By Rajan Philips –
There have been three different elections in as many countries over the last two weeks: Karnataka State Assembly elections in India, presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey, and parliamentary elections in Thailand. In Karnataka, the nationally triumphant BJP suffered a significant state defeat, and the nationally struggling Congress Party registered an outright state victory. Expectations were frustrated in Turkey, but were spectacularly exceeded in Thailand. In Turkey, there were predictions that Kemal Kilicdaroglu of the Republican Peoples Party (CHP founded by Kemal Ataturk), who became the unifying opposition candidate, would win the presidential race in the first round and end the two decade long authoritarian rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But the results were a virtual tie, forcing a runoff election between the two men. In the parliamentary elections, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won a comfortable majority, which will ensure the AKP’s continuing presence in the echelons of power even if Erdogan were to lose the runoff election on May 28.
The parliamentary election results in Thailand are a stunning boost for democratic parties in Asian countries fighting authoritarian rulers, and for energized Young Turks seeking to get rid of the old political turkeys. Exceeding all expectations, the young and upstart Move Forward Party (MFP) has won 151 of the 500 lower house seats, pushing the well established Pheu Thai Party (PTP) of the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra into second place with 141 seats. In the biggest surprise, described by many as “a political earthquake,” the incumbent military-backed government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was utterly defeated and relegated to 36 seats. However, under Thailand’s bizarre rule for electing a Prime Minister after a general election that Chan-ocha put in place after capturing power in the 2014 military coup, he could again become Prime Minister.
The bizarre rule is based on Thailand’s bicameral system comprising a lower house of 500 elected members (representing the people) and an upper house of 250 appointed members (mainly representing the army, the monarchy and related vested interests). After an election, the Prime Minister is elected from among candidates nominated by political parties by a joint session of all 750 members the two houses. A party could even nominate a total outsider to be elected as Prime Minister if she/he could cobble together 376 votes from the two houses.
To pre-empt the Prayuth Chan-ocha from canvassing to be PM again, the two leading parties from the polls (MFP and PTP) have formed an alliance of six parties commanding 309 members to nominate MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat as their candidate for Prime Minister. Their total is short of the 376 tally required for majority. However, many members of the upper house have indicated that they will not thwart the will of the people and elect a different nominee as Prime Minister. Nothing is going to be finalized until the Election Commission finalizes the official results within two months, and the two houses are convened for their joint session likely in July.
Turkey is a member of NATO and is an aspirant to join the European Union. Who gets to be its next president will have broader implications for the Middle East, EU and the ongoing standoff between the West and Russia including the war over Ukraine. The Thai elections have no comparable geopolitical implications, but can have what political scientists call the ‘demonstration effect’ in Asian countries where elections are being delayed, denied, or otherwise manipulated. Sri Lanka and Pakistan are two (South) Asian countries where unelected governments are shy of calling elections. In Pakistan, the government went a step further and tried to imprison its principal opponent, Imran Khan. The move, as I wrote last week, backfired spectacularly.
In Sri Lanka, President Wickremesinghe has delayed local government elections by withholding funds in spite of a Supreme Court directive to make funds available. He has been floating balloons of national reconciliation, inspiring rumours about staggered provincial elections, and firing and hiring provincial governors at presidential pleasure. Even the usually pliant Tamil political have gotten sick of his games and have given their twin ultimatums: Either a new constitution Or new elections. The first will go nowhere, and the second will add to the common chorus. The President has two other election cards to play, not to advance democracy or people’s participation but to cement his power pedestal that he has had delivered to him quite fortuitously, but under dire and trying circumstances for the country.
The President is not interested in calling a parliamentary election even though he is empowered to do it anytime now, but he wants an early presidential election which he is not permitted to do as an unelected interim president. Hence, the impetus for yet another self-serving constitutional amendment to enable himself to call an early presidential election at the time of his convenient choosing, and fulfill at long last his lifelong ambition to become an elected president. And this from a man who for a whole decade has been promising the abolishment of the executive presidency. Even the national emergency of an economic bankruptcy is not enough to make a Sri Lankan politician do something other than going back on his word.
The two main opposition parties, the SJB and the NEP (JVP), are either stuck like rabbits caught in the headlights of the presidential limousine, or are playing catchup after the President’s every dodgy move. Neither Party can take the fight to the President the way Imran Khan is doing it to his government in Pakistan. The Sri Lankan President is shrewd enough not to give the opposition any opening. Unlike in Pakistan or Thailand, the Sri Lankan government is not a military-backed government. Rather, Sri Lanka has a military that is backed by the government. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa tried to make the government an employment exchange for the army providing all manner of work to the soldiers – from street beautification after the war to healthcare monitoring after the pandemic. President Wickremesinghe is putting the army in its place – not to clean streets, but to protect him from protesters.
Anura and Harini
The JVP/NPP put all its eggs in the local elections basket, and they are left to freeze after the President took them out of the incubator and put them in cold storage. Now the JVP/NPP is waiting for the president to drop the election shoe, not knowing which shoe will come down first – provincial, parliamentary or presidential. Even so, the JVP and its NEP alliance could draw inspiration from the Thai election results and prepare themselves in the specific circumstances in Sri Lanka to face whichever election that may come first.
In Thailand, the leader of the Move Forward Party, Pita Limjaroenrat, is a 42 year old technocrat and businessman with significant business and political family connections. Paetongtarn Shinawatra who leads the Pheu Thai Party is the 36 year daughter and niece of two former Prime Ministers – Thaksin Shinawatra (now in exile) and his brother Yingluck Shinawatra. Marching separately and now striking together, they have galvanised a nation to call out and send home a military government and are promising to implement significant institutional reforms that will not spare even the sacred cow of the monarchy.
Political pedigrees are not always necessary and, more often than not, may not be helpful and can even be a political millstone. Just look at Sajith Premadasa and the Rajapaksa boys. For that matter at Rahul Gandhi in India. The JVP’s pedigree that still puts off many people, and one that its media detractors will never stop dragging to the front, is totally political and not at all biological. While Anura Kumara Dissanayake has proved himself to be a worthy leader of the organization and is today the only frontline leader for the progressive forces, he does not seem to have been able to fully exorcise the violent legacies of 1971 and 1988. And even though the JVP/NPP has expanded its social base to include urban middle classes, it is still found to be wanting in its economic capabilities despite its well-rehearsed forays into business forums.
It is not that the UNP or the SLFP, never mind the SLPP, had sound economic platforms when they were launched as political parties, but they had buy-in from representative sections of the business classes. Conversely and equally, Sri Lanka’s business classes showed their economic ignorance when they flocked behind Gotabaya Rajapaksa as their business saviour. It would be impossible for a Left political party to win the fulsome support of the business community now or ever. However, from the standpoint of political electability the JVP cannot afford to scare away voters by appearing to be dogmatically stubborn. And from a popularity standpoint, the delaying of the local elections may have contributed to a plateauing of the people’s support for JVP/NPP and their platforms. Put another way, Anura Kumara Dissanayake himself may have peaked to his full potential even before any election has been called. That is coincidental benefit for Ranil Wickremesinghe.
So, here is my wild card prospecting. What if the JVP/NPP, instead of waiting for President Wickremesinghe to drop his preferred election shoe, or writ, take its own initiative and campaign vigorously and continuously for any and all elections? In addition, why cannot the JVP/NPP boldly present new political leadership faces to a country that has been tired sick of seeing the same Ranil-Rajapaksa faces for over 25 years? It can present its leaders for provincial councils from among young professionals and dedicated activists who live in the provinces and are not party hacks in Colombo. Anura Kumara Dissanayake has proven himself to be an accomplished parliamentarian, not to the same lofty heights as NM Perera, but very high indeed by today’s parliamentary standards. He is the obvious choice and should be the JVP/NPP’s candidate for Prime Minister in a parliamentary election.
As for the presidential candidate to square off against Ranil Wickremesinghe, who seems to be all convinced in his own calculations that he can finally pull off victory in a presidential election, why not shock him by presenting Harini Amarasuriya as the JVP/NPP presidential candidate? One would hope that she would be agreeable to undertaking the challenge. There can be no doubt whatsoever that her candidacy will pleasantly surprise the country and that it will be well received.
Dr. Amarasuriya is obviously more qualified than most of her predecessors, and most of all she would bring to the job what none of her predecessors would or could have brought: honesty, sincerity, commitment and trustworthiness. Given the JVP/NPP’s commitment to abolish the elected executive presidency, Dr. Amarasuriya would be the most disinterested and electable candidate who could be trusted to deliver on the promise of abolishment. That would set up an illuminating contrast to the opaque untrustworthiness of Ranil Wickremesinghe. It will be an electoral battle worth having. The country deserves it and needs it. And there is inspiration from Thailand to make it happen.
Sajith and Rahul
If the JVP/NPP could look to the Young Turks in Thailand for electoral inspiration, Sajith Premadasa could turn to Rahul Gandhi to build hopes about political revival. Rahul Gandhi had failed to make a mark as a rising Congress leader even before Narendra Modi became India’s Prime Minister. After becoming Prime Minister, Modi set about erasing Rahul Gandhi as a political marker of any kind. He even got his attack dogs to use the devise the defamation to get the courts to find Rahul Gandhi liable for a stupid joke at the Modi name and then used the legal verdict to remove Mr. Gandhi from parliament.
The dynamic between Sajith Premadasa and Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) are not at all comparable to the antagonism between Modhi and Gandhi. The Ranil-Sajith tussle has always been an internal party matter, with each side trying to score same-side goals, until Sajith broke loose and set up the SJB. The young Premadasa’s failure to establish himself as the undisputed leader of the UNP formation is more due to his own limitations than can be attributed to RW’s machinations. Not that the latter has not been up to them in more ways than one, but an abler politician than Sajith Premadasa would have turned the tables on Ranil Wickremesinghe a long time ago. It is the same sense of limitations that one has about Rahul Gandhi in India.
In the Sri Lankan context, it is objectively possible to see a path forward and to power for the JVP/NPP. Whether they will actually achieve something worthwhile is a different question. My point is that, at least for this writer, it is not possible to see a path forward for Sajith Premadasa. That does not mean there is no path for him or that he will never find one. My charitable suggestion is that Mr. Premadasa could build up hopes for his future in Sri Lanka from the Karnataka state elections and the outright victory for the Congress which has also been a great moral booster for Rahul Gandhi. A final word on the Karnataka results – the BJP’s significant defeat and the Congress’s even more significant victory.
The Congress won 135 of the 224 Assembly seats, a gain of 55 seats from the 80 seats it won in 2018. The BJP was hoping to be the first incumbent government in Karnataka to win reelection, but ended with 66 seats, losing 38 seats from the 104 it won last time. The size of the loss looms larger because of the size of the effort that the BJP expended in this election – fully utilizing its double-engine (central and state) government resources, exploiting Hindutva sentiments and inter-caste competitiveness, and steamrolling the State with the well-oiled Modi campaign juggernaut. The setback in Karnataka reinforces the BJP’s failure to establish a political stronghold in the southern states. West Bengal in the east has been equally unwelcome to the BJP as the south.
The Congress’s impressive show, within five months of winning the State election in Himachal Pradesh, is not only a great booster for the Congress in the electoral battles ahead, but also a warning to the BJP of its increasing vulnerabilities in even the northern and western states of India. While the Lok Sabha elections are due in 2024, there will be more state elections this year in three other states – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The Congress won in all three of them in 2018, and will be looking for repeats this year. The Karnataka success will feed into whatever optimism there is for the fortunes of the Congress Party and the political future of Rahul Gandhi.