A Portrait of the Electorate, on the Cusp of an Election

Photo courtesy Maatram

Lankans are awaiting the island-nation’s seventh presidential election with a renewed belief in the power of their vote.

According to the latest opinion survey by the Centre of Policy Analysis (CPA), 86.9% of Lankans think that their vote can make a difference in the outcome of the presidential election. In August 2014 only 59.5% of Lankans expressed similar confidence in the efficacy of their vote. Lankan public’s confidence in the power of franchise has thus increased by a mammoth 27.4% in just four months.

In August 2014, 15.6% of Lankans believed that their vote will have no impact on the outcome of an election. By December this figure has decreased to a negligible 4.3%.

This remarkable spike in voter confidence (which cuts across ethno-religious and provincial boundaries) indicates that voter turnout on January 8th might break all previous records, except perhaps in areas struggling with the devastating aftermath of floods and landslides.

In general, pre-election opinion surveys are aimed at discovering how the electorate will vote. In today’s Sri Lanka that question either cannot be asked successfully or has to be asked in such a roundabout way that the answer cannot but become misleading.

An excellent case in point is the latest survey by the Mass Communication Department of the University of Kelaniya. As an academic involved in the exercise (Senior Lecturer Manoj Jinadasa) explained on TV, the respondents were not asked who they are likely to vote for on January 8th. The names of the two main candidates were not even mentioned. Instead the respondents were asked who they think is likely to win the election[i]. The two questions – ‘Who are you likely to vote for?’ and ‘Who do you think is likely to win?’ – have different meanings. The second could have been an illuminating follow-up question to the first; but the second cannot be a substitute for the first. The actual answer to the second question cannot be taken as an unfailing indication of the likely answer to the first question.

To function as an accurate politico-electoral barometer, opinion polling requires an environment in which respondents feel free and safe to express their opinion, even on the most sensitive issues. This is precisely what is absent in Sri Lanka.

A comparative analysis of the previous CPA surveys reveals that Lankans feel increasingly unfree to express political opinions. In 2013, only 20% of Lankans said that they felt constrained about expressing political opinions. But by August 2014, the portion of Lankans who did not feel free to express an opinion has gone up to 25.6%.

This sense of unfreedom has a very clear ethno-religious complexion. It is lowest among Sinhalese (16.4%) and highest among Tamils (40.6%); 30% of Muslims and 34% of Upcountry Tamils also felt constrained about expressing political opinions publicly. The sense of unfreedom was lower than the national average among the majority community and much higher than the national average among the minority communities. That is a disturbing indicator of our current condition and, possibly, an unhappy omen of future developments.

Going by CPA surveys, when questions are socio-economic or political but uncontroversial, absolute majority of respondents give straight answers. But when questions seem politically sensitive, the ‘do not know/will not tell’ category reaches anything between 20% – 30%.

This sense of unfreedom and the consequent unwillingness to give a direct answer cannot but affect the accuracy of any polling about voting tendencies. If a quarter of the electorate do not feel comfortable about airing their opinion on politically sensitive matters, it is reasonable to assume that even if they respond to a question about who they will vote for, the answer is more likely to be the ‘safe’ one rather than the actual one.

Given these limitations, the CPA survey provides no straightforward statistical predictions about the outcome of the election. What it does is reveal how the electorate feels about a range of critical issues this election season. And some of those findings can become useful political pointers to electoral behaviour on January 8th.

Economics First

Cost of living is the number one problem affecting the electorate. This prioritisation cuts across ethno-religious lines and administrative boundaries.

32.2% of Lankans identify cost of living as their number one problem; this is the most important issue for 34% of Sinhalese, 22.5% of Tamils, 32.8% of Muslims and 24.8% of Upcountry Tamils. Cost of living is also the main problem in all nine provinces, with Uva and Southern (at 37.8%) topping the list.

Job opportunities (12.9%) and education (9.8%) are second and third priorities, nationally.

This focus on economics tallies with the findings of previous CPA surveys. For instance, according to the August 2014 survey, a clear majority of Lankans (54.5%) believed that their own personal economic condition got worse in the previous year. (The sudden reduction of prices by the government and the competing populist promises made by two main candidates indicate that politicians understand this reality.)

Executive Presidency

On a list of issues affecting the voters this election season, abolition of executive presidency occupies the very bottom. Only 1.5% of Lankans identify it as their top priority. More Muslims (4.1%) and Tamils (2.7%) identify this issue as their number one concern than Sinhalese (1.1%) or Upcountry Tamils (1.2%).

This means executive presidency is not an election winning/losing issue. But this does not mean that executive presidency is popular.

Only 29.3% of Lankans are opposed to the abolition of executive presidency while 39.9% support its abolition. The question is clearly seen as a politically sensitive one; 30.9% of the respondents refused to give a direct answer, claiming that they have no opinion/do not want to share their opinion.

On this issue too there is a clear difference of opinion between majority and minority communities. More Sinhalese support than oppose the retention of executive presidency, though by a tiny sliver of 0.4%. All minority communities support the abolition of the executive presidency by clear majorities (Tamils – 53.8%, Muslims 51.6% Upcountry Tamils 61.9%).

Term Limits and the Third Term

Far more Lankans support than oppose Presidential term-limits. 48.5% say that the constitution should limit a President to a maximum of two terms irrespective of his/her popularity. Only 22% oppose the two-term limit.

An analysis of previous CPA surveys show an increase in support for presidential term limits and a corresponding decrease in support for term-limit removal. These twin trends are particularly marked in the majority community.

Support for two-term presidency (irrespective of the popularity of the president)

2011 2013 August 2014 December 2014
Lankans 39.3% 44.3% 48.5%
Sinhalese 33.6% 37% 38.4% 43.6%

Opposition to two-term presidencies (if the president is popular)

2011 October 2013 August 2014 December 2014
Lankans 36.8% 27.6% 22%
Sinhalese 42.4% 38.2% 29.6% 25.5%

The change of opinion amongst the Sinhalese is particularly sharp in the final quarter of 2014. In August only 38.4% of Sinhalese backed term limits, well below the national average (by 5.9%). By December, the number of Sinhalese backing term limit has gone up to 43.6% – an increase of 5.9% in just four months. It will be interesting to discover what caused such a drastic change in such a short time.

The minority communities support term-limits by solid majorities – Tamils 61.2%; Muslims – 70.1% and Upcountry Tamils 54.2%.

Future of Democracy

As the CPA survey of 2011 revealed, Lankans of all ethnicities and religions back democracy over every other form of government by wide margins. 68.2% of Sinhalese, 70.3% of Tamils, 87.8% of Muslims and 70.8% of Upcountry Tamils opted for democracy over other forms of government.

According to the latest poll, 63.9% of Lankans say that they are interested in politics and public affairs even in non-election times.

A majority of Lankans have also consistently stated that they believe that their vote can have an impact on the outcome of an election. By December 2014, belief in the efficacy of one’s vote reached record-highs in all communities: Sinhalese – 89.9%; Tamils – 74.6%; Muslims – 81.0%; Upcountry Tamils – 76.2%.

It is possible to assume a correlation between this sudden hike in voter confidence and the inner-party rebellion in the SLFP and the resultant realignment of political forces which turned the presidential election into a real contest. Without that change, many opposition supporters may have felt that their vote would have no bearing on the outcome of the election because their side cannot withstand the regime politico-electorally and is doomed to defeat.

Voting decisions depend on information and knowledge. The sources from which Lankans get their information cannot but have a significant effect on how they vote. According to the latest survey, most Lankans get their information about the presidential election from television (44.4%) followed by radio (18%) and newspapers (15.8%). As a source of information social media rates a low 2.3%. Tamils have a higher dependence on social media than other communities (4.9% – more than twice the national average) while Northern, Western and Eastern provinces also have a higher dependence on social media than all other provinces.

ITN, Hiru and Sirasa are the most popular TV channels while Hiru, Sirasa and Sooriyan are the most popular radio channels. Lankadeepa rates highest among Newspapers with a massive 46.8% followed by Virakesari (13.6%) and Divaina (7.6%). Out of social media, Face book rates highest with 63.6%.

CPA surveys have consistently revealed an interesting paradox about the Lankan electorate – most Lankans are interested in politics and public affairs, even during non-election periods; most Lankans also have huge knowledge and information gaps about politics and public affairs. Are these gaps caused by a lack of interest on non-topical issues? Or are they reflective of a greater failure, a failure of institutions, ranging from educational establishments to media? How else but a generalised failure can account for such curious information/knowledge gaps as the widespread belief that Sinhala is the only official language? This misconception is shared by 70% of Lankans and 82.2% of Sinhalese, according to the 2013 CPA survey.

Lankans’ preference for democracy is beyond doubt. But given these huge information/knowledge gaps, are Lankans capable of making decisions which are in the best interests of their democracy?


The CPA survey attempts to draw a picture of the electorate on the brink of a decisive election. It tells of an electorate interested in the contest and confident in the efficacy of the vote. It tells of an electorate which is focused on economic issues. It tells of an electorate which has changed its mind sharply on at least one issue at the heart of this electoral contest – whether the incumbent should have a third term.

Less propitiously, the survey indicates the existence of considerable divisions (both in terms of political opinions and political experiences) among the majority community and the minority communities. These differences, if left unremedied, can seriously hamper consensual peace and ethno-religious reconciliation and impede the task of creating a Lankan nation out of the country’s four main ethno-religious groups.

So what hints, if any, do the survey offers about the January 8th?


40.3% of Lankans think that the upcoming election will be free and fair while 12.7% think that it will not be. 21.5% think that it may be free and fair.

The belief in a free and fair election is highest among Upcountry Tamils (44%) and lowest among Muslims (27.6%). 42.5% of Sinhalese and 34.4% of Tamils believe in a free and fair election.

The Lankan electoral playing field is a heavily tilted one. The 18th Amendment enshrined this bias in the law itself. Obviously it is not in this structural sense that most Lankans think that the election will be free and fair. They probably base their idea of ‘free and fair’ solely on what happens on January 8th – whether there will be rigging and/or violence on a massive scale.

Will the 40.3% of Lankans who believe that the election will be free and fair (at least on election day) be proven right? Or will the pessimists be vindicated and powers-that-be seek to retain that power, by any means? The future hangs in balance.

[i] (around 7.34)