Election Fright in Sri Lanka and India’s Marathon in a Midsummer of Elections



Supporters of the opposition Indian National Congress party dance in celebration in Mumbai on June 4, 2024, during the counting of votes in the national elections (Al Jazeera Photo)

by Rajan Philips

It is tempting to ask if Ranil Wickremesinghe can electorally survive the referendum fast one that he got his cop-turned politico Party Secretary to pull on his behalf. Will Mr. Wickremesinghe even contest? Might his effervescent mind think of another pre-election ploy? Such as a special referendum to consult the people if he should contest the next presidential election for the sake of the economy? He could creatively interpret the constitution to justify such a referendum. But he will most likely not do it. It is not that he wants to absolutely make sure of his chances. It is only that he is not a natural for politics at the hustings. After forty seven years in politics, the man still lacks the fortitude when it comes to facing an election.

While President Wickremesinghe appears to be weighing his options: to run or not to run, like the proverbial Prince of Denmark, other potential candidates and political parties are publicly positioning themselves and outlining their platforms. The SLPP, now forced to wait on Ranil Wickremasinghe to make up his mind, is trying to launch a campaign even without a candidate. Last week, the SLPP reportedly began its ‘battle from Rajarata’ (Satana Arambamu Rajaratin), for what and against whom no one knows. Not far away in Rajarata, the NPP responded in style a few days later. Anura Kumara Dissanayake went lyrical with a litany of people’s grievances and promising deliverance with the assurance of an NPP government just round the corner.

In Colombo, Patali Champika Ranawaka made his own pitch at his Party’s (the United Republic Front) second convention, at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium. It seemed well attended including outside personas who would not be otherwise seen together in the same place nowadays, namely, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Maithripala Sirisena. The former is fighting for the soul of her father’s Party while the latter is fighting to turn it into a rickshaw for Wijeydasa Rajapaksha.

As for Champika Ranawaka, he has apresidential ambitions and may not be in fear of elections, but he has no significant political organization to sponsor his candidacy. Yet the contents of his technocratic speech at the convention lend considerable weight to his credentials as a candidate even though he has no viable campaign wagon of his own.

Absent in these pre-election positionings is the voice of Sajith Premadasa. A while ago I wrote in this column comparing him to Rahul Gandhi in India, mostly for their ineffectiveness as political scions. The elections in India have proved many of us wrong, at least in the pre-election assessment of Rahul Gandhi. Contrary to predictions, Rahul Gandhi is the biggest winner in India’s mammoth election, and Prime Minister Modi is the biggest loser in spite of his threepeat success.

The two cross-country marches that Rahul Gandhi launched covering over 10,000 miles, first from south to north and then from east to west, were initially laughed at lampooned by his detractors, especially those in the pro-BJP media. Now, the marches are being credited for enhancing his image and credibility as a leader. May be Sajith Premadasa could take a leaf from Rahul Gandhi and conduct his own marches in Sri Lanka – from south to north and from east to west.

The journeys will be much shorter and far less arduous. But success cannot be assured, because in a presidential election there is no second place winner. The winner takes it all, unlike in a parliamentary election as in India, where Modi has been cut to size in spite of his winning, and Rahul Gandhi has made substantial political gains even though he could be nowhere near forming a government.

The TNA’s Hand

The TNA had its own marches – from east to north – not too long ago, and now it is reportedly getting ready to have discussions with all presidential candidates before deciding which candidate it can support in the election. The Daily Mirror (June 5) quotes parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran articulating the TNAs position: “We will have to look at what the candidates come up with, and then we will hold discussions with them. Our final decision will be made only after this exercise.”

He has also dismissed, as “dreaming,” the apparent claim by the SJB that the TNA will be supporting Sajith Premadasa in the presidential election, while welcoming the “land distribution programme carried out by the government.” The government is Ranil Wickremesinghe. So, we cannot be sure if Mr. Sumanthiran is intentionally or otherwise tipping his hand about whom they might support. Supporting Ranil Wickremesinghe will not be without some controversy, but if Mr. Wickremesinghe opts to stay out of the race, the TNA will have to look for an alternative suitor.

In any event, evaluating the proposals of candidates and deciding on one of them as worthy of support is a far superior approach to the lame brained suggestion to field a common Tamil candidate, or the dead end idea of boycotting the presidential elections. And the top of the list questions to the candidates should be about what concrete plans do they have to normalize the lives of the survivors and victims of war, how would resources be allocated to implement those plans, and what timing commitment are the candidates willing to make. Nothing less, of course. Nothing more, as well.

The people who are hurting on the ground need to have something on the ground that is material to their lives, and not some text about political structures over which there will never be any agreement between any two Sri Lankans. There is enough constitutional text to provide the framework for rehabilitating the surviving victims of war. The process of rehabilitation would in turn vitalize and revitalize the political texts and provide the scope for new actions and programs. That would be the approach of building from ground up, a surer political process, than the tortuous talk-down alternative of permanently tinkering with the constitution.

It would be interesting to see how the JVP/NPP would respond to the TNA’s intended approach. Will it dismiss it as ‘bargaining’ and, therefore, unacceptable to its political ethics? Or seriously engage with the TNA to see what meeting points there could be between them.

In fact, the exercise should not be limited to the TNA, and should be extended to include the political organizations representing all non-Sinhala-Buddhist sections of the Sri Lankan population. Even the Sinhalese Catholics have political grievances even though they do not have a political organization to represent them. All of this is not ganging up on the Sinhala-Buddhists, Sri Lanka’s natural majority, but seeking to expand the state, rather than divide, to equally include the island’s natural minorities.

Midsummer Elections

While Sri Lanka is in its long pre-election phase, others are finishing up theirs. India has finally ended its election marathon, and while it was at it over seven phases and forty days, South Africa and Mexico started and finished their day long voting business. The European Union is having its elections over this weekend, followed by Britain in July. To complete what one might call a midsummer of elections. The US elections are always Fall elections and are due in November.

Political taxonomists divide the world into super states and small states. There are apparently four super states now – the US, China, India and the EU, republican successors to the old monarchical empires. Remarkably, this year is seeing elections in three of them. The elections to the European parliament are being watched for the rise of populist right wing parties in many member countries, which will have implications for national elections in different countries. Especially France.

In the US, it is still early to say who is bluffing whom: Donald Trump or his Democratic detractors. China is not a part of the democratic taxonomy and would like itself to be left alone to its own civilizational inclinations, as it likes to call them. But others who have got accustomed to having elections have no real reason to change their ways. Democracy has imperfections but elections are not one of them.

Britain, France, and Germany are all former empires, now reduced to the status of small states. France and Germany are at least part of a super state, the European Union. Thanks to Brexit, Britain is no longer even part of a super state. The median population of small states, many of them offshoots of former empires, is identified as eight million. Sri Lanka at 22 million population is in the top half with Britain and other fallen empires for company.

With so many elections going on it is appropriate to provide a broad brush take on all or most of them, before going in some depth in any one of them. The Indian elections and results deserve more than a single piece of writing, insofar as writing is really an enjoyable form of learning. The elections in South Africa and Mexico lived up to their expectations. Both countries conducted both national and provincial/state elections concurrently on the same day. Both have presidential-parliamentary systems. Mexico elects its president directly by the people, while in South Africa it is the newly elected parliament that elects the president.

The African National Congress (ANC) suffered its first setback in seven elections after the end of Apartheid. The 400 members of National Assembly are elected on a proportionate basis, and the ANC’s vote share dropped dramatically from 57% in 2019 to 40% now. The Incumbent President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC are now forced to look for coalition partners to continue his presidency and form the new government. The main opposition group led by the Democratic Alliance Party has expressed its willingness to join the ANC in forming a new government.

A rather perverse winner in the election is the discredited former President Jacob Zuma, who was ousted from office for corruption and replaced by Ramaphosa in 2018. He is now out for revenge and to oust Ramaphosa. His new MK (uMkhonto weSizwe – Spear of the Nation, the ANC’s para-military wing during Apartheid) Party won a significant 15% of the vote and finished third in the election, ahead of the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Party at 9.5%.

Ironically, while the ANC is paying the price for Zuma’s presidential corruption, Zuma has regenerated himself as a political force based on his regional popularity and vote share. The ANC’s drop in vote share is really a split of the traditional vote base between the ANC and Zuma. The sharp drop in voter turnout, from 85% in the first election after Apartheid in 1994 to 58% now, is another reason and is indicative of the people’s disillusionment.

The Mexican elections went as planned with the outgoing President Lopez Obrador’s anointed successor Claudia Sheinbaum winning by a significant margin (59% to 27%) over the opposition’s Xochitl Galvez. Ms. Sheinbaum becomes first female president in the Americas and winning an election in which the two front runners were women. She is widely expected to continue the policies of her predecessor in the centre-left government of Mexico’s Morena Party.

There is also curiosity arising from the professional background of Ms. Sheinbaum, who is of Jewish descent, as a Climate Scientist, and what it might mean for the regional and global politics of Climate Change. Mexico is the third member of the North American free trade agreement that includes the US and Canada. During his first term as President, Trump wanted to wreck the agreement. The then Mexican President Lopez Obrador, who had just won his first term election, and his Canadian counterpart Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had their work cut out in saving the agreement from Trump’s threatened abrogation. History might be repeating itself if Trump were to win the US presidency again in November.

In India, Narendra Modi and the BJP have won their coveted third term, but the Indian voters have given them a bruising and qualified victory. The BJP pitched high to surpass the 400 mark that carried the threat of major constitutional changes. The voters without much help from the disarrayed opposition parties have stopped Modi and the BJP in their tracks. They gave the BJP’s NDA alliance less than 300 seats, 286 to be exact, a bare 14 more than the required majority. The BJP itself ended up with 240 seats, a steep fall from the 309 seats it won in 2019. 28 of the NDA’s 286 seats belong to two Regional Parties, the Telugu Desam Party of Andhra Pradesh with 16 seats, and Bihar’s Janata Dal Party with 12 seats. The TDP and the JD have become king makers now.

It is a stunning setback. The BJP lost in the west, east, south, and most of all in the north – in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Remarkably, the losses in Uttar Pradesh include the BJP’s defeat in the Faizabad constituency where Ayodhya is located and where Narendra Modi triumphantly inaugurated the Ram Mandir temple that had been constructed over the vandalized ruins of a historic Mosque. This is not the end of Hindutva politics. But the huge secular symbolism in the verdict of a deeply religious electorate deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated.

The voters have also mobilized the disparate opposition parties of the INDIA alliance into a sizable force of 202 members in the Lok Sabha and added another 55 members who do not belong to either the governing NDA or the opposition INDIA alliances. The Congress Pary has shot up from 40 seats in 2019 to 99 seats and is now qualified to be the official Opposition Party. Rahul Gandhi is set to become the Leader of the Opposition and now has a chance to show his mettle against Modi whose cleverly cultivated aura has been punctured by the people. Elections and the voters do matter, and they can make a difference.