A landslide like no other

The people have spoken, loudly and clearly, this time around. The Sunday Morning would like to congratulate the second youngest political party in the country, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and Prime Minister elect, Mahinda Rajapaksa on the resounding landslide victory at last week’s general election, while also congratulating the youngest political party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) on becoming the main Opposition party in Parliament.

What is significant is that this is the first general election both these parties have ever contested and signals a tectonic shift in local politics brought about by an unforgiving and performance-oriented electorate. What is even more comforting is the fact that this shift is a sign of a thriving, vibrant democracy even though the choice of some of the representatives is debatable.

Nevertheless, all it took was two men and one parliamentary term for the two biggest parties to be completely decimated. One man usually portrayed as not-so-smart was smart enough to grab the life vest thrown at him and live on to fight another day five years ago, while the one normally portrayed as smart was not-so-smart to throw away the life vest thrown at him by his own men a few months back and as a result, he will not be around to fight another day.

For Ranil Wickremesinghe, now a political destitute, the writing was on the wall for quite some time now; it’s just that he chose not to see it. There was a time not too long ago when he could have handed over the reins to his deputy Sajith Premadasa, moved out gracefully, and become a hero, than being the zero he is today. However, as usual, his pig headedness got the better of him and today, both he and his party have paid the ultimate price. The only thing his one-time supporters must be regretting is that it took them 26 long years to realise the futility of their dedication to the cause; more often than not at great cost to the nation as well as personally to many.

This time around, the voters reserved their unkindest cut for the United National Party (UNP) Leader, whose method of survival right throughout has been that of destroying his challengers. Well, this time around, the party faithful who have had enough of his infantile antics decided to hand out a dose of his own medicine by destroying him, and consequently the party in favour of his main challenger, Sajith Premadasa and his nascent SJB, who are now well placed to dictate terms to Sirikotha.

Such was the frustration and desperation of voters; that the UNP, in what must surely be a world record, plunged from a comfortable 106 seats in 2015 to a solitary seat in 2020 – that seat too not by winning an electorate but through the more charitable National List. Joining the UNP in the 2020 one-seat club is its arch rival, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Who in his right mind would have ever predicted this monumental shift just one year ago? The ultimate insult is the fact that the number of rejected votes was three times that of what was polled by the UNP.

Although Wickremesinghe will have to face the music as the chief architect of the UNP’s annihilation – the first and oldest political party in Sri Lanka – there was a supporting actor who was also instrumental in destroying the other major party, the SLFP, back in 2015, ironically by siding with Wickremesinghe. On Friday (7), when the final results were out, it was clear that Maithripala Sirisena had accomplished the impossible by completing the destruction of the UNP as well, this time around by siding with his sworn enemy of five years ago, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

In what could be termed a fait accompli of unbelievable proportions, the diminutive Sirisena will now be the pin-up boy of the SLPP and as a result, has now assumed a larger-than-life figure in what was to be his retirement. If his recent performance is anything to go by, Sirisena will be the man to watch.

Thanks to him, the UNP, the SLFP, and even the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) are now consigned to the dustbin of Sri Lanka’s rather colourful post-Independence political history. In their place we now have the SLPP, the SJB, and the Jathika Janatha Balawegaya (JJB). In a country where political office has exclusively gravitated between the UNP and SLFP for 72 long years, Friday’s election result is a bold departure from what has been, and only time will tell if it will be a harbinger of change for the better in this politically hyperactive country.

One thing that is clear is that unlike in the past, there will be no honeymoon period for the new Government thanks to the Covid-19-induced economic pandemic. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa now has the Government he wished for and his new Cabinet will have to jump straight into the deep end. It will have no choice but to swim for its life from the word go if Sri Lanka is to survive the looming economic crisis.

Given this situation, the Opposition may as well heave a collective sigh of relief and take comfort in the belief that it was a good election to lose. According to estimates, the country’s economy is expected to shrink by an unprecedented 5-6% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) this year owing to the effects of the global pandemic. It will now be up to the new Government to mitigate the economic fallout and deliver tangible results that could appease an impatient and already economically challenged electorate. The election result is proof of it.

One must keep in mind that the voters appreciated the work done by the interim Government over the past nine months, especially with regard to handling the Covid-19 pandemic, which Sri Lanka has managed to do quite effectively compared to other countries, especially neighbouring India, where over two million cases have been reported with over 12,000 deaths. Such an outcome was possible with a Cabinet of 15 members. One can only hope that the same austerity measures will be reflected in the new Cabinet and that the proven performers will be put in charge of key subjects.

It is also important that the new all-powerful Government is mindful of the fact that with power comes responsibility, and with greater power comes greater responsibility and accountability. The new Government is already assured of a two-thirds majority with the support of smaller parties. However, it must be mindful of the fact that this power to rewrite the rules must not be clouded by poor judgement. Governments in the past that have enjoyed a two-thirds majority have often been voted out because they have been obsessed with consolidating their power rather than working for the betterment of the people. It is hoped that lessons have been learnt from the past and that the motive for constitutional tinkering is driven by democratic ideals and none other.

As we stand on the cusp of a new era, it is our fervent hope that the political battles of the past are put aside, for the next few years at least, and both the victors as well as the losers will work in harmony for the betterment of the country. The people have spoken and every effort must be made to respect and appreciate the trust the people have placed in the new Government. Here’s wishing the new Prime Minister, Cabinet, and Parliament a productive tenure in office.