Photograph by REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte, via Daily Nation

On what criteria should we vote in elections? Should it based on the issues closest to our own, irrespective of likely consequences? Or should it be strategic, designed to achieve the best possible results (long term and immediate)?

I have been mostly Colombo based and voting since the parliamentary elections of 1956. Initially, there was no conflict because the candidates with election manifestos I liked were electable. Later, they changed to policies on ethnic issues that were not to my liking but I was able to find other candidates who had better policies who were also electable. Later, they too changed to ethnic policies that I disliked and I found myself voting for candidates who were not electable, i.e. their vote base was too small. I thought that they may become electable or, at least, influential in due course, but that did not happen. My votes were, therefore, wasted.

In due course, I thought I would vote strategically to achieve the best possible results even if I had serious reservations on some of the policies of the persons for whom I voted. This year I decided to vote accordingly and, happily, all three candidates for whom I voted got elected to Parliament. I decided that this shall be my policy in the future – I will vote strategically. This is in keeping with the Christian teaching to be as harmless as doves and as wise as serpents. What is meant by ‘wise as serpents’? I think in every culture, including that in the myth of the Garden of Eden, serpents are not seen as wise in the sense of possessing expertise in philosophy or mathematics or science, but in cunningly achieving their objectives. They are also sometimes seen as evil, but the other objective, be as harmless as doves, overrides that problem.

It is interesting to see strategy employed not only by voters but also by politicians. Happily, in the recent elections those politicians who promoted Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist ideologies on the grounds that two thirds of the total electorate is Sinhala Buddhist have not been very successful. Similarly, politicians in the North who promoted Tamil chauvinist ideology on the grounds that their electorate is overwhelmingly Tamil have also not been very successful. Overall, the message is that increasingly our people of all ethnicities are gradually turning away from chauvinism towards national reconciliation. Hopefully, this trend will continue.

Politicians, like voters, have strategic options. Contrary to what many predicted, the chauvinist line promoted by the UPFA has not been very successful. In contrast, the UNP, which this time promoted national reconciliation, has gained and Ranil Wickremasinghe, to the surprise of many, has established his leadership with no serious challenge from within his party. Most other parties have either split or have lost ground. This has happened, in particular, to the parties of the Left and to the UPFA.

A few days before the elections President Maithripala Sirisena firmly reiterated his position that Mahinda Rajapaksa will not be appointed Prime Minister and went further to publicly name seven persons (six Sinhalese and a Muslim) from the UPFA from among whom he proposed to nominate the Prime Minister. This precipitated a crisis which was further complicated by the six Sinhalese UPFA leaders named being summoned to the residence of Mahinda Rajapaksa and from there issuing a letter refusing to accept the post of Prime Minister and instead supporting the appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister.

The voting as between the UNP and UPFA was expected to be, and in fact was, quite close. In the event that no party gains an absolute majority, the President is required to select the person who in his opinion is most likely to be able to form the most stable coalition. The President had this option but had tied his hand as he had publicly said that he preferred a UPFA Prime Minister from among the list that he named. But since the UPFA leaders named had all refused to accept the nomination and since he did not consider Mahinda Rajapaksa to be eligible he had no option but to appoint Ranil Wickremasinghe. Of those whom he named Fowzie may have been included for cosmetic reasons but each of Nimal Siripala de Silva, John Seneviratne, Chamal Rajapaksa, Athauda Seneviratne, Susil Premajayantha and Anura Priyadharshana Yapa clearly had the capacity to muster a stable coalition government, but they had ruled themselves out. Sri Lanka’s political culture is such that engineering the crossover of ten or fifteen members with the promise of portfolios or other inducements is not difficult. Since the President’s letter was made public he would have been obliged to appoint one of them if they had not declined in advance. In consequence, the President had no alternative but to appoint Ranil Wickremasinghe as Prime Minister contrary to the hopes he had expressed in his open letter and also contrary to the intent of the UPFA response. There is no doubt that Ranil Wickremasinghe will be able to establish a stable government and will work together with the President to bring progress to the country. Curiously, this outcome is not the result of successful execution of good strategy but the failure of bad strategy.

Perhaps if the President’s letter was not made public there may have been no public response rejecting the proposed appointment of a named UPFA leader. Once appointed, that leader would have consolidated his rule by co-opting supportive Members of Parliament and it would have been difficult to dislodge him. Similarly, if the joint letter was not sent to the President, one of the UPFA leaders may have been appointed and taken office. Finally, but was the thinking of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe? Had he responded in any manner to the President’s open letter expressing his preference for a UPFA Prime Minister, he would have messed up the issue and ruled himself out. Presumably, he thought all this through, opted to keep a discrete silence, and won. This outcome underlines the need for both voters and politicians to gain a better understanding of strategic considerations in decision making.