Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) has hinted at the possibility of an early presidential election – otherwise due in November 2016 – after witnessing a significant decline in its popularity in the local elections. However, according to analysts and experts, an early election will not solve the major issues faced by Sri Lanka. To the contrary, the election may prove counterproductive as the country is facing serious economic challenges and a looming threat of radicalization on religious and ethnic grounds. It needs sustainable democracy, economic growth and social equilibrium.
In the September 2014 provincial elections in Uva, the UPFA secured 19 out of the 34 seats.The marginal victory was a sign of the plummeting popularity of the party by an unprecedented 22.98 percentage points. The bagging of 48.79 percent votes has raised doubts about the wisdom of early presidential election where the incumbent needs more than 50 percent votes to win. Prior to these elections, there was widespread media speculation that President Rajapaksa would seek re-election for a third term in early 2015 if there was a good showing at Uva. But worryingly for the UPFA, it fell short of achieving even 50 percent votes in the district of Badulla as well as in Moneragala, where it commanded 81.32 percent votes in 2009. Rajapaksa personally campaigned for the party to shore up its vote in Uva. Uva's council election came after two similar polls in March 2014 where the UPFA witnessed a decline of up to 12 percent. On the other hand, the votes of the main opposition, the United National Party were almost doubled. The Marxist JVP and the People's Liberation Front also made significant gains.
Soon after the elections, President
Rajapaksa visited the Vatican on October 2, 2014 to extend an official invitation to the Pope. The Vatican, in an official release, expressed hope that Pope Francis’ scheduled visit (January 13-15, 2015) would encourage those “who work for the common good, reconciliation, justice and peace.”
Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, the head of the Catholic Church of Sri Lanka, had earlier asked Rajapaksa's government not to use the visit of Pope Francis as a "political tool." Sri Lanka is mainly a Buddhist country, but it has a 7.5 percent Christian population whose block vote could be decisive in the event of a close presidential election. Asked if it would be acceptable if a snap election is concluded before the papal visit, Cardinal Ranjith said: "The government has to decide on those things. It must be a visit free of politics. That is the position of the Catholic Bishops' Conference."
The 77-year-old Pope is scheduled to travel to the island's former war zone and conduct mass at a church which was damaged during the height of fighting between the Lankan forces and Tamil rebels.
According to experts, in the coming elections – whenever they are held – the ruling party would face a tough challenge from the UNP, supported by pseudo-left organizations like the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP) and the United Socialist Party ( USP). In the September elections, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) also doubled its vote to about 5 percent and gained one seat, giving it a total of two. The party, which has all but completely abandoned its socialistic posture, is part of the Colombo political establishment and openly advocates policies to attract foreign investors. Mired in Sinhala chauvinism, it was a strident supporter of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). As with the UNP, the vote for the JVP was largely a protest against the government.
The dent in the government’s support in Uva reflects a widespread hostility to its austerity program, dictated by the International Monetary Fund and the curbs on democratic rights. The increase in the prices of basic items and cutbacks in essential social services, including education and healthcare, are crushing the poor. Located in the country’s central hills area, Uva is one of the poorest provinces of Sri Lanka, with the Moneragala district being the most poverty-stricken in the country. Around 20 percent of the people are impoverished Tamil-speaking plantation workers. Small farmers are also struggling, caught between the high cost of farm inputs and difficulties in selling their produce.
Sensing the growing alienation and opposition, President Rajapaksa mounted an extensive campaign in Uva to secure a decisive win. He wanted to strengthen his hold after indicating that the next presidential and general elections could be held early next year, nearly two years ahead of their scheduled time. But as the results show, he did not succeed.
In the course of the campaign, the Socialist Equality Party issued an election statement and spoke to workers and youth in the Badulla district. One farmer said: “After pretending to be dumb and deaf for so long, the government is all of a sudden distributing relief items. Political parties can see the suffering of the people only during the election period. We vote as a habit, unwillingly. The government is carrying out propaganda in the media about the development of the country. But if there’s development, we should feel it. On the contrary, we cannot even have three meals a day due to the soaring cost of living. The farmers are becoming beggars.”
Another farmer noted with agony: “All we want is 20 perches of land to build a small home and live with dignity. We were brought here from India as slaves, and we have been toiling for years for Sri Lanka’s economy. We need a plot of land that we can call home.”
Economic hardships and disparities are the real issues that the ruling party has failed to address. Then there were religious clashes this year at various places that created fears and insecurities among the minorities. There is so much to do in all spheres for the welfare of people, but the government has done too little so far. Therefore, early elections may not bring the expected dividends. The writers, partners in law firm Huzaima & Ikram (Taxand Pakistan), are adjunct faculty members at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.