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies at the Christ Deemed to be University, Bengaluru)