The May Day rallies organised in Colombo were a political game changer. The most impressive rally by far was that of the UNP at Campbell Park in Borella. The arrangements and attention to detail were above anything seen even in the heyday of the UNP and the crowds were phenomenal. For the first time since the 1980s we had a glimpse of what the UNP once was under J.R.Jayewardene. Had the UNP put on such a show of strength just a few days earlier, they would have got all their demands met as far as the 19th Amendment was concerned. They are now putting on a show of strength after having been bullied and browbeaten into compromising more and more until there was virtually nothing of the original plan to abolish the executive presidency. The question that arises is if the UNP was planning a show of strength like this, why did they not postpone the debate on the 19th Amendment till after May Day?
In contrast to the UNP’s hugely successful rally, the SLFP rally at Hyde Park was probably the most unsuccessful May Day rally in the SLFP’s six decade plus history. Hyde Park is a small place to begin with. In this confined space two enormous stages had been constructed covering almost a third of the grounds. Then hundreds of chairs had been placed for the invitees taking up another half of the space available. Less than a quarter of the space was left for the party faithful. It was obvious that the organizers were not expecting large crowds. The SLFP organizers had dutifully brought busloads of people for the rally but the moment the organizers went onto the stage the supporters walked away in groups in full view of all those sitting on the stage. As a result of this there were only those in the restricted space in the grounds and a small scattered crowd outside on two of the three roads around Hyde Park. The crowd standing outside would have just filled one lane of the four lane roads. The third road behind the stage was deserted.
The phrase ‘voting with one’s feet’ assumed a new meaning for this writer at the Hyde Park rally, because people were doing exactly that. Blue shirted contingents came down Darley road and then took a left turn towards Town Hall and walked away from the meeting. One SLFP loyalist who was forlornly observing this, wondered aloud whether they could be on their way to Kirullapone. In fact when this writer went to the Kirullapone meeting later, it did turnout that some had made a bee line from Hyde Park to Kirullapone! There were also a lot of blue shirted types loitering at the Viharamahadevi Park while the meeting was in progress. On the way to the SLFP rally, this writer passed by the UNP procession coming towards Borella and Sajith Premadasa’s contingent alone was bigger than the entire crowd that was present at the SLFP rally in Hyde Park at any given moment. The JVP rally was more than twice the size of the SLFPs. The footage seen on TV news bulletins does not really show what the ground situation was like at Hyde Park.
When this writer was at Hyde Park, there were hoots when one speaker mentioned Chandrika Kumaratunga’s name in passing. It was almost as if people had been waiting for her name to be mentioned to respond in just a split second. A little while later, CBKs name was mentioned by another speaker and this time there was even more widespread hooting. This happened with both Maithripala Sirisena and CBK present on stage. Thereafter no speaker mentioned CBK’s name again. There were cheers from the crowd whenever Mahinda Rajapaksa’s name was mentioned. The UPFA’s self respect was preserved to some extent due to the Kirullapone rally which came second to the UNP show. But what should worry members of the UPFA and the SLFP is that the UNP rally was bigger than both the Hyde Park and Kirullapone rallies put together. Another thing that should be of concern was that the JVP rally came a close third to the Kirullapone rally.
The Hyde Park rally was a stark reminder that unless the internal problems in the SLFP and UPFA are settled, they are going to get flushed down the drain pipe. The UNP has now clearly got the upper hand and as far as this writer can see, the only way that Maithripala Sirisena can get the UPFA out of this mess is by declaring Mahinda to be their prime ministerial candidate and turning the pro-Mahinda rally to be held on the 8th May in Kurunegala into a SLFP/UPFA rally with Mahinda’s presence on stage. If MR makes his debut in Kurunegala, they may be able to outshine the UNP’s May Day performance. (The emphasis being on the word ‘may’) While at the Kirullapone rally this writer heard that Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri who had come to observe the meeting had been assaulted. This has to be vehemently condemned. Nobody can get a feel for the ground situation at political meetings from TV footage. Political activists should able to observe political rallies even of rivals without the risk of getting abused in foul language and beaten up.
Mahinda Rajapaksa who is now in the political wilderness benefits in certain crucial ways from the 19th Amendment. Contrary to popular belief, the re-imposition of the two term limit on the presidency is not a disadvantage to MR because he could not have contested for the presidency without the minorities opposing him. In fact it is now very much in Mahinda’s interest to have the executive presidency abolished and to revert to a prime ministerial system. This is partly why his supporters voted for the 19th Amendment. Though the executive presidency has not been abolished, one advantage that Mahinda derives from the 19th Amendment is that there is a constitutionally defined role for the prime minister. Earlier, the prime ministership was only a designation without any defined functions.
As a result of this defined role, at a parliamentary election political parties will need to have a designated prime ministerial candidate so that the voting public will know who will be exercising those defined powers. Indeed the prospect of a political party being able to win a parliamentary election will now depend on naming a proper prime ministerial candidate in order to win the confidence of the people. Furthermore, the prospects of the other candidates will also depend on the stature of the prime ministerial candidate.
The Premier stakes
Before the 19th Amendment was passed, President Sirisena had reportedly agreed to allow Mahinda to contest on the SLFP ticket but without designating him as a prime ministerial candidate. But now there will be no point in allowing MR to contest on the SLFP ticket unless he is designated as the prime ministerial candidate. Why Mahinda is useful to the SLFP is because of his ability to galvanize support for the party. The other candidates too can ride on his shoulders to victory. But Mahinda cannot garner public support for other candidates unless he is going to be their leader, and to lead the election campaign. If MR contests as the prime ministerial candidate of the UPFA he may be able to ensure both his victory as well as the victory of his party. But if he contests as an ordinary candidate with someone else as the prime ministerial candidate or with that position left open, MR will be able to ensure his own victory but he will not be able to help others to win. People will have no reason to cast a vote for the SLFP unless they knew who the prime minister will be after the election.
The passage of the 19th Amendment (and the Hyde Park fiasco that followed so soon upon it) will mean that Sirisena will be under immense pressure from the SLFP to designate Mahinda as the prime ministerial candidate so that they too can ride the Mahinda wave into parliament. The passage of the 19th Amendment has demoted the presidency in the eyes of the public. Maithripala Sirisena was praising himself for having given up power. Nimal Siripala de Silva was praising him as a Vessanthara and Wijedasa Rajapakshe was referring to the passage of the 19th Amendment as being similar to the Magna Carta. Though legally power has not been taken away from the president, the public has now been given the impression that it has, and that that power has shifted to the prime minister.
Back in 2001, when the president wielded full executive powers, RW won the parliamentary election of that year and became prime minister under CBK. Even at that time, CBK was compelled to take a back seat and allow the prime minister to rule the country. When she suddenly seized control of the defence, media and finance ministries in November 2003 while RW was overseas, the people were so outraged that they came out onto the streets in huge numbers upon RW’s return to line the streets from the airport right up to Colombo. Not even for the recent visit of the Pope were there such crowds. If RW wanted to turn that crowd into a mob and lead it to oust CBK perhaps he could have done so. That happened in a situation where everybody knew that power resided in the hands of the president and that the prime minister could legally exercise only the powers that the president assigns to him.
Another thing that 2001 taught us was that people were willing to elect a different parliamentary government into power even in a situation where all executive power was in the hands of president. After the 19th Amendment and the perception that has been created in the minds of the people that power has shifted to the prime minister, the president will not be able to reassert himself the way CBK was able to do in November 2003 by seizing the three ministries and later even dissolving parliament. In the future if any president tried to do what CBK did in November 2003, the people are going to react as if a coup has taken place.
Some members of the Sirisena faction of the SLFP who are hell bent on keeping MR out of politics feel that if the Mahinda faction decides to contest separately, the current proportional representation system will be favourable to them. The argument is that if Mahinda comes in as a third force under the present proportional representation system they will grab a good proportion of the votes and seats, but that such a thing will not be possible under a first past the post system where the candidates contest directly against one another in the constituencies and he who gets the highest number of votes will win the seat. In such circumstances, if MR fields a separate candidate in each electorate, that will split the SLFP vote and pave the way for UNP candidates to get elected and MR will be blamed for the defeat of the SLFP.
Trying to keep MR out
So there is this perception that under the proportional representation system Mahinda will be a dangerous rival but under a first past the post system Mahinda can only be a spoiler who can ensure the defeat of the SLFP candidate but will not be able to win the constituency. So for fear of being labeled as the spoiler who ensured the victory of the UNP, detractors hope MR will keep away from the election altogether. This calculation is what is motivating the Sirisena faction of the SLFP to push through electoral reform as soon as possible. But the May Day fiasco at Hyde Park clearly showed that a change of the electoral system is not going to help the Sirisena faction. What the Hyde Park experience demonstrated was that a good proportion of the SLFP voters may keep away from the polling booth if Mahinda is not accommodated by the SLFP. That alone will defeat the SLFP without Mahinda having to field candidates as spoilers.
The reason why Ranil Wickremesinghe was forced by his own party members to stand aside at the last presidential election is because of the fear that a section of the UNP vote base may not go to the polling booth if he contests. The same thing applies in reverse to Mahinda. A good proportion of the SLFP voters may simply keep away if he is not made the prime ministerial candidate. What the Kirullapone rally indicated was that if MR does not contest, a good proportion of the SLFP vote may also go to other parties of the UPFA that are willing to support Mahinda. It should be remembered that the Kirullapone meeting became the second largest May Day rally without Mahinda ever appearing on the stage. The SLFP managed to come down to fourth place with both Maithripala Sirisena and CBK present on the stage. The implications of that cannot possibly be lost on the SLFP electoral organizers who will be the candidates at the next parliamentary election.
Changing the electoral system will not help the Sirisena faction for other reasons as well. Quite a few of the SLFP politicians supporting MR are immensely popular in their own right and there is a good chance that they will win their electorates regardless of what party they contest from. In a first past the post system the personality of the candidate also counts a great deal. If the SLFP tries to contest a parliamentary election even under a first past the post system with a leadership vacuum at the top, they may lose out to a third force – this is what we saw at Kirullapone. The SLFP rank and file gave a convincing demonstration on May Day that that they will not hesitate to walk away from the SLFP if they are not happy with those leading them.