Speculation mounts not just in political circles but also in civil society of an impending presidential election, early in the New Year. The Uva Provincial Council elections, which besides being constitutionally required, were also a testing of the political waters by the Rajapakse Administration and the results could not have been more disturbing to those in the corridors of power.
Now the Rajapakse presidency has a reelection strategy that has been born of necessity, which is winning the presidential elections with almost solely the Sinhala vote. Even a cursory glance at the 2005 and the 2010 presidential election results would demonstrate that President Mahinda Rajapakse does not receive the votes of either the Muslim or the Tamil communities. Even Minister Thondaman’s ability to deliver the estate Tamil vote is hampered, by the President’s lack of appeal to ethnic and religious minorities. For instance in the 2010 presidential elections in which he secured a near 58% national vote, he lost in the multi ethnic Nuwara Eliya – Maskeliya electorate securing only 34% of the vote and conceding a huge 60% vote share to General Sarath Fonseka. As the Rajapakse presidency’s in house think tanks have concluded, correctly, the Rajapakse brand attraction is limited to its core constituency of the ethnic Sinhala electorate, both Buddhist and Catholic. The Catholic vote in Sri Lanka, currently is splitting along ethnic lines, with Tamil Catholics, whose views are essentially articulated by Mannar Bishop Rayappu Joseph, voting TNA and supporting minority rights, while Malcom Cardinal Ranjith, now aided by an impending Papal visit, keeps Sinhala Catholics firmly within the orbit of a Sinhala nationalist Administration.
Accordingly an unprecedented Rajapakse third term reelection plan requires a preponderance of the Sinhala vote, or about 65% or two thirds of the Sinhala vote, which is about 75% of the total electorate to squeeze out a victory. Hence in 2005, President Rajapakse would not have won except for the fact that the LTTE enforced a boycott of the election by voters in Jaffna and the LTTE controlled Vanni. This time around the TNA does not need to say very much to see Tamils voting quite heavily against the Rajapakse Administration.
In 2010, in the aftermath of winning the war, President Rajapakse had no trouble securing the Sinhala vote based on the war victory, but even as President Rajapakse conceded as far back as 2009, once the war is over, people will look at economic development in return for their political support. It is essentially in the area of economic management and governance that the Rajapakse Administration finds itself losing ground among Sinhala constituency. An interesting poll by Social Indicator in the days preceding the Uva provincial polls stated that more than half the people indicated that they were worse off now economically than they were two years ago, notwithstanding the rose tinted reports of a politicized Central Bank and Chinese funded large scale infrastructure projects with little local employment opportunities, with most of the work being also done by Chinese labour.
A worry for the Rajapakse Administration should be its performance in the Monaragala District. The Monaragala district is the most mono ethnically Sinhala district in the country. Monaragala is more Sinhala than even the President’s own constituency of Hambanthota and more Sinhala than Jaffna is Tamil. In recent past elections, the UPFA sectored huge majorities in Monaragala, polling 81%, 75% and 69% respectively at the 2009 provincial and the 2010 general and presidential elections. Now Monaragala is a reasonable proxy for the Sinhala vote, given that it is essentially a mono ethnically Sinhala district. But at the recent Uva provincial poll, the UPFA secured only 58% of the vote in Monaragala. Basically 58% of the Sinhala vote would not be sufficient in a national election when the minorities also come out and vote, as they did in Badulla and the UPFA and that too after throwing everything they had into the effort, something that would not be possible on that scale at a national election. It was quite a fight, literally. Here is how the Sunday Times political column of Sunday 28th September, describes the Rajapakse effort that fell far short of what was required.
“Lawlessness reigned in the run-up to the September 20 polls. Intimidation and thuggery were rampant. The Police were blind to new Defender Jeeps sans number plates clogging the outback of Badulla and Monaragala Districts. Unidentified but well-built men were canvassing in different ways for the ruling party candidates. Various forms of inducements were offered.
A VIP distributed envelopes with money amounting to between Rs 2,500 and Rs 5,000. Opposition party supporters feared to walk into a Police Station. In one instance on polls day, the Mayor of Bandarawela was assaulted inside the Police Station by three Government politicians. The Officer-in-Charge of this headquarters station was transferred for failing to prevent the incident. However, no action so far seems to have been taken on the assailants. Polls laws were violated with impunity. The Polls and Police Chiefs were buck-passing complaints from those who sought a free and fair poll.”
If President Rajapakse secures anything less than two thirds (2/3) of the Sinhala electorate and assuming the minorities come out and vote, the unprecedented third Rajapakse term may be electorally quite difficult. The opposition has the momentum coming out of the Uva election. But they still need to create a broad opposition front and a minimum common opposition program for a common opposition candidate to take on President Rajapakse. The president will still win reelection if the opposition is divided, with a serious three or four person race. In the Uva election, the UPFA flag carrier was a presidential nephew, while at a presidential election it will be the president himself. The Venerable Sobitha Thera has done a lot of the ground work for a common opposition front, if the UNP has the political imagination to see it and more importantly the realization that it requires a broad front to win the elections. Let’s not forget the fact, the UNP did well in Uva, but it still did not win, the UPFA did. Without a broad opposition front, that is still the most likely scenario in a presidential election as well.