SLFP battle-lines drawn for May Day showdown

maithri_mahindarThis New Year dawns on a note of uncertainty for many politicians, with an extremely fluid situation prevailing in parliamentary politics. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution is up for debate tomorrow (20th) and the day after (21st) but it seems unlikely that a vote on it will be taken. Party leaders who met on Friday were unable to reach agreement on the electoral reforms which, the SLFP insists, should be introduced at the same time as the 19A.

Electoral reforms
The Parliamentary Select Committee on electoral reforms headed by MEP leader Dinesh Gunewardena, started its work as far back as in 2003 and proposed a mixed electoral system that combined proportional representation (PR) with the first-past the-post (FPP) system. The formula proposed by that committee was for 140 MPs be elected from constituencies under the FPP system, 70 under a district-based PR system and 15 from a National List. The SLFP, however, has now come up with its own proposals, apparently drawing on the Dinesh Gunewardena report.

The Government is unable to pass the 19A without the votes of the SLFP majority in parliament. It seems that it is, therefore, obliged to accommodate the SLFP’s demand that electoral reforms be introduced simultaneously. This would explain the SLFP’s hurried proposals. The number of electorates in the country at present stands at 160, and the thinking seems to be that if the number of electorates remains more or less the same, there would be no need for a delimitation commission to redraw the electoral map — a process that could take months to complete. This is hardly a rationale based on what’s best in the national interest.

Another amendment
Liberal Party leader MP Rajiva Wijesinghe has made his own proposal for electoral reforms in the form of an amendment to the 19A. His letter to the Secretary General of Parliament says he hopes it will be taken up on Tuesday at the Committee Stage. Wijesinghe’s amendment envisages that at the General Election each voter shall be entitled to cast two separate votes — one for an individual, chosen from amongst those nominated for the constituency, and the second for a political party. There would be 150 constituencies that would each return to parliament the contestant who gets the highest number of votes, plus another 100 MPs, based on the second ‘party vote.’ The ‘party vote’ would ensure that the final composition of Parliament would reflect proportionately the votes cast for each party. The proposal provides for some National List seats as well.

Expulsion of SLFP MPs
Meanwhile the dissension within the SLFP continues, aggravated by the recent expulsion of five MPs from the party’s Central Committee. Reasons for this apparent disciplinary action seem unclear. All five MPs attended the rally in support of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s comeback held in Ratnapura recently. So did over 20 other SLFP MPs who also defied party orders by attending the meeting, but were not penalised for it. MPs Bandula Gunewardena, T B Ekanayake, S M Chandrasena, Salinda Dissanayake and Rohitha Abeygunewardena have told the media they intend to pursue legal action with regard to their expulsion.

This has been the standard response of parliamentarians facing expulsion in the past — usually for having ‘crossed sides.’ Such MPs have usually had no difficulty in retaining their seats. However, the feasibility of resorting to legal action this time around would seem to be in doubt, owing to a provision in the 19A. According to new paragraph to be added to Article 99 of the Constitution, (on page 34 of the gazetted version) courts will not have jurisdiction in relation to disciplinary action taken by political parties. The section reads as follows:

“(14) Except as provided for in paragraph (13) of this Article, no court shall have jurisdiction to hear and determine any matter relating to disciplinary action taken or proposed to be taken by any recognized political party or independent group against a member thereof, who is a Member of Parliament, and accordingly no court shall have the power to grant a writ, injunction, an enjoining order or any other relief, preventing, restraining or prohibiting any such action or proposed action.”.

May Day rallies
The expulsion of the five MPs shows up the fault lines in the SLFP along which a split has occurred, between those who have thrown in their lot with the government and those backing former president Rajapaksa’s return to politics. A large number of SLFP MPs and Provincial Councillors were seen on TV on Thursday when they and some UPFA coalition party leaders paid a New Year visit to the former president at his home in Tangalle.

The SLFP’s divisions are likely to come to a head and find expression on May Day, where separate rallies will attract the participation of the two divergent groups. While the SLFP party hierarchy has organised an event at Hyde Park to which President Sirisena and former presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Chandrika Kumaratunga have been invited, a sizeable segment of SLFP supporters, especially from the trade unions, is likely to attend the rally at Kirulapone organised by UPFA coalition partners. Veteran SLFP trade unionist Alavi Mowlana is expected to participate in this ‘United Workers’ Day’ event, along with the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), Democratic Left Front (DLF), National Freedom Front (NFF), Lanka Sama Samaaja Party (LSSP), Communist Party (CP) and Mahajana Party (MP). These groups include those at the forefront of the ‘Bring back Mahinda’ campaign.

DLF leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara told the Sunday Times the Kirulapone rally will be attended by “the forces of the UPFA who want Mahinda Rajapaksa for the (election) campaign leadership.” He said Rajapaksa will send a message to be read out at this rally, adding that the former president is unlikely to attend the SLFP event though he may send a reply to the invitation.

The demonstration of support at these two events — in terms of which one draws the bigger crowd — could indicate whether the pendulum will swing Left or Right for the SLFP at grassroots level in the days ahead.