The Sunday Leader

May Day Call And After

by N. Sathiya Moorthy

For a third year in a row since he lost the presidency in the January 2015 elections, Mahinda Rajapaksa-centric Joint Opposition has brought in more people to their ‘May Day’ rally this year than their political rivals. Whether or not this will provide the much-needed impetus for Rajapaksa to defeat the incumbent Government in Parliament, as he promised himself and his supporters ahead of the New Year, it definitely should make his divided detractors sit up and take notice even more than ever.

Tellingly, the Rajapaksa camp promptly thanked the Government rivals for permitting them the use of the vast Galle Face Green in capital Colombo, for their May Day rally. As they snidely remarked later on, the venue of the rally and they way they were able to fill up the vast space on the sea-front both facilitated the diplomatic community based in Colombo to have a first-hand view of things.

There can be no ignoring the fact that the Rajapaksa camp requires international support more now than any time since losing power. It is possibly thus that in a recent television interview, Mahinda R sought to play down his post-defeat criticism of the so-called ‘Indian role’ in the ‘regime-change’ of 2015, saying that it was all in the past, and they needed to walk forward (implying, that they also needed to talk forward, if and when it came to that).

According to media reports, compared to the Rajapaksa May Day rally, those of the official SLFP under President Maithiripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe UNP and the labour-centric JVP were all small. Some reports even indicated all three put together had fewer participants than at the Gall Face show. If it was reflective of the voter-mood just now, it was this. If not, it was weekend entertainment, and it was a longer weekend as May Day fell on a Monday and not mid-week.



At a post-rally media meet, JO leaders (barring the Rajapaksas) reiterated their resolve to form a new government under Mahinda’s leadership, not very long after. The fact remains, Rajapaksa cannot become the President under 19-A, which bars a third term for a two-term incumbent and overturned his own 18-A that facilitated his contesting the polls a third time, only to lose the presidency ahead of time. The new and proposed Constitution is expected to retain 19-A provisions, even if the rest of the statute gets proposed to Parliament and is passed under the due and required processes.

Two questions arise out of this construct. At least two of the many questions are of greater relevance than the rest. The rest would also flow out of the earlier ones, but there are also stand-alone queries like the future of the ‘Government for National Unity’ should the SLFP and the UNP decide to fight out future elections on their individual capacity and identity without extending their ‘limited cooperation’ of the past two-plus years to form an electoral alliance to call their own?

Otherwise, if the Rajapaksa camp is confident of ensuring cross-over of Government MPs to their side, there is not even a slight indication to that, close to six months of the year-long deadline Mahinda R had fixed for himself. Unless of course they are working so carefully and cautiously behind-the-scenes, as the Maithri camp ahead of the presidential polls, there is nothing to suggest that the status quo could be tilted overnight.

Two, now or whenever presidential polls become due, can Mahinda R transfer his 45-47 percent vote-share from the twin polls of 2015 to a candidate of his choice, including one of his two brothers? That is assuming that no new Constitution, or any major changes to the present Constitution becomes possible between now and election time.

So strong has been the Rajapaksa camp’s muscle-flexing after the May Day rally, they are already talking that there could be no rapprochement between them and the official SLFP under Sirisena. Instead, they intend contesting the upcoming elections under the Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP), headed by former Foreign Minister G L Peiris.


PC polls and Polonnaruwa

For now, post-rally, the JO has reiterated their worn-out demand for conducting the local government polls that became due two years ago. Anyway, Provincial Council polls are due in at least three of the nine provinces in the country by September this year, and the Government cannot delay them, too, without acknowledging that their existing alliance cannot win any or all of them.

Among the three provinces due for fresh polls is North-Central Province, where President Maithiripala Sirisena’s native Polonnaruwa district is located. Hence, it becomes a personal prestige issue for the incumbent, who can be expected to face tough opposition from PM Ranil’s UNP, too. In the presidential polls in 2015, Polonnaruwa was one of the few ‘Sinhala districts’ that voted for the victor, but at the time the UNP too voted for him and worked for him.

The other two Provinces that are expecting polls in September are Sabaragamuwa, the nation’s smallest Province, and also the East, where the tri-ethnic presence makes it a ‘test case’ of sorts for the national scene, too. The comparison should stop there as the ethnic ratio in the East does not get reflected at the national-level, so does politics.

This implies that the Rajapaksa camp is hoping for a three-cornered contest of sorts in the majority Sinhala areas, where they would be pitted against the official SLFP, UNP and the JVP, where the division of anti-Rajapaksa votes would ensure their victory. Or, that seems to be their hope and calculation.

Even if the JVP were to combine forces with one of the others, especially the ideologically-tuned SLFP, it might not help either.  It is another matter that neither the SLFP, nor the SLPP has the kind of committed cadres that the JVP alone commands from among the three. How they would be playing it out, and if there would be other takers in the pack, remains to be seen.


Tilting-vote kind

From among political parties with some mass-base, especially of the ‘tilting-vote’ kind, the UNP can count on the SLMC, at least as of now. The Upcountry Tamil parties may be left to choose their allies, depending on whom between the SLFP and the UNP is strong in specific areas and under specific circumstances.

The TNA might be the deciding factor, especially if there is a direct election to the presidency but the latter is still in question. Or, so would it seem until it is known if the SLFP and the UNP are going to be together, or go their separate ways, especially in the presidential polls, whenever held.

It cannot be so if the new Constitution seeks to empower the prime minister more than the president. It could create two power-centres than already, and it is not good for democracy, good for the nation, especially at this crucial juncture in Sri Lanka’s post-war career.


Weeping by Vesak

If Mahinda R was serious about upsetting the apple-cart of the present government when he declared his New Year vows, Prime Minister Ranil W seemed wanting to dismiss it all as a silly joke. His first reaction, if it was any, was to challenge Mahinda to topple his Government when he was going to be away from the country, immediately afterward.

More seriously, Ranil would tell Mahinda that rather than toppling his Government, the former President would be weeping by the time the annual Buddhist festival of Vesak came up a year from then. That would be in the summer of 2018, and the implication was that various criminal investigations and court cases against Brothers Rajapaksa would have reached some decisive stage, and they could expect punishment, including a term in prison.

It is easier said than done, it would seem. Given the long rope that accused and convicts get in Third World nations, in terms of appeals reprieve and additional interlocutory petitions, it is not unlikely that the Rajapaksas might not have to worry too much, at least in the interim. More importantly, if Brothers Rajapaksa, especially Mahinda R, were able to ‘transfer’ his vote-share to another candidate of his choice, even court cases and punishments could end up becoming ‘interim’, instead.

True to form, in the UNP’s May Day rally, PM Ranil blamed the Rajapaksa regime for all the economic ills of the nation.  In his May Day speech, delivered at the SLFP’s official rally – or, the official SLFP’s rally – President Sirisena vowed again not to compromise the nation’s interest. He too was acting to form, not saying what he wants to say, if at all he knew who between the two, Mahinda and Ranil, is his major political adversary over the medium and long-terms were. The short-term in his case is well behind him.

At the end of the day, the May Day call this year was not to the nation, not even to the political rivals. It was by the nation, to the political rivals in front of it. For the nation to come out of the mess of every kind that it finds itself now, and even earlier, the political rivals will have to heed the nation’s call before it looks elsewhere for solace and succour.

That is the lesson from 2015, and even from earlier elections. That is what these political rivals need to learn from and remember lest the nation would forget them, but not forgive them. In this, there are no exceptions like the ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ in it. The nation’s choice would be between ‘Hope’ and sorrow – one for the future, the other from the past!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email:


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