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#3077, 29 March 2010
Upcoming Parliamentary Elections and the Future of Sri Lanka
N Manoharan
Senior Fellow, CLAWS
email: mailtomanohar@gmail.com

Mahinda Rajapaksa, soon after his re-election as the Executive President of Sri Lanka, dissolved the existing parliament and announced the date for elections as 8 April 2010. When nominations closed on 27 February, 7696 candidates from 24 political parties and hundreds of independent groups were in the fray. Interestingly, the number of independent groups far exceeds the registered political parties. They will fight for 196 out of the total 225 seats to be elected directly, by over 14 million voters. The remaining 29 seats will be allotted nationally based on voting percentage by each party/alliance. General Sarath Fonseka, who unsuccessfully contested last presidential elections, has also filed nominations for a seat from the Colombo parliamentary district. He will lead an alliance floated by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in the name of Democratic National Alliance (DNA).

Unlike the presidential elections, opposition parties are now divided into two broad categories: one centred on the United National Party (UNP) called the United National Front (UNF) and the other around the JVP named as the Democratic National Alliance (DNA). The division in the Opposition has increased the chances of ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) to gain at least a simple majority. The aim of the present government is to get two-thirds majority and change the present Constitution introduced in 1978 by the UNP government headed by JR Jayewardene. In that case, there is a danger of arbitrary constitutional changes without needful political consensus. Chances of minorities getting further marginalised are quite high.

The island state has witnessed many changes since the last parliamentary elections in April 2004. Most importantly, the LTTE that was responsible for forging a moderate group in the name of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is no more on the scene. For the first time in two decades there will not be any diktat for the Tamil voters. TNA has also undergone a split between hard-line and moderate leaders. It is doubtful whether the Alliance will be in a position to retain all 22 seats it won in the last polls. JVP, which surprised everyone by winning 39 seats and emerging as the third largest party in the last parliamentary polls; has also undergone splits. Since then the party has not performed well in any of the provincial council elections. The main Opposition UNP is also at its lowest point in the political history of Sri Lanka. Considering all these factors, advantage is for the ruling UPFA. The Opposition may have reconciled to this result already. Their main concern now is to prevent the ruling UPFA from getting two-thirds majority, in which case, they may have to witness many changes in the system of government that may favour the ruling alliance. Given the popularity of President Rajapaksa and the alliance configuration, the UPFA may be in a position to obtain simple majority, but in the proportional representation electoral system it may find it a bit difficult to get two-thirds majority. In such a situation, the President may try drawing the Opposition members into the government as he did last time.

Pre-poll violence has already been witnessed in the campaigning stage. Due to the race for preferential voting, intra-party quarrels are conspicuous as much as inter-party clashes. This may intensify further during and immediately after the announcement of poll results, polarising already wedged polity. As usual, local and international monitors are expected to supervise and certify the poll process. But such certification is non-binding, and the decision of the Commissioner of Elections is final.

Voting patterns of minority communities like Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims and Indian Origin Tamils are important in deciding the fate of the next constitution, if not the formation of the next government. It is, therefore, a chance for the minorities to wield their electoral strength and gain maximum concessions. For this, they have to vote in mass numbers. Every vote counts in a proportional representation system. One thing that is lacking is unity both within and among minority communities. The Sri Lankan Tamil community may be in a disadvantaged position due to large-scale displacement as a result of the ethnic war. The Commissioner of Elections should make sure that every displaced person votes in the elections. Such a provision will certainly boost the confidence of the displaced and facilitate integration.

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