GP Insights # 392, 2 August 2020
The General Election in Sri Lanka to form a new Parliament, which was initially scheduled for April and then postponed to June, will be finally held on 5 August 2020. Despite experiencing a second wave of the coronavirus in mid-July, the voting will take place as planned under strict health guidelines and safety measures on the scheduled date.
What is the background?
First, the uncertainties surrounding the elections. After the Presidential elections in 2019 bought Gotabaya Rajapaksa to power, the opposition-controlled Parliament was dissolved in March 2020. Initially, the 16th Parliamentary election of Sri Lanka was scheduled in April. However, with the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and an island-wide curfew in effect, the Election Commission postponed the elections indefinitely, despite the President's insistence to hold the election as scheduled. Since the constitution calls for a dissolved Parliament to be replaced within the three months, the Election Commission decided to open the polls on 20 June in order to avert a constitutional crisis. However, the election again had to be rescheduled to 5 August.
Second, a look at the contending political parties. The political party with the highest stake in this election is Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by the Rajapaksas. The party looks for the opportunity to consolidate power with a two-thirds majority in order to enable the newly formed government to repeal the 19th Amendment. The Opposition, on the other hand, is fractured; it is divided between the United National Party (UNP) under former PM Wickremesinghe and the newly formed Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) under the leadership of Sajith Premadasa, which is a breakaway group of UNP. This significantly weakens both parties as neither will be able to secure the required number of Parliamentary seats to challenge SLPP. Besides these parties, the Leftist party Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), now reformed as an alliance named Jathika Jana Balavegaya (NPP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) are smaller parties, expected to secure a few seats in the upcoming poll.
Third, the election campaign during the pandemic. The campaigning for the general elections took place in a subdued manner as the Covid-19 Pandemic prevented the candidates from conducting mass rallies. Most activities were conducted through social media, advertisements and through a door to door campaigning in strict compliance with health guidelines, as the candidates tried to connect with the voters from their electorates.
What does it mean?
The outcome of the election will significantly reshape the Sri Lankan political stage. While it is not certain that the SLPP will be able to secure the two-thirds majority, it is evident that the party would dominate this election. The pandemic situation favours the Rajapaksa rule where the citizens look for stability which might result in the repeal of the 19th Amendment. If the SJB manages to secure a significant number of seats over the UNP, then the newly formed party will emerge as the leading Opposition Party while the UNP will look for a change in leadership.
As indicated by the number of postal votes already cast, it is expected for the voter turnout to drop as low as 70 per cent this election, because voters seem discouraged by health restrictions, political apathy and wariness of the political system stimulated by the pandemic.