Election imbroglio



Tuesday 16th May, 2023

The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government keeps postponing elections for fear of facing a humiliating mid-term electoral setback. The UNP is floating a rumour that President Ranil Wickremesinghe will advance the next presidential election instead of holding the much-delayed local government polls. It is apparently trying to infuse the irate people with some hope that they will not have to wait indefinitely to exercise their franchise.

Sri Lankan Presidents wrap themselves in the flag and claim to be on messianic missions. But they think of the next election rather than the next generation. They opt for snap presidential elections lest voters should be able to assess them on their performance properly and thereby make rational choices in case they serve their first terms fully. Maithripala Sirisena is the only popularly-elected President who refrained from cutting the first term short; he did so because he had to decide against seeking a second term owing to his unpopularity. President Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated while serving his first term, and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa quit upon realising that he had become a total failure. Some of the Presidents cannot bring themselves to give up active politics even after leaving office. Former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sirisena have become MPs, and are suffering many indignities in Parliament. Such is their greed for power! Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is fighting with Sirisena over the SLFP leadership.

Government propagandists initially claimed that President Wickremesinghe could hold the next presidential election at a time of his choosing as his predecessors had done. But they have changed the tune since they were told that the Constitution did not empower him to do so.

The Constitution allows popularly-elected Presidents to opt for snap presidential elections after completing four years of their first terms, according to Article 31 (3A) (a) (i). But a person who becomes the President due to his immediate predecessor’s resignation, impeachment or death is without this right. Article 31(e) clearly says: “A person succeeding to the office of President under Article 40 shall not be entitled to exercise the right conferred on a President by sub-paragraph (1) of this paragraph.” Article 40 says, inter alia: “If the office of President shall become vacant prior to the expiration of his term of office, Parliament shall elect as President one of its Members who is qualified to be elected to the office of President. Any person succeeding to the office of President shall hold office only for the unexpired period of the term of office of the President vacating office.” Article 31(e) applies to Wickremesinghe, who therefore cannot advance a presidential election.

President Wickremesinghe will have to amend the Constitution if he wants to advance the next presidential election. Leader of the Democratic People’s Front Mano Ganeshan, MP, has gone on record as saying that President Wickremesinghe is mulling over a constitutional amendment to pave the way for an early presidential election. But the question is whether the government, whose strength has decreased to about 120 votes in Parliament will be able to muster a two-thirds majority to amend Article 31 (e) of the Constitution. The Opposition will refuse to support such a move and demand that the delayed local council elections be held before a presidential election.

It is being argued in some quarters that because the country’s economic situation has somewhat improved, President Wickremesinghe will be able to recover lost ground on the political front, shore up his image and revitalise the UNP to win the next presidential election. But politics is full of unexpected twists and turns, and hardly anything plays out as planned. Therefore, prudence warrants that the UNP tread cautiously. Dependent on the SLPP for a parliamentary majority, President Wickremesinghe is like a jockey riding a horse borrowed from the Rajapaksa family. His equestrian skills will be of no use if the Rajapaksas decide to take their racer away; he will have to use Shank’s mare, so to speak. If one of the Rajapaksas becomes the Prime Minister, by any chance, another power centre will emerge in the government, undermining President Wickremesinghe’s position hugely. One of the main reasons for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s failure was Basil Rajapaksa’s control over the SLPP parliamentary group. Wickremesinghe may be able to use his power to dissolve Parliament as a bargaining chip, but it is highly unlikely that he will be able to intimidate the SLPP into submission. Four provincial Governors have reportedly refused to obey his order that they resign forthwith; they would not have done so without the blessings of the SLPP, which is also bringing pressure to bear on the President to accommodate some of its senior MPs in the Cabinet. A section of the SLPP is all out to have Mahinda reappointed as the Prime Minister.

At this rate, the incumbent regime is likely to be at war with itself soon like the yahapalana government, and the local government polls will be the least of its problems.


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