Anuradhapura, Kurunegala, Politics and Governance, Polonnaruwa

Understanding electoral results in Sri Lanka: Beyond winners and losers


The United People’s Freedom Party (UPFA) claimed its second consecutive provincial electoral victory on the 24th of August by winning a clear majority of seats in the North Central and Sabaragamuwa Province.  This election was more competitive than the previous Eastern Provincial Council election,  where the government managed to get the Tamil and Muslim votes by  their crafty handling of Pillayan and Hisbulla.  Unlike in the Eastern province, the government contested in the North Central and Sabaragamuwa provinces with relatively unpopular politicians and more importantly on a platform where the opposition politicians too enjoyed almost equal access to votes. However, election results proved that the desperate United National Party, has once again failed to shake up  the electoral support of the ruling coalition despite introducing new celebrities for the chief ministerial  candidacy. The third party that secured a representation in these provincial councils, the JVP  is experiencing the bitter truth of politics; the government that they brought into power is now gunning them down mercilessly.  However, more than about the winners and losers this election has given us a glimpse into electoral politics: This election puzzled the political observers with its odd relationship between election violence and the high voter turn out. Further the results of the Provincial Councils reiterate the fact that Provincial Council elections do not provide a mechanism to hold regional policy makers accountable but rather reflect the support for the centre. Thirdly, this election results confirm that under the PR system there is  less opportunity for the smaller parties and independent groups even at the regional level. This election also highlighted the JVPs true electoral strength by denouncing the third force myth that had currency for sometime ever since the JVP’s 2004 electoral performance. Last but not  least, the outcome of this election sends a strong message to the government to change its track from Provincial Council elections to parliamentary elections.


Elections and citizen participation

A friend of mine once shared an interesting personal experience that he had had as a returning officer of a polling booth in a Colombo suburb.  He had found six people standing at the gate of the school where the polling booth was located two hours before the booth was opened.  My friend had asked them to leave the place and come back once the booth opened especially  since some of the officials were still not out of their beds at that time.  Interestingly, an angry old man from the crowd refused to leave the place, because he though that it was a ploy to break  his un broken record of casting the first vote in that village.  This signifies how, for some, voting is more of a ritual and civic responsibility than a democratic right and means of holding politicians accountable. Places like schools and temples where polling booths are usually located also may have contributed to the cultivation of this notion amongst the people.

In a representative democracy, elections provide a means through which citizens can choose their representatives to the office and more importantly it provides an opportunity to evaluate the performance of their representative. Therefore, regular elections are a good indication of strong democracies. However, it is doubtful that everyone who participates in an election has this objective in mind when casting their vote.  


Election violence and its outcome

In order to ensure the accountability of the Governors regular election are essential, but holding elections only would not suffice unless all parties are allowed to compete on an equal ground and the citizens are give an opportunity to make their choice with out fear.  Especially the ruling party who have unprecedented access to government resources that is usually misused for their own political advantage at election time. This is a common practice among all parties when they are holding office. Therefore, usually elections are not held on equal ground. It is in this context, that the role of independent election monitoring groups become vital. These monitors won’t be able to stop election malpractices completely but can contribute to minimizing violence by playing the role of the watchdog.

According to the press release from the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), in the run-up to the election there had been 127 incident of election violence in NCP and 110 in Sabaragamuwa. On Election Day, violence had been less than anticipated and limited to 22 in NPC and 20 in Sabaragamuwa.  This sudden decline in violence and the relatively high voter turn out is widely being used to justify that the election has been free and fair. Can we take the election turn out as a strong indicator to claim that the election was free and fair?  The following table shows a comparison of  election related violence incidents reported by the CMEV and voter turn out at the Wayamba Provincial Council election in 1999 -considered to be the one of the most violent provincial council elections  – with the 23rd August  2008 election.  According to the statistics we see that both the voter turn out and election violence is higher in the 1999 Wayamba election. This shows that the voter turn out is not linearly and exclusively correlated to the level of violence at the election, but is a more nuanced and complex scenario. Therefore, the present argument that the higher voter turn out observed  in the recent elections as an indication of free elections is miles away from the truth. 


  Pre-election Violence Election day violence Voter turn out %
North-Western (Wayamba) provincial council election 1999




North-Central provincial council election 2008




Sabaragamuwa provincial council election 2008




One should not ignore the fact that violence does not necessarily mean  spontaneous and sporadic violence, they can also be systematically and carefully manipulated to disrupt only the electorate of the competitor. It is not something new to politicians as it is almost understood that whoever is in power always monopolizes the violence and realizes the importance of violence free elections when they have to sit in the opposition benches. 


Mandate for the Centre?

The second important factor highlighted in this election was that representatives were elected in the region to give a mandate to the centre. During the election campaign all the government ministers who took part in addressing election rallies clearly asked people to support the president’s war against the LTTE by voting for the UPFA. Even after wining the election the Chief Ministerial prospects and the President described their electoral victory as an approval of the government’s military campaign.

If this is how the  government wants people to vote at the Provincial Council elections, then there is a serious flaw on the government’s  understanding of devolution of power and its use of the 13th Amendment as a means to find a political solution to the ethnic conflict.

The Provincial Council system was introduced to provide greater control to the regions over matters relevant to the provinces. Therefore, people should find Provincial Councils closer than the central government and should be able to influence regional policies effectively. In this context the Provincial Council elections are a very important mechanism for the people of those regions, as it allows them to evaluate the performance of their regional and provincial leaders and exert pressure on them to demand greater accountability. Hence, this election should be seen as a greater tool  to build  the democratic process to counter the deficits of democracy such as corruption, wastage and other  such malpractices.  

However, I think the government is right in interpreting the results of the Provincial Council election as a mandate to the centre. Because, although the majority of the people in these two provinces have chosen the UPFA, they did not indicate the same support for the chief ministerial candidates of the government. Instead Janaka Perera and Ranjan Ramanayake, national celebrities from out side of the respective provinces, were given more preferential votes. What does this mean? This is a clear sign of the backward walk of the Provincial Council system.

Therefore, this is a clear sign that in the minds of the government the Provincial council will hardly be a stepping stone to greater devolution of political power. Instead it would most probably function as an intermediary  administrative layer with more institutional authority that merely decentralize the deficit of democracy, rather than decentralizing political power.  Therefore, this election once again vindicates that professor Vitharana ‘s APRC is something limited to a café that only caters to appease foreign concerns exclusively. Perhaps that may be the reason why K.M Narayan- the  Indian defense advisor – also felt that though the government is defeating the LTTE it is far from eliminating them.


Small parties and JVP

The third factor one can observe from the electoral outcome at this election is the plight of the small parties. The PR system was introduced on the premise that it would give more space for the smaller parties, especially the ones that represent the ethnic minorities to be elected to the policy making body.  However, this election’s results prove otherwise.  Over 90% of the votes in these two provinces are distributed between the UPFA and UNP.

Even though there were several small parties and independent groups taking part in this election, none managed to obtain at least 1% of the votes. This raises a serious concern over the electoral process.  Though political science theorists like Arend Lijphart argued that PR gives more opportunities for marginalized groups, due to other deficits of the PR system what we see today is that it has strengthened the national parties even at the regional level. Perhaps that is why people like Dietrrich Rueschemeyer argued in his essay on equality, that the actors with more wealth and cultural capital have disproportionate power to shape the citizen’s policy preference.   To campaign across the district of over half a million people you need a goldmine when compared to the resourses need to campaign in a small electorate that houses less than ten percent of the district. Therefore, there is hardly any chance for an independent and relatively less wealthy  candidate to promote  him /herself across an entire district.

In this context, this article would not be complete if it does not discuss the electoral performance of the JVP. This election must have been a bitter experience even more than they could have ever imagined possible. On the one hand, this must have added ‘more salt’ to their raw wounds than the Weerawansa  defection caused. On the other hand once again it proved that the JVP is far from being the third force in Sri Lankan politics. The following table highlights the JVP’s electoral performance at the local government and provincial council elections  where they contested alone.

Electoral achievement of JVP at the District level by contesting alone

Election type Rathnapura (%) Kegalle (%) A’pura (%) Polonnaruwa (%)
2002 LA 5.7 6.0 6.9 8.4
2006 LA 5.7 6.3 9.3 7.4
2008 PC 2.06 2.44 5.3 4.09


According to the above table, it is clear that the JVP  voter base has always been 5% to 10%  and not more than that. However, the electoral outcome of the 2004 election where for the first time the JVP managed to win the 39 seats in the parliamentary election  gave an exaggerated calculation of it’s real electoral strength. In fact, not only the outsiders but also the JVP leaders themselves miscalculated their own strength as some even claimed that they are ready to be the second political force in the country. 

As a result of the electoral coalition and thanks to the preferential voting system, some district leaders even managed to score the highest popular votes in their respective districts in 2004 .  But during the 2006 election for Local Authorities and the 2008 Provincial Councils election, by contesting alone, the JVP could win only 6% of those districts. 

As a cardre based party the JVP hardly has any option other than to accept the reality and confine itself to pressure politics. Otherwise, as JNP suggested recently, the JVP need to strip its cardre based politics and attempt to transform itself into a mass based party by forming a greater coalition with larger political force. This means that the JVP will have to seek some electoral alliance either with the Rajapakse government by putting aside it differences or make a more drastic transition to form a coalition with its all-time enemy, the capitalist UNP.  However, it is highly unlike that the present leadership of the JVP will make that move.

Even though the reaction of the JVP is not clear, the JHU and the JNP, parties with a Sinhalese voter base won’t ever attempt to contest alone. The leaders of these parties will attempt to hold onto the ruling party while being critical of some of its policies. This will only assure the political career of some individuals in these small parties rather than the survival of the party itself.


Changing the Itinerary?

Not only for the small parties but also for the government, these elections provide valuable insight. This election hints of the potential danger for the UPFA in continuing these Provincial Council elections as a means of mobilizing the electorate for the general election.  The government called the elections of these two provinces solely on the assumption that they can be won comfortably. But the election outcome suggests that even after exploiting the public office and banking on the progress made on the war front  they could not showcase an exceptional performance in these two provinces. In the case  of contesting for Provincial Councils that are advantageous for the main opposition, UNP, would be dangerous for their future parliamentary election victory. Because, if the UNP wins an elections before the general election it will set a momentum for he UNP by disturbing the government’s wave of victories.  On the other hand, the government can not afford to go for Provincial Council elections campaigning solely on the basis of their war record indefinitely. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the government will concentrate on its provincial election map in the future.  It is more likely that they would call for general election, when the forces arrive at Killinochchi’s doorsteps.