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Sri Lanka Heads Toward a Pivotal Presidential Poll

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Sri Lanka Heads Toward a Pivotal Presidential Poll

In recent years, elections have been repeatedly postponed. Will that be the fate of the presidential election too?

Sri Lanka Heads Toward a Pivotal Presidential Poll

Members of National People’s Power, a political alliance, carry placards at a Labour Day rally in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, May 1, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena

Sri Lanka’s Election Commission announced recently that they will hold the much-awaited presidential election between September 17 and October 16. The presidential election is Sri Lanka’s only scheduled election.

Article 31 of the constitution says, “The poll for the election of the President shall be taken not less than one month and not more than two months before the expiration of the term of office of the President in office.” However, in recent years there have been several instances of the government putting off elections for one reason or another.

In 2023, President Ranil Wickremesinghe postponed the local government elections, citing insufficient funds. This decision stirred controversy and raised questions about the government’s commitment to democratic processes.

Similarly, in 2017, during Wickremesinghe’s tenure as prime minister, he spearheaded an effort to postpone provincial council elections. The move was effective in keeping elected representatives out of provincial councils for seven years. These election postponements have sparked criticism and fueled concerns about the erosion of democratic norms in Sri Lanka.

Over recent months, several politicians, high-ranking officials, and international backers aligned with Wickremesinghe and his IMF-supported reform agenda have been vocal about their concerns regarding the impact of elections and the potential rise of a new populist government. They argue that such developments could jeopardize the ongoing reform momentum and economic stability.

Additionally, Basil Rajapaksa, the founder of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), which holds a majority in Parliament, has been advocating for a parliamentary election to precede the presidential one. Historical data indicates that following a presidential election, the party affiliated with the newly elected president typically garners a parliamentary majority in subsequent general elections. There are concerns that if Rajapaksa’s proposal gains traction, it could result in a fragile government formation, especially amidst the country’s economic, social, and geopolitical challenges.

These statements, seemingly aimed at gauging public opinion, have raised suspicions that they may be laying the groundwork for postponement of the presidential election. Criticism has also been directed at the Election Commission for its perceived failure to declare that the presidential election will be held on schedule.

In its statement on May 9, the Election Commission confirmed that the presidential election will proceed as planned. The chair of the Commission, Saman Ratnayake, indicated that the election will likely be officially announced in August. This timeline provides political parties with a window of opportunity to craft and refine their strategies for the upcoming election.

Data from the Institute for Health Policy (IHP) and anecdotal evidence indicate that the left-leaning National People’s Power (NPP) is likely to clinch the presidential elections. If this indeed happens, it will mark a sea change in Sri Lankan politics.

For decades, Sri Lanka has been dominated by two major political entities: the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). While the SLPP, associated with the Rajapaksa family, and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), led by Sajith Premadasa, son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, became the two strongest forces in Parliament following the 2020 general elections, it is safe to say they are the SLFP and UNP with new names.

Historically, while ideological disparities existed between the UNP and the SLFP until 1977, their economic policies largely converged by the 1990s. Both parties embraced neoliberal principles, often neglecting the development of key industries and agriculture, and fostering a culture of corruption. By the mid-2000s, the SLFP, under the Rajapaksas’ leadership, rebranded itself as a majoritarian force, while the UNP, led by Wickremesinghe, positioned itself as the liberal alternative.

However, growing inequality, mounting national debt, and decline in state capacity culminated in a severe financial crisis. The turmoil of 2022 served as a wake-up call for many Sri Lankans, prompting widespread disillusionment with the political establishment. Out of this chaos emerged the NPP. Tapping into mass yearning for substantive change, the NPP swiftly gained traction as a viable alternative, capitalizing on the collective desire for a new direction in governance amid economic and political instability.

The primary appeal of the NPP lies in its clean slate, allowing the party to distance itself from the entrenched corruption of the political establishment. Notably, the party has championed the 17th amendment to the constitution, acknowledged by most as probably the only positive constitutional amendment. Moreover, the NPP has actively participated in Sri Lanka’s anti-corruption crusade, further bolstering its credibility as a force for transparency and accountability. In a nation plagued by systemic corruption within its leadership, these attributes serve as significant selling points, resonating strongly with a populace eager for integrity and ethical governance.