Can a hung Parliament that is widely predicted in the run-up to Sri Lanka’s 10 October general elections, be the troubled country’s great opportunity to abandon the traditional confrontational politics, and work towards a consensual government and the resolution of the ethnic problem that has led to a 17-year-long civil war? Some analysts and intellectuals looking for positive aspects of an otherwise grim scenario concede the possibility.
Most observers agree that neither President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s ruling People’s Alliance (PA) or the opposition United National Party (UNP) led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, are likely to win a comfortable working majority in the 225-member Parliament, particularly in the context of the country’s proportional representation system of elections that makes large majorities improbable, if not impossible. Although the picture can change in the four weeks before the poll, as Liberal Party leader Professor Rajiva Wijesinha says, “Unless there is a lot of cheating, no party will get an absolute majority.” S.L. Gunasekera who leads the new Sinhala Urumaya Party emphatically agrees: “A hung Parliament is a certainty if there is a free and fair election.”
But there are widely held fears that the election will neither be free nor fair, and that the government will maximise the advantages of incumbency to boost its own chances. Already the anticipated violence has erupted with seven persons including a candidate, being killed in election-related incidents. While Kumaratunga maintains the public stance that the election must be won “by fair and legitimate means”, and says that “we have no intention of winning by violence, thuggery or stuffing ballot boxes”, there has yet been no credible explanation offered on why an independent election commission that has long been demanded was not appointed in time for the elections.
Kumaratunga was first elected prime minister in August 1994, and was elected to the nearly all-powerful presidency three months later- after her main opponent was assassinated by the Tamil Tigers. She pledged to abolish this office by July 1995 but failed to deliver, and won a second six-year term in December last year when she herself narrowly escaped a Tiger assassination bid at her final campaign rally. She remains a prime target of the LTTE, and has been forced by security considerations to limit her campaign appearances. Kumaratunga still says that she will abolish the presidency through a new constitution if her party is returned in October, but she wants a six-year transitional provision that will keep her in office with all powers intact for the forthcoming term.
For his part, Wickremesinghe, a former prime minister, has promised to “clip Chandrika’s wings”, and says that the president will have to learn to live with an opposition-led Parliament which will restore the supremacy of the legislature using existing constitutional provisions. “From 11 October (the day after the elections), we will ensure that she will only be a nominal president. The Parliament and cabinet will be more powerful.” But given the powers the present Constitution vests in the president, it is not going to be as easy as campaign rhetoric makes it sound, for it is Kumaratunga who will have to decide who commands the most parliamentary support and pick a prime minister when the election results are in.
Sri Lanka has had a brief 3-month experience with the president and the prime minister belonging to two different parties when the UNP’s 17-year rule was ended in 1994 by a whisker of a victory by the Kumaratunga-led PA. But the then president Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, catapulted into office in the wake of president Ranasinghe Premadasa’s assassination, was a lame duck nearing the end of his term. He adopted a conciliatory, non-confrontational attitude towards Kumaratunga who served briefly as prime minister under him, until she consolidated her power by being elected president. By ensuring the support of Tamil parties in Parliament, she was able to convert what was initially a single-vote advantage in the legislature into a comfortable working majority.
But it is going to be different this time round. Wickremesinghe believes that Kumaratunga’s 700000 majority over him at the last December’s presidential election he expected to win, was largely influenced by sympathy votes following the attempt on her life three days before polling. Whether the UNP can retain the backing of minority Tamil voters who supported Wickremesinghe for the presidency, remains an open question. But Kumaratunga’s government is unpopular, particularly on the cost of living issue. Another imponderable is whether the Tigers will once again attempt to influence the election result by deploying their suicide bombing capability. They’ve already played their hand with a 15 September suicide bombing in Colombo that killed six and injured 28. Smaller parties that can tilt the balance of power by appealing to voters disenchanted with both the PA and the UNP, are also a part of the equation.
Even the state-controlled media now trumpeting PA propaganda have admitted to the likelihood of a close finish. Meanwhile, the Sunday Observer commented in its editorial that “there is every possibility that the coming Parliament will truly reflect the will of the people and could lead to a new chapter of consensual politics in the annals of Sri Lanka.” Ken Balendra, head of John Keells Holdings, the country’s biggest business conglomerate, looks forward to that day. He says that nothing could be better for the country than the PA and the UNP working together: “A national government will be ideal.”