Nobody talks any more about the local government elections the president aborted earlier this year. It is as clear as clear can be why RW resorted to the “no money” ploy to accomplish that objective. The UNP had struck a deal with the SLPP to run together, each complementing the other, and both parties along with other aspirants went through the cosmetic motions of paying their deposits and handing nomination for an election that was even then very much in doubt. Colombo, a traditional UNP bastion, which old timers would remember was wrested by the greens led by Messrs. J.R. Jayewardene and V.A. Sugathadasa soon after Mr. Bandaranaike’s ‘People’s Revolution’ of 1956, was conceded to the UNP and so possibly was Kandy. SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam repeatedly claimed his party was not afraid of elections while the issue of holding them was being canvassed both before the Elections Commission and the courts.
A sitting SJB MP, Mr. Mujibur Rahman, resigned his seat in parliament to run for Mayor of Colombo. The president did say at one point of time that he had sent a message to Rahman to warn him that he shouldn’t vacate his parliamentary seat, but the latter has denied this claim. Whether the messenger failed to deliver, or there was no such message, or whether it was unreceived or not was never thrashed out in the public domain. But the fact remains that veteran politician AHM Fowzie who has batted for both the UNP and SLFP in national and municipal politics is back in parliament filling Rahman’s vacancy. He’s already defied the SJB whip to vote for the recent resolution on the IMF deal when the SJB had decided to be absent at voting time. He’s been suspended though not expelled from his party for his pains. This has provoked the question of whether Fowzie has expectations of office but many believe that at age 85-years, he’s more interested in ensuring that is son succeeds him in politics.
Be that as it may, last week’s removal of three Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed provincial governors and their replacement by the president have many national political implications. Undoubtedly the appointment of CWC President Senthil Thondaman as the new Governor of the Eastern Province is related to RW’s aspiration to be the elected president of the country. Senthil’s cousin, Jeevan Thondaman, the CWC’s general secretary, was recently appointed the country’s youngest cabinet minister by RW. Now Senthil has been made a governor and the obvious signal is that Wickremesinghe is wooing plantation Tamil votes in any forthcoming presidential election. Both Thondamans are direct descendants of the late S. Thondaman, the leader of the plantation worker community of recent Indian descent, who wielded tremendous political clout in post-Independence Ceylon and Sri Lanka.
Speculative reports that Wickremesinghe may even attempt to hold a presidential election at the end of this year has been widely published. Given that he was elected by parliament in July last year to serve GR’s balance term which runs till November 2024, Wickremesinghe cannot call an early presidential election without an amendment to the constitution. Whether he can engineer the necessary two thirds majority to push through such an amendment is regarded unlikely by analysts who argue that even the 134 votes in parliament that RW mustered to be elected to serve the balance GR term, has not held. Also the question arises whether a court will hold that a mere two thirds majority is sufficient to enact such a constitutional amendment as it can be argued that the matter involves the franchise of the people that also requires a referendum. But it should not be forgotten that when Mahinda Rajapaksa sought to annul the constitutionally stipulated two term limit on the presidency, the then Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake ruled that no referendum was necessary as abolishing the term limit enhanced rather than diminished the franchise. That proved unfortunate for MR who lost his 2015 bid for a third term.
The SJB which a few days ago unanimously anointed Sajith Premadasa as its next presidential candidate will most likely favour an early presidential election and may support such an election by supporting the necessary constitutional amendment. But the SLPP which has not yet decided on its next presidential candidate may probably prefer more time to make up its mind. Some SLPPers have already expressed support for Ranil Wickrenesinghe. Other are sitting on the fence.
The Rajapksas and their supporters are now out of the woodwork and at least one of the three governors appointed last week seem to have been an SLPP nominee. It is not clear whether the appointment of Mrs. P.S.M. Charles as the new Governor of the Northern Province was part of Wickremesinghe’s strategy of mending fences with the Tamils. She had earlier served as Governor of the North and wartime GA of Vavuniya. RW is now empowered by the Constitution to dissolve parliament and hold a fresh election if the SLPP stretches its luck. But he’ll have to do so with the full knowledge that his UNP is hardly in a position to put up a credible fight without some arrangement with the SJB.
The JVP/NPP is also a clear loser of the local elections not being held. Most analysts believed that it had every chance of making a showing that it is a credible alternative to the SJB. RW is also reportedly considering staggered provincial elections, it has been said. But if there was no money for local elections how can there be funds for any elections? Sri Lanka’s foreign friends and multilateral donor agencies are less than likely to do business with a government determined to deny its people their franchise.