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By 2015 Sri Lanka will have experienced a decade of rule by the United Peoples Freedom Alliance UPFA government under President Mahinda Rajapakse. He ascended to the Presidency in 2005 after Chandrika Bandaranaike’s 1994 People’s Alliance PA transformed and returned to power as the UPFA in alliance with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna JVP in 2004/2005. The military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam LTTE in May 2009 was an outcome of this metamorphosis. The UPFA became the most powerful stakeholder in terms of Sri Lankan political power in post war Sri Lanka. It rode on a wave of nationalistic populism winning landslide victories in multiple provincial council elections from 2008 to 2009 in tandem with gains on the battlefield in the North and East. It reached a zenith of populist support after winning the war against the LTTE despite the setback of Sri Lankan Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka defecting to the opposition and running against President Rajapakse as a common candidate in 2010. Mahinda Rajapakse won the 2010 Presidential elections with 6 Million votes out of total 10.4 Million votes polled; 57% of the vote during an election which had a turnout of 74%. On the back of this win the UPFA went on to win the 2010 General Elections with 4.8 Million votes out of 8.6 Million votes polled; 60% of the vote during an election in which voter turnout dropped to 61%. This gave the UPFA a total 144 seats in parliament in April 2010 which quickly turned into a 160 seat 2/3rds Majority with opposition crossovers by late 2010 giving President Rajapakse the numbers in parliament needed to amend the Sri Lankan constitution. Feeling invincible President Rajapakse strengthened the Executive Presidential system by passing the 18th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution. This diluted the 17th Amendment which acted as a check and balance to the centralization of political power. It also allowed President Rajapakse to run for a 3rd term in office. With the complete consolidation of power the UPFA embarked on a reconciliation and development strategy believing that a sizable majority of Sri Lanka unflinchingly supported it. But, at its very core the UPFA is an election machine. It constantly strives to prolong its period of rule by evoking the electorate. After holding a round of local council elections in 2011 the UPFA held provincial council elections in a staggered manner between 2012 and 2014 to gain political momentum before an early Presidential or General election in 2015 in similarity to its 2008/2009 strategy.
The UPFA has now held 8 out of 9 provincial council elections with only the Uva Province to go. It obtained over 60% of the vote in elections in the North Central, Sabaragamuwa, North Western and Central provinces with an average voter turnout of 65% between 2012 and 2014. These 4 provinces contain 43% of all registered voters in 8 provinces. The UPFA did not perform as well in the other 4 elections in the Northern, Eastern, Western and Southern Provinces which contain about 57% of all registered voters in 8 provinces. Consolidation of the UPFA’s votes in these 4 provinces will reveal that it only obtained 46% of the entire valid vote; 2.3 Million out of 5 Million. A deeper analysis of voting trends between 2012 and 2014 is even more startling. The Election Commission’s 2012 electoral register indicates that Sri Lanka has about 14.4 Million voters in all 9 provinces. Between 2012 and 2014 a total 8.9 Million people have voted out of 13.5 Million registered voters in 8 provinces with an average voter turnout of 65%. In fact more people have voted in 8 PC elections between 2012 and 2014 then in the 2010 General Election which had 61% turnout with 8.6 Million voting out of 14 Million. This is much lower than the 74% voter turnout during the 2010 Presidential elections. But, 8.9 Million out of 13.5 Million registered voters is a significant number giving the UPFA a basis to draw some basic conclusions about voter dynamics for Presidential and General elections. The UPFA has suffered a substantial loss of popularity. Out of an approximate 8.9 Million votes the UPFA only obtained about 4.6 million votes; a total 51% of the vote. This is a 9% loss of votes from the 60% they obtained during the 2010 General elections, a loss of momentum which could see the UPFA PC vote bank drop below 50% if there is a similar reduction of votes in the Uva PC poll. The strategy of staggered PC elections strategy, evoking patriotic reactions from Sinhala Buddhist voters and a populist infrastructure development drive is starting to fail the UPFA. 5 years after winning the war it risks losing power and therefore losing everything. President Rajapakse and his inner circle are rattled, reactive and running out of options fast. This deterioration did not happen overnight. The UPFA’s propaganda machine tried its best to hide electoral weaknesses and highlight popularity but to distract and capture the imagination of the people you have to lie big and lie consistently.
The concept of the Big Lie is often misattributed to Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1931 to 1945 Joesph Goebbels. It was actually Adolf Hitler in Volume 1, Chapter 4: War Propaganda of Mein Kampf that conceptualized “the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over. Here, as so often in this world, persistence is the first and most important requirement for success”. Such a strategy is not sustainable on the long run if there are inconsistencies in execution. The UPFA has started to display inconsistencies in its strategy and its political representatives are not “chanting the same Gatha” anymore. The most recent inconsistencies concern the war, implementing LLRC recommendations and economic statistics. Here is the first example. The UPFA has always maintained that it was the LTTE that started the last war but Provincial Minister Mr. Udaya Gammanpilla who was put in charge of leading the UPFA’s campaign in Colombo District for the 2014 Western Provincial Council election contradicted this position recently. In an interview titled “Gotabhaya is my hero” referring to Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse who openly campaigned for Mr. Gammanpilla during the election in the Financial Times on the 19th of February 2014 Mr. Udaya Gammanpilla stated that “Actually we triggered the war by launching the procession from Neelapola Rajamaha Vihara to Mawilaru. This forced the Government to recommence the war. We worked very closely with the defense establishment to realize this dream”.
This is in contravention to the position taken by Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse who stated on the 19th of November 2013 in an interview to Ceylon Today that “We needed to show that the LTTE started the war. Otherwise the blame would be on us. They gravely violated the ceasefire twice….They started it, then we proceeded until the end”. Here is the second example. Due to a perceived lack of progress the international community asked the Sri Lankan government to effectively implement the recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission LLRC. LLRC Recommendation 9.21, 215 states that the Police Department should be de linked from institutions dealing with the armed services. On the 26th of August 2013 the Sri Lankan government established a new Ministry of Law and Order and placed the police under its purview. This new Ministry remains under the Sri Lanka President who is also the Minister of Defense. The secretary to the Ministry is a retired army Major General Nanda Mallawaarachchi. It was during General Mallawaarachchi’s tenure as Acting Army Commander that the 2006 – 2009 war between the GOSL and the LTTE began. In July 2006 Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse ordered General Mallawaarachchi to commence military operations in July / August 2006 against the LTTE when the LTTE blocked the Mawilaru Anicut in the Eastern Province. According to Mr. Udaya Gammanpila, General Mallawaarachchi was in direct contact with Jathika Hela Urumaya JHU leaders at the time to inform them that the government had commenced operations. General Mallawaarachchi was in charge of the army because General Sarath Fonseka was receiving treatment in Singapore due to a failed LTTE assassination bid. The maintenance of the police under the same minister of defense and the appointment of General Mallawaarachchi as the ministerial secretary in charge of the police displays an inconsistency in the government’s commitment to implement LLRC recommendations even to diplomatically appease the international community. Here is the third example. Such inconsistencies are not limited to the realm of national politics and international policies alone. They have also crossed over to economic statistics with the Central Bank of Sri Lanka stating that the average annual income of a Sri Lankan can be calculated to be 2923 US Dollars while the Household Income and Expenditure survey published by the Department of Census and Statistics calculates this same number to be 955 US Dollars. Economist WA Wijewardena explains that,
“For all policy making and international comparison purposes, it is PCI estimated in national accounts that is being used by all. Sri Lanka is considered as having elevated to a lower middle income country because its PCI is reported to have surpassed the threshold of $ 2,000 now. Even the Government has set itself with a target of doubling this inflated PCI from $ 2,000 to $ 4,000 by 2016. It has even asked everyone – banks, private chambers and Government institutions – to get ready for a $ 100 billion economy in a few years’ time. All these plans will become senseless if the total income and PCI underlying that income have been overestimated and need a correction downward as reflected by the ‘worm’s eye’ calculation of the country’s income and output”
A reduction in its voter bank and political inconsistency were the first signs of the UPFA’s possible disintegration. It was also unable to galvanize its 2/3rds majority during the vote on the Strategic Investment Gazettes in Parliament on the 24th and 25th of April 2014. This is a concrete example of a loss of support, inconsistency and division. The vote taken for Lake Leisure Holdings on the 25th of April 2014 indicated that only 109 government representatives out of its 161 majority in parliament voted for the bill. This does not even constitute a Simple Majority. Government ministers and Buddhist priests openly opposed the introduction of these gazettes but the government chose to go ahead with it to receive over 1 Billion US Dollars in foreign direct investment. The UPFA heads into the Uva Provincial election on shaky ground. The Uva Provincial election has 920,874 registered voters; 6.3% of Sri Lanka’s entire electorate. A UPFA victory may not make a major statistical difference relative to a national poll but it may give the UPFA a moral boost. If we take a brief look at the statistics of past elections in Uva it is noteworthy that the UPFA won 72% of the vote in a 2009 PC election which had a 70% turnout but it only obtained 59% of the vote in a 2010 General election when the province’s voter turnout fell to 62%. Note that Mahinda Rajapakse garnered 57% of the Uva vote during a 2010 Presidential election which had an unprecedented 78% turnout. Uva will be a challenge to the Rajapakses. Winning it with a high margin will be prerogative because the perception of further electoral erosion and another drop in moral will spell the definite decline of the Rajapakse regime. The UPFA will need to seriously rethink its current ideological line and political strategy to stop such a decline. On the other hand to capitalize on such a decline all opposition parties will need to seriously revise their strategies, their alliances and their leaderships. This includes the UNP which garnered only 2.1 Million votes; 23% of all votes cast in the PC elections between 2012 and 2014. The prospects of a combined opposition encompassing the UNP, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, the Democratic Party, the Tamil National Alliance, smaller opposition parties and even government partners the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Up Country Tamil parties along with a combined progressive political agenda will be the only thing that threatens the UPFA. Collectively, all these parties have polled 3.7 Million votes; 42% of all votes cast at PC elections between 2012 and 2014.
Statistically, we are coming to a juncture in Sri Lanka’s post war history in which there is a chance that the UPFA may very well lose the next election if it does not change its political strategy. Opposition parties will have to reform ideologically and collectively to capture the imagination of people and turn statistical probability into a real political reality.
This article is part of a larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.