Photo via World Snap

The elections are over and much will be said and written about these historic days. Amidst these discussions I present a preliminary analysis of an often forgotten and misunderstood constituency.

The Change-makers

The euphoria of victory has engulfed us all. Many will want to take credit for their role in the final outcome. Was it the political coup spearheaded by the former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremasinghe in getting Mr Maithripala Sirisena to defect that changed the tide? Was it the minority Tamil and Muslim voters who braved physical and other forms of threats to vote overwhelmingly for the opposition? Was it the integrity and courage displayed by the Election Commissioner and his staff together with the IGP N.K. Illangakoon and the police that helped to ensure that the mandate of the people is heard and respected? No doubt, the answer is all of the above and all of these must share some of the credit.

However, there seems to be another group of people that have been largely forgotten in the discussions taking place so far, i.e. the Sinhala voter. The Rajapakse government had long forfeited the support of the Tamil population due to the war and the subsequent refusal of the government to address their legitimate grievances. Despite the efforts of the hardline elements of the Tamil Diaspora to encourage a boycott of the polls, the Tamil population in the country rightly recognized the dangers of that approach for their day to day lives. The Muslim population also did not really ‘have a choice’ after the murderous rampage promoted by the BBS who had state patronage. Despite the long delay of the Muslim political leaders to make the switch, the Muslim population had already made up their minds well in advance of the polls.

This leaves the Sinhala population. The ending of the war was a great positive to the Sinhala voter. The ability to live and work without the threat to life was a powerful incentive to support the incumbent. The very visible development of the infrastructure also created the perception that the country was heading towards a brighter future. However, the cost of living was increasing. The first family was controlling a lion share of the budget. Corruption was on the rise and all forms of dissent were being suppressed. It seems to me that it is the Sinhala population that really had a choice to make – keep the status quo or vote for change. Both candidates had their pros and cons as reflected by the vote. However, the critical mass who defected ensured the victory of the opposition.

The JHU’s recent claim to making the difference at the election, however, must be challenged. Their traditional support base is the more hardline Sinhala population. Their main strongholds of Maharagama, Kesbewa, Homagama, Avissawella etc were all won by the incumbent. While the powerful rhetoric of the JHU leaders was attractive and decisive, it is the more moderate Sinhala population that shifted their allegiance to the opposition. 

The Opinion-makers

A closer look at the final results shows a glaring divide. 10 of the 22 polling districts were won by President Rajapakse. Mr Sirisena won the Gampaha and Puttalam polling districts only by about 4,500 votes. The Badulla district was won by a meagre 281 votes. It seems that in the Sinhala dominated districts the voters were very much divided about who to vote for. This underlines the fact that the Sinhala voters were the ones who had to make a real choice at these elections.

However, there is another interesting aspect that needs to be mentioned. In a number of the polling districts that President Rajapakse won comfortably, the main town in those districts were won by the opposition. This trend is seen in Matara and Galle where these towns are the only polling divisions in the district won by Sirisena. In Kurunegala and Matale the main towns are 1 of 2 polling divisions won by Sirisena. This goes to show, arguably, that the ‘elites’ in those polling districts have voted counter to their neighbours. They have taken a stand and shouted “not in my name” to the status quo. In the terms of the Roger’s Innovation Adoption Curve, they have become the ‘Innovators’ and ‘Early Adopters’ of the opposition message of good governance. As the country looks to go forward the support of these elites need to be harnessed as they will be the opinion makers of their respective areas. This will be the challenge of the new administration.

The Peace-makers?

The message of good governance has resonated with the electorate. The new President has received the support of all the communities to establish the basic tenents of a democracy. He has shown courage to step out of the status quo and run counter to his political masters. However, his thoughts and ideas with regard to the national question are still largely unknown. The broad coalition that he has built around good governance must extend to tackling and resolving the ethnic conflict in our country. This election has shown that there is a critical mass among the Sinhala population who are willing to go beyond ethnic loyalties and personal preferences to bring in something that is good for the wider nation.

These opinion makers must be mobilized to also act courageously with regard to the ethnic conflict. They are the ones who can provide leadership and attitudinal change among those in their neighbourhoods. President Rajapakse missed out on the great opportunity he had for this in the immediate aftermath of the war. President Sirisena has this same opportunity now. We pray that his response will be different from his predecessor.