Groundviews

2015 Presidential Election in Sri Lanka: An Initial Forecast

Photograph Colombo Gazette

As we approach the final week of campaigning for the Presidential election, the political messages of both coalitions are becoming clearer. So are the strategies of both coalitions and trends in voter sentiment as revealed through some surveys and public attendance in political rallies. Defections from the ruling coalition have dominated the political stage though there have been some notable defections from the opposition to the government side also sparingly. As a result of nearly 26 MPS defecting from the ruling coalition, including those from the SLFP and other parties, the stage is set for a sharper contest between Rajapakses and the rest who are opposing them. The emerging trend seems to be for ‘a change’ in the governance of Sri Lanka rather than maintaining the status quo. People who I have spoken to in the country and elsewhere refer to a discernible ‘mood change’ among the voters even though some admire the development work accomplished by the Rajapakses during their rein. They also refer to a greater sense of frustration among the average folk due to the reported corruption of politicians, partisan nature of governance, family rule, cost of living pressures and the disregard for rule of law by those in authority.

One side is arguing for change in the governance style and processes adopted under the executive presidential system in the midst of charges of nepotism, corruption, bad governance, and politicisation of institutions while the other side is arguing for stability and national security against perceived enemies of the nation, i.e. Western countries and Tamil diaspora elements. The opposition coalition has been strengthened by the support it is receiving from a range of minor parties and civic groups while there are reported signs of considerable erosion of the support base of the ruling coalition reflected in the well-planned defections of its allies. Early signs of voter intentions are also starting to creep into the public view via various sources.

The information of this author is that there is ‘a growing mood for change’ in the cities and the countryside. This is based on the sense of injustices experienced by people in public life, trend toward authoritarianism, and a whole host of other factors. Instead of voter apathy, a high degree of enthusiasm among voters including in the countryside has been generated by the contest for power led by two SLFP stalwarts leading two coalitions. Will all this translates into a victory by the opposition coalition led by Maithripala? Or will the incumbent be able to pull out a rabbit out of the hat in the last week of electioneering –against all odds – and be able to surprise everybody? To gain an insight, we ought to reflect on the kind of regime in place and the changes opposition parties are seeking.

According to Sasanka Perera who reviews a book by Laksiri Jayasuriya on Electoral Politics in Sri Lanka and the elections, a hybrid regime has been established after the 2010 Presidential and subsequent parliamentary elections (The Island January 15, 2013):

Jayasuriya suggests that the 2010 parliamentary and presidential elections established what he describes as a ‘hybrid regime’ similar to the models that have emerged in South East Asian countries such as Singapore and Malaysia (140; 169). Quoting Levitsky and Way, what Jayasuriya means by this terminology is a regime that “is a mix of authoritarian and democratic elements where formal democratic processes combine with a strong incumbent party that seeks to limit the organizational capacity of the opposition” (169). As Jayasuriya further notes, “although formal democratic institutions such as the legal system and the electoral process are functional and operative, we note, however, that they can be skillfully manipulated in gaining power and maintaining regime dominance” (169).

Perera then states that ‘this observation succinctly places in context the current political climate in Sri Lanka. The net result of this electoral process and its manipulation, as suggested by Jayasuriya is the emergence and consolidation of a veritable ‘one party government’ where the dominant party (which in this case is the Rajapaksa-led SLFP government) due to a large parliamentary majority at its disposal “accompanied by a weakened opposition, gives the government of the day complete access to, and control of, key state institutions and resources which are used to entrench the dominant party” (168)’. It is in such a context that the 2015 Presidential election campaign is being prosecuted by the ruling coalition led by Rajapakses and the opposition coalition led by Sirisena. Obviously, since the premature announcement of a new election by the President, things have changed. The opposition coalition has been strengthened and the ruling coalition has been weakened by the defections of high profile figures and provincial activists. Political blunders committed by way of arrogant behavior in nationally broadcast TV shows and reported attacks on artists and opposition events and stages can only register negative images of a government campaigning primarily on external factors rather than the opposition’s main complaint about good governance (yaha palanaya), corruption, waste, politicization of the judiciary, public service, academia and even the security forces. Militarisation has been a key issue of discussion along with the restricted freedoms for the media, and wider public.

Forecasting
It is not possible to forecast the results of an election without systematically conducted surveys of voter intentions like in other countries by reputed polling agencies. Nonetheless, we can analyse the results of previous elections and set the outcome of such analysis against the developing context by taking some relevant factors into account.

Thus, one way to forecast the results of forthcoming election is to examine closely the results of the 2010 Presidential election to see where the contestants drew their strengths. The results from 2010 election can be contrasted with politically significant events and issues dominating 2015 election in order to formulate a view about where the trend is? Thus in this article, I am making an attempt to find out the provinces and districts that the current President Mahinda Rajapakse had a clear, overwhelming majority or a reasonable majority while paying attention to the provinces and districts where the opposition candidate at the time Sarath Fonseka had a majority. Then on the basis of the currently dominant defections, other political issues and events, I make a tentative prediction about the result of the forthcoming election.

In the 2010 elections, Mahinda Rajapakse received a total of 6,015,934 votes (57.88%) and Sarath Fonseka 4,173,185 votes (40.15%). A gap of about 17.5% points existed between the two. The total polled was 74.49% (Department of Elections 2010). All other candidates secured between 1.00-2.00% of total votes only.

Province and District-wise results of the 2010 Presidential election show the following:

Provinces Where SF was a clear favourite

Eastern Province

Batticaloa (MR 68.93% SF 26.27%)
Digamadulla (MR 47.92% SF 49.94%)
Trincomalee (MR 43.04% SF 54.09%)
(SF was the favourite except in Batticaloa)

Northern Province
Jaffna (MR 24.75% SF 63.84%)
Vanni (MR 27.31% SF 66.86%)
(SF was the clear favourite)

Provinces where MR was a clear favourite

Central Province
Kandy (MR 54.16% SF 43.89%)
Matale (MR 59.74% SF 38.01%)
Nuwara Eliya (MR 43.77% SF 52.14%)
(MR was the favourite except in Nuwara Eliya)

Southern Province
Hambantota (MR 67.21% SF 31.20%)
Matara (MR 65.53% SF 32.86%)
Galle (MR 63.69% SF 34.83%)
(MR was the clear favourite)

Western province
Colombo (MR 52.93% SF 45.90%)
Gampaha (MR 61.66% SF 37.28%)
Kalutara (MR 63.06% SF 35.43%)
(MR was the clear favourite. Colombo was just above the line)

North Western province
Kurunegala (MR 63.08% SF 35.46%)
Puttalam (MR 58.70% SF 39.59%)
(MR was the clear favourite)

North Central Province
Anuradhapura (MR 66.32% SF 31.94%)
Polonnaruwa (MR 64.92% SF 33.62%)
(MR was the clear favourite)

Uva Province
Badulla (MR 53.23% SF 44.55%
Monaragala (MR 69.01% SF 29.10%)
(MR was the clear favourite in Monaragala. Just above the line in Badulla)

Sabaragamuwa Province
Ratnapura (MR 63.76% SF 34.36%)
Kegalle (MR 61.80% SF 36.44%)
(MR was the clear favourite)

The districts where MR had a marginal showing (i.e. above 50 but below 60) were Kandy, Matale, Colombo, Puttalam, and Badulla. In short, MR polled relatively well in 5 districts. However, in Nuwara Eliya MR polled well below 50%.

Districts where MR had a clear and overwhelming majority (i.e. above 60%) were Hambantota, Matara, Galle in the Southern province, Gampaha and Kalutara in the Western province, Kurunegala in North Western Province, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in the North Central province, Monaragala in the Uva province, and Rathnapura and Kegalle in the Sabaragamuwa province. In all, 11 districts MR polled very well.

Given these results from the 2010 Presidential elections, and all that has happened since then in the country in terms of key issues being canvassed in the election campaign for 2015 as well as the defections from the ruling party to the opposition and vice versa, a key question to ask is in which of these districts MR will poll substantially below 50%?

To begin with, it is reasonable to assume that in those 5 districts where he polled relatively well (i.e. above 50% but below 60%) and in Nuwara Eliya, the opposition coalition will have a better chance of reaching the goal of moving above 50%. Added factors such as the defection of Navin Dissanayake, some Tamil politicians etc. could contribute to this result along with countrywide dissatisfaction with the regime due to the incumbent factor and the ‘Rajapakse vs the rest syndrome’ emerging in the electorate. Winning by a large majority in these districts by the opposition can also add substantially to its overall performance in the final countrywide result.

In the 11 districts that MR polled very well in 2010, the battle lines have been drawn between the ruling coalition and the opposition based on significant defections from the ruling party to the opposition. For example, in the Colombo district defections of high profile representatives such as Rajitha Senarathne, Hirunika Premachandra and others can swing the result in the opposition’s way considerably. In the North Central province, the defection of Maithripala Sirisena and all those provincial and Pradesheeya sabha members could have a significant impact on the voter base of MR. This impact can spill over to surrounding provinces also. In the Eastern province, the defections of Muslim Congress, and other Muslim politicians can have a significant impact on the MR voter base. The impact of minor parties like Jathika Hela Urumaya along with Arjuna and Chandrika factors can have an impact on Gampaha district, which is considered part of the Sinhalese Buddhist heartland. In the so-called Dharmapala Belt (suburbs and districts in greater Colombo), this impact may be more visible. Given the recent result of the Uva province council elections, it may be within the reach of the opposition also.

Though there is Sajith Premadasa factor in the Hambantota district, I still believe that MR will perform very well or in fact very well in districts such as Hambantota, Matara, and Galle (due to the war hero factor, Rajapakse factor and Southern development factor), Gampaha (he may still poll above 50% due to Basil factor), North Western Province and the Sabaragamuwa province. (I am not in a position to forecast the effect of defections and any province or district related factors that may contribute to a different election outcome than what is predicted here because of my lack of first hand knowledge about sub-district level political dynamics). Thus in my view, MR could be a clear winner in three provinces (Southern, North Western and Sabaragamuwa). The margin of victory in these three provinces may contribute substantially to his showing in the final election result.  He may pick up some specific districts from other provinces also.e.g. Monaragala, Gampaha.

According to this analysis, the provinces where Maithripala Sirisena (MS), the common candidate, have a clear advantage at this stage seems to be the Central province, Western province, North Central province, Uva province, Eastern and Northern province. All in all, 6 provinces. However, he may not gain a clear majority in some districts within them, e.g. Gampaha.

Given this scenario, the common candidate seems to have the upper hand at this stage simply due to the significance of a series of defections, formation of a broad coalition of parties and groups, the incumbency factor, and the charges being made of MR government on various key issues that is cutting into the voter imagination – even though the government controlled media seems to be working overtime to justify the continuation of current regime. A factor that needs to be included in this scenario is the extent of resources available to the ruling coalition for its election propaganda and the use of state resources and personnel as reported in the media recently. These can change the trends in voter sentiment as well as voting in the final analysis. For example, if voters in districts where the opposition candidate has an edge are prevented from voting by the use of indirect force, this can seriously dent the anticipated results by the common candidate in certain districts and polling areas, e.g. Northern Province, remote polling booths in other districts.

The result from a recent sample survey conducted by two researchers, including one from Colombo University, suggests a victory for the common candidate –though there is a significant portion of undecided voters at this stage (see Colombo Telegraph 02.01.2015). They predict 53% for Sirisena and 44% for Rajapakse. This is in broad correspondence with my own prediction as mentioned above.

There is also some anecdotal evidence of a ‘mood change’ in the broader electorate this time. A village level supporter of Rajapakses in the Southern Province recently acknowledged that there is a mood for change among people this time around compared to 2010. He stated that people are intelligent (buddhimat) though they are being bombarded with election propaganda. He also admitted that the opposition candidate is being denied access to public facilities for grounds, meeting halls etc. in the area. Another person from Kandy province indicated that all the customers who visit her shop criticise the present regime on various grounds. Some university educated colleagues who returned from Sri Lanka to Australia recently acknowledge that there is a mood for change but some believe voters will also not forget the infrastructure development work by the Rajapakses. For example, he cited the Colombo-Katunayake expressway and Colombo-Matara highway. These have shortened travel time between various locations. Yet these returnees were also concerned about the high cost of highways and other mega projects as reported by ruling party insiders who have now defected.

At the conclusion of his review of Jayasuriya’s book, Perera says,

In the final analysis, it is clear that at the beginning of electoral politics in the country and well into the mid 1970s, it was possible to witness a “blossoming of ‘party politics’ in a bipolar party system” (141). However, the dream of democratic politics that was initiated by the early generations of Sri Lankan political leaders and achieved up to a point, has been steadily dismantled since the late 1970s…..Within the script of this political tragedy enacted not only by professional politicians but also by academics, university vice chancellors, ordinary thugs, religious leaders and many others, the oligarchic familial politics of the present regime which Jayasuriya describes well in the last chapter of his book is merely the final and the most dangerous moment in this downward spiral.

Given the clear signs emerging from across the country during the final week of campaigning, it is highly probable that the larger electorate has understood this message during the 2015 Presidential election more than it did in the 2010 Presidential election.

I invite those with more intimate experience and knowledge about districts within provinces to expand on this analysis and add more insights so that we are able to obtain a clear picture about the emerging trend in regard to whom out of the two SLFP stalwarts may win the Presidential election.

References

Department of Elections 2013. Presidential Election – 2013, Official Results. Colombo. http://www.slelections.gov.lk/presidential2010/AIVOT.html (Accessed on 2 January 2015).

Gunaruwan, T.A. Jayaweera, D.S. 2015. A Victory for Maithripala is now Probable: Colombo University Researchers, Colombo Telegraph, January 01, 2015 https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/a-victory-for-maithripala-is-now-probable-colombo-university-researchers/(Accessed on 02.01.2015)

Jayasuriya, L. 2012. The Changing Face of Electoral Politics in Sri Lanka (1994-2010) by Laksiri Jayasuriya. Colombo: Social Scientists’ Association, 2012 (second edition).

Perera, S. 2013. Changing Facets of Electoral Politics in Sri Lanka, Colombo Telegraph, January 27 2013 https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/changing-facets-of-electoral-politics-in-sri-lanka/ (accessed on 2nd January 2015)

Perera, S. 2014. Changing Facets of Electoral Politics in Sri Lanka (1994-2010) book review, The Island, January 15, 2013. http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=70444 (accessed on 02.01.2015)