The New Year is always much looked forward to by all Sri Lankans and this year will be no exception. However, indications are that there will be little new after the New Year dawns this weekend. The political and economic challenges before Sri Lanka remain undiminished and politics is likely to take up more space with just six months left before a possible Presidential election.
Political focus gained an additional boost this week with two cases being filed against former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa while he was in the US. Rajapaksa has long been tipped to be a Presidential candidate and will undoubtedly be a strong contender if he gets the chance to run. The timing of the two cases has sparked excited speculation of motives and possibility of vested interests as Rajapaksa attempts to renounce his US citizenship. Predicting the impact these cases could have in delaying the citizenship renunciation at this point would be tricky as it is too early and there are too many legal variables to pin down. But it will be one of the key developments to watch after the New Year.
Rajapaksa is expected to return to Colombo on Friday and plans are already underway to give him a hearty welcome. The filing of the cases have given Rajapaksa a popularity boost albeit on standard nationalist and foreign conspiracy grounds that were favoured during his brother’s Presidency. This is unlikely to reach across to moderate Sinhala Buddhists or minorities, which are two key requirements for him to make inroads into the United National Party (UNP) vote base and come out with a majority. He is likely to continue with the dual “Eliya” and “Viyathmaga” campaigns until an election is called.
President Maithripala Sirisena has contributed to the murky political waters by putting forward the possibility of once again seeking clarification from the Supreme Court on the length of his term. The argument doing the rounds is that since the 19th Amendment was signed into law in June 2015 it is possible for the five-year term to continue till June 2020. It is obvious that Sirisena wishes to push a Parliamentary election forward, as that would improve odds of him getting a second term in power, which at the moment looks quite bleak. If he can wait out the four and half years to dissolve Parliament and call for a General Election then the political tables would be turned on both the UNP and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).
The UNP for its part seems to be relying more on the expectation that blocking a Gotabaya Rajapaksa candidacy will give it a boost in the polls. But the SLPP still has other options such as former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa who could be a contender for candidacy and could appeal to a lot of Sinhala Buddhists. As the party in power, the UNP has to keep the duties of Government moving forward and implementing much-needed economic reforms, pushing forward with anti-corruption measures and promoting reconciliation. It cannot afford to let Government functions grind to a halt as it is threatening to do now.
All three parties, whether it is the UNP, SLFP or SLPP, have to find way to deliver the aspirations of Sri Lanka’s middle class, which has expressed growing frustration and disappointment in their political representatives. This is the biggest test for anyone aspiring to rule.