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Sri Lanka stunned? Sri Lanka’s 2015 presidential poll and [un]warranted exclamations

Image courtesy Salon.com

On 9 January 2015, Dr Oliver Walton, a lecturer at the University of Bath, published an article entitled ‘Sri Lanka stunned as Rajapaksa gamble fails to pay off’ (emphasis mine). Walton notes that ‘Sri Lankans are shocked at the scale and manner of Rajapaksa’s defeat, which has brought his tenure to an abrupt halt after nine highly controversial years’. In a similar vein, The Independent (UK) published an article entitled ‘What a surprise election victory means to Sri Lanka?’

In the eyes of many political analysts in Sri Lanka and abroad, the Rajapaksa regime may certainly have appeared to be difficult to defeat. This was especially the widespread feeling after the 2009 military victory, which strongly reinforced President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity in the Sinhalese electorate. Concerning the 2015 presidential campaign, Rajapaksa’s use of state resources and presidential power was such that many observers were left voicing the view that despite the regime’s mounting unpopularity, Rajapaksa could still pull through a victory. However, a closer look would show that the dynamics of the election result certainly do not come as a surprise.

Presidential campaigns: two scenarios?

At the 2015 presidential poll, the electoral calculations of each side were made in accordance with an old theorem, which is nothing new to Sri Lanka’s national-level electoral politics. There exists a time-tested rule to win a presidential election in Sri Lanka; a landslide majority is only possible in one of the following scenarios:

  1. When a candidate benefits from a substantive ‘Sinhalese vote’ (a clear majority in predominantly Sinhala areas), coupled with the ability (using methods far from democratic, accountable or politically correct) to ‘suppress’ the ethnic minority vote (in the electoral districts where minorities form a majority, e.g. especially in the Northern and Eastern Provinces).
  1. When a candidate wields ‘significant’ influence over Sinhalese voters, but also simultaneously rallies the support of ethno-national and religious minorities.

In order to play by the first scenario, a presidential candidate needs a handsome command over the Sinhalese electorate, and measures to ‘prevent’ minority voters from casting their ballots. The results of the 2005 presidential poll provide a revealing example. The 5th Peace Process had resulted in an unprecedented Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist backlash against the urban, English-speaking, West-oriented lobby that upheld the ‘peace as market reform’ matrix of liberal peacebuilding. The Jatika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the key exponent of this backlash, had emerged victorious and highly influential at the previous year’s general election. The Sinhala electorate (especially the Sinhala-Buddhist electorate in provincial Sri Lanka) was bound to side with the candidate who received the endorsement of the anti-peace process/anti-liberal peacebuilding/anti-Western-facilitation Sinhala nationalist lobby. Indeed, that lobby’s influence was crucial to the emergence of Mahinda Rajapaksa as a strong contender to national leadership. Armed with a reputation as an ardent advocate of a Sinhala-Buddhist interests, and honoured by the Buddhist establishment (with the Sri Rohana Jana Ranjana honorary title while he was still a cabinet minister in the Chandrika Bandaranaike administration), Rajapaksa’s patriotic credentials were undisputed. In the political climate of the time, one would have expected the Sinhalese electorate to wholeheartedly vote for him.

The minority vote: a decisive factor?

However, the election results demonstrated a more nuanced picture. Despite difficulties of marketing himself to the Sinhalese electorate, Ranil Wickremesinghe managed to poll considerably, (but much less than Rajapaksa) in Sinhalese areas. Hence the argument – going by the second scenario mentioned above – that Wickremesinghe would have won the election with relative ease had he been the full beneficiary of the ethnic minority vote. Knowing this reality too well, the Rajapaksa brothers were quick to lure the LTTE to run an errand on their behalf, against a generous financial reward. Consequently, the LTTE actively prevented the majority of Northern voters from voting at the 2005 presidential election, which resulted in depriving Wickremesinghe of a vital vote base, and facilitating a comfortable victory for candidate Rajapaksa.

It is intriguing to note that during the 2015 presidential campaign, a number of individuals chose – at varying degrees – to run the same errand over the Northern Tamil vote. This group included an eclectic mix – Ananthi Sasitharan, Sivajilingam and intelligentsia supportive of a hard-line brand of Tamil nationalism such as Dr Jude Lal Fernando at the Irish School of Ecumencis at Trinity College Dublin. Their efforts to discourage the Northern people from voting may have had differing rationales, but had the Northern voter heeded to their pleas and stayed home on Election Day, a Rajapaksa re-election would have been a likely prospect.

TNA and Tamil nationalism in the democratic mainstream

It is to the collective good fortune of the Sri Lankan people that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) -­ headed by the iconic man of the land, Mr Mavai Senathirajah, guided by the wise elder of Tamil politics Mr R. Sampanthan, ideologically enriched by the best of Tamil politico-legal scholarship through Mr Justice C.V. Wigneswaran and Mr M.A. Sumanthiran – succeeded in upholding the Northern citizens’ right to vote. The argument that the Northern voter should show his/her discontent at wartime atrocity and post-war misdemeanour is certainly not without currency. However, it certainly is inimical to the Northern voters’ interests (and by extension, to the interests of the Sri Lankan voter at large) to refrain from exercising their suffrage. Varying strands of Tamil nationalism may have differing territorial, ideological, political and materialistic goals. Despite the challenges faced by the Tamil community and polity in consolidating their political aspirations, their primary path forward lies in the political mainstream within Sri Lanka. The TNA’s position on the Northern vote was thus a vital contribution to democratic best practice in post-war Sri Lanka as well as a vital forward step in post-war Tamil politics. In all fairness, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and Global Tamil Forum leaders were also conscious of the importance of the Tamil vote, and their call for the Tamil voter to vote (without supporting a given candidacy) was very much an advisable posture.

At the Northern Provincial Council election of 2013, the Northern voter made it crystal-clear that his/her preference is, quite rightly, to be represented in the Sri Lankan polity by an electorally influential, politically mature, strategically tactful, and proudly Tamil nationalist lobby that operates fully and wholeheartedly within the democratic mainstream. In the 2015 presidential poll, the TNA unambiguously further reinforced its position as the predominant Tamil nationalist lobby in electoral politics. In reinforcing its strong vote base by diligently adopting a principled position during the presidential campaign, the TNA has succeeded in handsomely resuscitating its position of dignified influence in Sri Lankan politics, turning the page for good from the comparative enfeebling of Tamil politics in the immediate post-war aftermath. In that sense, the Senathirajah-Sampanthan-Wigneswaran-led TNA is fit to fulsomely uphold the mantle of the distinguished ‘Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan tradition’ of Sri Lankan politics.

Maitripala Sirisena Victory: the inevitable outcome?

In terms of electoral mathematics (and as opposed to the views of Dr Walton, The Independent and many other observers), the Sirisena success story – a manifestation of the aforementioned Scenario Two – certainly does not come as a surprise. From the outset of the campaign, it was clear, as Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha affirmed on Al-Jazeera days before the election, that a Sirisena victory was possible, provided free and fair elections were held.

It was the result of a basic calculation, rendered amenable, paradoxically, by the ultra-nationalist neoconservative element in the Rajapaksa establishment itself, primarily represented by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Bodu Bala Sena a radical Buddhist-monk-led group allegedly sanctioned by Gotabaya, engaged in a spate of anti-Muslim activism, resulting in the Muslim electorate’s unprecedented alienation from the Rajapaksas. As per post-war Tamil grievances, suffice to note that social cohesion, gender justice and social justice were put in the bin, and the Northern Voter’s anger was further fuelled not only by the dynamics of a victor’s peace (e.g. land grabbing, neoliberal economic policy, military bases and surveillance society), but also by Colombo’s persistent unwillingness to enable the democratically Northern Provincial Council to function with dignity.

Under such circumstances, it was not too difficult for the opposition, once it was relatively united and influential, to approach the minority political lobbies.

In hindsight, had there been no Gotabaya Rajapaksa element in the Rajapaksa administration (and only a war victor-President and perhaps his politically tactful sibling Basil), it would have been more challenging for the common opposition to garner a solid support base among ethnic minorities. As far as the Sinhala electorate was concerned, the common opposition was fortunate to find the most suitable challenge to the ex-incumbent in Mr Sirisena, a leader with undisputed Sinhala Buddhist credentials. Mr Sirisena’s appeal to the Sinhalese electorate was demonstrated in the considerable numbers of preferential votes he polled in constituencies with Sinhala majorities (as well as his non-negligible scores in constituencies where candidate Rajapaksa won). The Rajapaksa campaign, in the end, had to be fought only on a Sinhala-Buddhist platform, under the shadow of an ultra-nationalist streak, which alone does not suffice to win a presidential election.

A true ‘surprise factor’?

There is, however, a clear surprise factor in the Sirisena campaign’s remarkable resilience and resistance to a state-sponsored propaganda machine, replete with mud-slinging, personal insults, countless accusations and tremendous violence, including grievous bodily harm, destruction of property and murder. The opposition also succeeded in thwarting last-minute efforts that could hinder the transfer of powers. Free and fair elections were made possible as a consequence of international pressure, especially from New Delhi. More than at any other election in the recent past, this election was marked by a strong international dimension. The Sirisena candidacy received much international endorsement, from the West, the OIC and most importantly, from the Modi government. The influential unison of Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chandrika Bandaranaike on the ‘common candidate initiative’ appears to have strongly facilitated its international endorsement. In that respect, this electoral defeat was the ultimate price the Rajapaksa brothers were brought to pay for the gross mismanagement of foreign affairs, especially in jeopardising Indo-Lanka relations in the post-war phase, taking relations with the EU to a record low, causing unwarranted disagreements with Islamic States, taking one tactless turn after another on vital foreign policy positions, and most importantly, their monumentally appalling appointments to key positions in the diplomatic corps.

If opposition leaders are to live up to the hopes ignited by the Sirisena presidency, it is now crucial to prioritise a mode of governance marked by the new President’s stamp. The worst-case scenario is indeed a government in which President Sirisena will be relegated to passively adopting a Wickremesinghe or Bandaranaike agenda.

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Dr Chaminda Weerawadhana is postdoctoral researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, and Chargé d’Enseignements at Univertsité Lille 1, France.