Colombo, August 8: Sri Lanka is in the cusp of major changes in its domestic and foreign policies with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) obtaining a two-thirds-majority in the Lankan parliamentary elections held on August 5.
The SLPP by itself had bagged 145 seats, just five short of 150, which is the two-thirds mark in the 225-member House. But with its allies like the Eelam Peoples’ Democratic Party (2 seats); the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (1 seat); the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (1 seat) and the National Congress led by Athaulla (1 seat) it has mustered 150.
In the poll campaign, the SLPP had taken the risk of alienating the Tamils and Muslims in order to consolidate the vote of the majority Sinhalese as it successfully did in the November 2019 Presidential election which it’s candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa swept. The SLPP boldly rejected the Tamils’ demand for a federal constitution. It brazenly insinuated that the Muslims, were somehow complicit in the April 21, 2019 multiple bombings in four towns including Colombo. SLPP campaigners portrayed the demands of the Tamils and Muslims as national security threats.
Given the alienation of the minorities, most analysts ruled out two thirds and even wondered if the SLPP would get very much more than 113 plus (50% plus). The absence of Muslims’ support would be particularly felt, they said, because, unlike the Tamils, the Muslims tended to vote for mainstream parties as well as Muslim parties, encouraging the latter to join governments. However, the results indicate that it is possible to get two thirds with the support of the majority Sinhalese alone. This was achieved overcoming the obstacles inherent in the Proportional Representation (PR) System which enables even very small parties to get some seats.
However post-elections, the SLPP is placating the Tamils and Muslims as it needs more than 150 to safely pass the intended constitutional amendments. Among the 17 nominated under the SLPP’s entitlement in the “National List of MPs” are Muslims Al Sabry, Mohammad Muzammil, Marjan Faleel and a Tamil Dr.Suren Raghavan.
Because of the PR system, earlier governments had had to put up with rickety alliances with diverse elements to survive and pass the budget and key legislation. But Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government will be able to carry out its plan to prune or jettison the 19Th.Amendment, change the electoral system and practice a bold and nationalistic foreign policy.
Using its two-thirds majority, the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa will modify the election system by making it a First Past the Post System (FPS) mainly, if not fully. The FPS will enable a single party to form a government and even secure two thirds majority. The existing Preferential Vote system (with voters ranking their preference in a list of party candidates) may also go because the system leads to competition among the candidates of the same party to the detriment of its overall performance.
The complaint against the 19A is that it weakens the Executive Presidency in a system where the Executive President is directly elected by the entire country. The 19A takes away many of his powers and hands them over to the Prime Minister or to the non-elected Independent Commissions. The 19A gives the non-elected/non-political Independent Commissions too much power, making a mockery of representative government. The division of power between the directly elected Executive President and the Prime Minister enjoying the confidence of the parliament is not clearly defined leading to destructive conflicts.
Given the Rajapaksas’ tendency to centralize, the minority Tamils fear that the 13 th. Amendment of 1987, which set up elected Provincial Councils and devolved a modicum of power to them, might be scrapped. But this is unlikely to happen because the Sri Lankan political class has developed a tremendous stake in it. The Provincial Councils system has created an intermediate governance stratum between the local bodies and the national parliament. The elected council, with its Board of Ministers, gives aspiring grassroots politicians both levers of power and a passage to parliament. It was this which made Mahinda Rajapaksa remark that if he abolished the Provincial Councils, Sinhalese politicians will themselves demonstrate in front of his house.
Independent Foreign Policy
The parliamentary backing they have, will enable the Rajapaksas to resist pressures from the West, India and even China. Key regional and foreign powers are wanting a share in the Lankan economic pie and also Colombo’s support for their regional and global strategic designs. In such a situation, a strong, well-backed government will be better able to hold its own against outside powers.
Both China and India are keen on acquiring strategic assets in Sri Lanka and the US is wanting Colombo to sign the controversial Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact and the Access and Cross Services Agreement. India considers Sri Lanka to be in its sphere of influence and fears that China is trying to snatch Lanka away. The US and India want Lankan to support the “Quad” against China, while China considers the island to be part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
The Chinese are deeply entrenched in Sri Lanka’s economy with an entire port (Hambantota) and container terminal (in Colombo port) with them. Besides, 70% of the building contracts in Colombo city are with Chinese companies. Gotabaya Rajapaksa had doubts about security at the Hambantota port being in the hands of the Sri Lankan navy, but the matter was hushed up by Mahinda Rajapaksa who is believed to be close to China.
The Indians, in collaboration with the Japanese, have been wanting to complete and run the Colombo port’s Eastern Terminal perhaps because it is next to the Chinese-run terminal. But port workers went on strike against the proposed deal. They made Mahinda Rajapaksa promise that the terminal will not be handed over to foreigners. As to how Sri Lanka will wriggle of its understanding with India and Japan is to be seen. Lanka might point to the policy of not giving national assets to foreign interests and also cite the trade union action. But this has to be done in a way which does not make New Delhi hostile. New Delhi is already dragging its feet on giving Sri Lanka a moratorium on loan repayment, though it has extended a US$ 400 million swap facility to manage COVID-19 expenses.
There are a dozen Indian projects, MOUs for which were signed in 2017. But they have remained only on paper. While the Indian Prime Minister complained about Sri Lanka’s non-response Sri Lanka said that Indian were dragging their feet and that some of the projects were not wanted. Sri Lanka has been demanding that India hand over 25 of the 99 tanks given to India earlier on. India has been using only 15 of them. The issue is hanging fire.
As for the MCC pact with the US there is already advice from an expert committee that signing it in the present form will be ultra vires of the constitution. But it is doubtful if the US would agree to Sri Lanks’s demands as these would take away all the privileges the compact would give the Super Power. By the same token, the US would be unable to get the government to agree to ACSA. Sri Lankans are worried that the US, India and Japan will force it to support the strategic aspects of the Quad in the Indian Ocean as the Quad is aimed at China, which is Sri Lanka’s single most important development partner and financier.
The Chinese are too well entrenched to allow the US-led axis to make anti-China moves in Sri Lanka. However, the fact that the US along with Europe is the largest market for Lankan garments exports will be a constraining factor in Colombo’s dealings with Washington.
Decimation of United National Party
The decimation of the pro-US United National Party (UNP) in the elections will weaken the West’s hold on Sri Lanka. The UNP could not send a single MP to parliament. All its leaders including former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were defeated, virtually bringing the curtains down on Sri Lanka’s only pro-West, and to some extent, pro-Indian mainstream party. (This article originally appeared in The Citizen)