By Palitha Elkaduwa –
Implications Of Uva
The voters of Uva sent a clear and powerful message to President Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR), Opposition and the country at large. That is that the “Emperor (MR) has no clothes!” Up until Uva MR was seen as politically/electorally invincible. That myth collapsed with Uva. The risk is that the opposition, UNP and Ranil Wickramasinghe (RW) in particular, would mishandle the situation helping MR to wear his clothes back and make a comeback! It is up to the opposition in general and the UNP in particular to prevent that from happening. The rest of this note deals with two issues. First, it analyses the implications of Uva and the rapidly evolving poltical and electoral environment for prospects of a common opposition candidate (CC). Second, it briefly evaluates the relative strengths and weaknesses of the prospective opposition presidential candidates.
Designing a winning strategy for the opposition/UNP
Pre-Uva an opposition candidacy would not have been given much of chance. However, post-Uva the dynamic and psychology of the electorate have changed for the better but more work has to be done to make it a winning proposition.
The number one requirement is a united opposition: The opposition will be able to effectively challenge MR inly if the UNP, TNA, JVP, CBK (represents the hardcore “old” SLFP), Muslims and Upcountry Tamils that are not with MR and public opinion that Rev. Sobhitha represents (NMSJ) can be made to work in unison with one goal in mind, the overthrow of the UPFA government, even if not all parties appear on one election platform. The different parties/interest groups will not agree on everything. But the following minimum political, economic and electoral agenda can forge unity.
Proposals for immediate action to be included in the common opposition manifesto (common candidate)
1. Common Poltical Agenda to reestablish democracy, good governance and transparency
(a) Abolition of EP: JVP, and Rev. Sobhitha’s constituency are unlikely to even consider supporting a UNP leader such as RW as CC unless the party makes this commitment PUBLICLY and without any ambiguity whatsoever. Even CBK may not be very enthusiastic if that commitment is not made. For her the abolition of the EP would be the fulfilment of a commitment that she herself made but failed to keep. That will be a powerful rationale for her to be on the common platform. However, it is legitimate to ask why a man like RW who aspires to lead the country should go through rigor of a presidential election simply to abolish the position soon after being elected. The answer is simple. If RW wants to retain EP or a position similar to that by some other name such as “Executive Prime Minister” RW will NOT get the full and unreserved support of a combined opposition that includes, most notably, JVP, Rev. Sobhitha and NMSJ, and sundry other groups that are essential for RW or any other common candidate to defeat MR. In fact for RW/UNP to say that that they want to have an “Executive Prime Minister” is to declare that there is no real difference between UPFA/MR on one hand and RW/UNP on the other. The public then might as well choose the known devil! UNP/RW will have to agree to some kind of “Road Map” for the abolition of the EP to mobilize support from the full opposition.
(b) Full implementation of the 17th amendment further strengthening it. The common platform including RW/UNP who are the authors of the amendment can easily agree to this. The proposal that the Parliamentary Select Committee that DEW Gunasekera chaired can also be considered.
(c) Replacing the current system of election to parliament with a combination of the First-past-the-post system and PR (to provide for smaller parties). For cleaner and fairer elections FPP is a must. To protect the smaller parties PP is a must. Given the landslides in 1970 and 1977 even the two major parties stand to benefit from a modified system. The preference vote should be abolished. The Dinesh Gunawardane Parliamentary Select Committee Report can be used as a framework for such reform.
2. Common Economic Relief Agenda to bring immediate relief to the suffering people of Sri Lanka
It is not practical to think of a detailed economic and social policy agenda for the common candidate. However, it is possible to think of a “All-Party National Transitional Government” with a few key agenda items that would be attractive to major segments of the electorate and acceptable to the united opposition platform. The following are three examples. A few others can be added.
(a) A genuine commitment to bring some tangible relief to the lower income group (about 50% to 60% of the voters) of Sri Lanka. To do that the new government will scrap loss making and useless state ventures, reduce commodity and indirect taxes such as VAT that will help bring some reduction in the cost of living, and increase relief payments and subsides for the poor, draught victims, students and the like. For example, Mihin Lanka is an airline that serves no purpose other than boost the ego of MR and creates opportunities for the Rajapaksas and their cronies to take commissions and bribes. In 2013 Mihin Lanka lost Rs 3,200m of taxpayer money. In the same year the TOTAL amount that the government spent on Mahapola scholarships (Rs 801m), School bus season tickets (Rs 1,430m), Infant milk food (Rs 230m), Poshana malla (Rs 203m), and Flood & Draught Relief (Rs 148m) was only Rs 2,824m, or Rs.376m LESS than the loss in Mihin Lanka. Such waste will be stopped and the money spent for the benefit of the poor and the middle class.
(b) Tax relief: In Rajapaksa brothers’ Sri Lanka in 2013 only 19% of government tax revue came from the rich. Mostly the poor paid 81% of the tax in the form of various commodity taxes ranging from VAT, import duties, special commodity levy, so-called Nation Building Tax and excise taxes. In the very first budget of the new government this tax system will be overhauled to reduce commodity taxes that the poor pay so that the cost of living is reduced and the rich will be asked to pay their fair share of taxes.
(c) Relief for state sector employees who number 1.2m and pensioners who number another 0.5 million that together with other voting members of their households account for about 20% of the national electorate of 14.0m.
3. Electoral Agenda in the first one year
A two-step electoral agenda is proposed.
Step 1: Formation of an ALL-PARTY NATIONAL TRANSITIONAL GOVERNMENT (NTG). The task of the NTG is to accomplish the common Poltical Agenda and the Common Economic Relief Agenda. The NTG will function for a period that the Common Opposition will discuss and agree upon. It is likely to be a minimum of six months but not more than one year.
Step 2: A General Election shall be called under a new constitution. A new constitution will have to be drafted with the input of all poltical parties, civil society groups and other such interests. An initial framework for a viable democratic constitution can be found in, among other sources, some sections of the current constitution (e.g. 17th amendment), the DEW Gunasekera and Dinesh Gunawardena Parliamentary Select Committee Reports, and the proposals of Rev. Sobhitha’s NMSJ (nmsj.org/about/)
Opposition electoral strategy
A poltical discourse, especially in the south that has as its focus national security, terrorism and patriotism, is very favorable to MR. From 2010 he has benefitted enormously from these themes. For a variety of reasons, all of a sudden, this discourse has faltered. The poltical discourse suddenly changed in the last few months to focus on the corrupt “system” that MR/UPFA have created. The people have begun to realize that the MR-led system is destroying the nation politically, economically and socially. One major reason appears to be the growing disparity between the privileged few and the rest. A second appears be the naked abuse of power and almost total lawlessness that in turn have undermined justice and fairness that ordinary people consider important. People are beginning to associate these societal ills with the regime and in particular with the Rajapaksa clan. The strategy of the opposition is to zero in on this and reinforce this growing feeling of alienation from the MR regime. The opposition, especially the UNP and in particular RW, must do NOTHING whatsoever that would allow MR and his supporters to change the parameters of the national poltical conversation to a theme that would allow the voters, especially the Sinhalese voters, to believe that there is no real difference between the government and the opposition. For example, under no circumstances should the UNP bring up for discussion “alternatives” such as “Executive Prime Minister” to the current Executive Presidency. That would be fatal for the opposition because it gives an opening for MR/UPFA to claim that there is no REAL difference between the two parties. A discussion about the powers of the executive branch of government can and should wait until after the election. For the next election the only aim of the UNP/opposition should be to distance itself as far as possible from MR/EP that in the eyes of the ordinary voter is becoming, quite surprisingly, the source of all ills and misfortunes of Sri Lankan society.
Post-Uva electoral arithmetic
The UPFA will largely rely on the Sinhalese-Buddhist vote, especially in the rural areas, to win the next presidential elections. Monaragala is a fairly good indicator of how well UPFA would fair in the next election in rural areas in the South. In September 2014 the government abused its powers and misused government resources to the maximum in the district. Even with such an effort it managed to poll only about 8 percentage points above the critical 50% mark. UPFA is usually confident of a large lead in the postal vote. Even in the 2004 PC elections it polled 68%. Last month the postal vote was also down to 56%.
In a national election there is less scope for abuse of power and misuse of state resources that took place in Monaragala. A well run UNITED opposition campaign should be able to overcome that 8-percentage point gap. Even more importantly, in Badulla, where 73% of the population is Sinhalese and the balance 27% other ethnic groups, the government polled only 47% of the total vote. Even allowing for the personal popularity of Harin Fernando who led the UNP in Badulla district, there is no doubt that for the following reasons a combined opposition with a credible common candidate is in a very strong position nationally if the presidential election is held in the next three to four moths.
- Monaragala: With zero minority support, UPFA/MR requires no less than 71.4% of the Sinhelase-Buddhist vote to win over 50% of the national vote. In Monaragala UPFA secured only 58% last month, way below target.
- Badulla: In Badulla district where 27% are minority voters, it secured only 47% of the total vote. If the opposition presents a combined front under a common candidate the UPFA will find it very hard going when the minority vote is clearly going against the government.
- Sinhalese Majority Districts: It is a fact that before Uva, in the recent series of PC polls, UPFA polled around 58% to 66% of the vote in PC elections in the southern districts except for Colombo. Given the fact that UPFA is not able to poll more than about 15% to 20% of the minority vote an opposition common candidate with the backing of an undivided opposition should be able to win the next presidential election, even if UPFA performs at the 60% level among the Sinhalese Buddhist voters in the southern districts.
- EP & NP: In the 2013 Northern Province PC elections UPFA polled only 18% and in the 2012 Eastern Provincial Council elections it polled 32%. It is clear that the minority vote in these areas was not with the UPFA and there is no reason to believe that the situation has changed in the past 18 to 24 months.
Rural & Urban:
- As the numbers in Table 2 show, in the more urban districts the situation is bound to be even more adverse to the UPFA. In the 2014 March PC elections in the in Colombo District the UPFA share was 45% and in the Western Province the share was only 53%. The latter gap of 3 percentage points can be closed with a common candidate and a strong opposition campaign. What is also very noteworthy is that in Monaragala that is 100% rural, 95% Sinhalese and election abuse in favor of the UPFA was rampant, the UPFA share was only 58%. This is proof sufficient of current electoral weakness of the UPFA/MR.
PC to Presidential Election Swing
Table 3 illustrates another notable characteristics of Sri Lankan elections in the recent past. Typically the governing party does better in PC elections than in presidential elections. The reasons are many that need not be analyzed here. In 2010 this happened notwithstanding the fact that MR’s popularity was at its peak as war hero. There is no reason to believe that this pattern would not be repeated in the next presidential election compared to the 2014 PC elections, making the task of the UPFA/MR even more difficult.
Word of Caution
The above analysis makes three crucial assumptions. First, that the common candidate under a united opposition will capture about 80% to 85% of the minority vote. Second, that the minority voters will turn out in the same strength as the majority community voters. Third, that the common candidate will be able to secure a minimum of around 40% of the Sinhalese Buddhist vote.
Common opposition candidate
Assumption one is that that without the 100% backing of the UNP no opposition candidate can win.
Assumption two is that without the full backing of the opposition parties and groups it is very unlikely that a UNP candidate, RW included, would be able to defeat MR.
Main Opposition Parties & Groups (Excluding UNP)
NMSJ is not a major poltical party with a mass following. However, it has a voice that that gets a hearing, especially among the educated middle class in the south. One limitation of NMSJ is that for all practical purposes it is a single-issue movement that is dedicated to the abolition of the EP and restoration of democracy and good governance. These are of the utmost importance to the nation’s future but do not necessarily win the mass vote. Instead of publicly insisting on a rigid timeframe for the implementation of its agenda, NMSJ can achieve its goal of getting rid of the EP by doing the following:
(a) Use informal channels to pressure RW/UNP to make a firm public commitment to the abolition of EP. But do not embarrass Sri Lanka’s main opposition poltical party with an arbitrary timetable.
(b) Get Rev. Sobhitha to fully back the common candidate who is likely to be RW.
(c) Persuade the JVP to support a likely RW candidacy.
(d) Convince CBK to back the common candidate (if she herself is not the common candidate!)
A JVP candidate has no prospect of polling more than 3% to 4% of an all-island poll. They may get a little above that average in the south but below that average in the minority areas. JVP has to choose between a corrupt and feudal authoritarian regime that MR represents and a UNP led opposition that is reasonably progressive though not ideal from the JVP’s perspective. JVP can reasonably demand some concessions from the UNP/RW in return for its support. In particular JVP should ask for an assurance that the EP will be abolished and that it won’t be included in a new constitution under some other name such as Executive Prime Minister. The JVP has every right to ask and the UNP should favorably consider some economic and social policies that would directly address the needs of the JVP constituency. Example: education reform, a larger budget for education and enhanced student loans and bursaries.
Given the bitter experience of the TNA in the Northern Provincial Council and the hostile attitude of the UPFA to devolution, TNA has little choice but to support a Common Opposition Candidate.
Upcountry Tamils have generally been with the party that comes to office in Colombo. If the Common Opposition Candidate is strong and likely to win, it is very likely that the bulk of the 4% Upcountry Tamil vote will go in that direction.
Given the anti-Muslim stance that some of the most influential and vocal groups such as BBS that support MR has taken, Muslims have no choice but to support the Common Opposition Candidate.
Possible Common Candidates
Not interested in power beyond 180 days.
Weaknesses: Single-issue candidate who will find it very difficult to mobilize support in our patronage-based multi-issue system. Some non-Buddhists may also have reservations. Most importantly, NMSJ is not a poltical party with an established network. There is absolutely no institutional network for Rev. Sobhitha to mobilize the country for a campaign.
A good man who is broadly liked by all.
Weaknesses: He is not a person who can face the MR machine onslaught. The Mahanayakas may say that he could be given cover but that is easier said than done. KJ too will be seen as a single-issue candidate who will find it very difficult to mobilize support in our patronage-based system. Politics need not only rational thought but also passion. MR has an abundance of that. KJ does not (In fact this is a shortcoming of all prospective UNP candidates)
Strengths: Definitely stronger than Rev Sobhitha and KJ especially on account of her ability to get the support of some of the SLFP old guard. If RW can reach a public agreement with CBK, she could be a formidable CC because she will bring strong minority support as well as significant “old” SLFP support undermining the UPFA government. For such a pact between CBK and the opposition some version of the NMSJ timeframe to abolish the EP will be helpful. CBK also has the passion factor that is vital in politics that other possible opposition candidates lack.
Weaknesses: Not all UNP supporters will trust her. RW will have to work hard to persuade the skeptics.
Weaknesses: None of the first three (Sobhitha, KJ & CBK) can be described as ideal. The same applies to RW. For example, “Ranilta baa” is a perception that has grown in the minds of some voters, although just now it is moving in the direction where currently it is something like “Ranilta samaharavita puluwan wai.” He is also seen as detached from the people. Lack of passion is a distinct disadvantage.
Strengths. First, he is best capable of mobilizing UNP support. Second, if he agrees to be the Common Candidate under a “neutral” symbol (not the elephant) and makes a commitment to abolish the EP, the JVP may be persuaded to support him. It would be foolish for the JVP to reject RW because the alternative is MR/EP for a further term and may be beyond. Third, the minorities have no alternative but to back RW. Fourth, RW, to his credit, has not made commitments to the public in the past that he has failed to keep. Thus if he can be made to make a PUBLIC commitment to abolish the presidency all who want to see the EP gone, including NMSJ should be able to back him as CC. Fifth, compared to a few weeks ago, the public now has the perception that the UNP is more united with RW, Sajith and others showing a greater willingness to work together. This is a work in progress that has to be further strengthened. Sixth, and perhaps most importantly, RW’s integrity and competency are not in question. He is widely considered the best available to lead the country if only he could get there!
Campaign Challenges for the Opposition
MR starts with the advantage of incumbency. The UPFA will mobilize and misuse state power and resources to the maximum possible extent. The state media and the private media that is generally sympathetic to MR will also be at the disposal of the MR campaign.
MR’s possible winning combination
The electoral arithmetic that MR faces is as follows. About 70% of the SL electorate is Sinhalese-Buddhist (SB). Rajapaksa needs 71.4% of this vote to win an election (50% plus one vote in a nationwide election) with zero ethnic or religious minority support. In both Monaragala and Badulla Districts last month the UPFA polled close to 60% of the SB vote, 11 percentage points short of the minimum target. But that does not mean that Rajapaksa cannot achieve 71.4% in a presidential election where personality, charm, passion, money/bribes, and even vote rigging play a role. BBS and other Sangha groups that support MR can also work to whip up SB emotions. Also note that Rajapaksa can afford to drop about 5 percentage points of the SB vote (going down from 71.4% to 66.4%) and make it up with 5 percentage points from the minorities (one sixth of the total minority vote).
Abolition of the EP is not an end in itself but a means to an end. That end is democratic, fair, transparent and efficient governance. The goal of Rev Sobhitha and NMSJ, JVP, TNA and every other opposition groups is the same. The opposition parties and groups individually and collectively have to decide on the most practical and feasible way to achieve that goal or something close to it. Until very recently MR was Sri Lanka’s “Teflon” president. Everybody knew that corruption, abuse of power and the near total breakdown of law and order were a cancer destroying the country. But MR was exempt from blame for all those ills. All of a sudden the country had made the connection between MR and EP on the one hand and the breakdown of society on the other. Uva PC polls reflected that new reality. As noted at the beginning of this analysis, the people have now realized that the Emperor indeed is without clothes.
It will be lunacy and a national disservice to throw away this opportunity. MR has unwittingly allowed the focus of the poltical discourse to move away from his triumph over LTTE terrorism and his patriotism. It is of the utmost importance for RW/opposition NOT to say or do anything that will give an opportunity to MR/UPFA to get back on the “great and only defender of the nation” track/discourse. Any discussion on the part of RW/Opposition about the merits and demerits of a modified executive presidency and/or “Executive Prime Minister” is sure to offer MR the opening that he is waiting for to argue that he is better than anybody else to hold that position. For the first time since 1978, people are truly growing tired of the executive presidency and have begun to come round to the view that it indeed is a curse on the nation. The task of RW and the combined opposition is to reinforce that notion while not forgetting to remind the people that their economic and other woes are intimately tied up with that curse. The only solution, people have to be told, is to get rid of both the office and the office holder!
In sum RW MUST show that he stands for something POLITICALY VERY different from what MR stands for. In other words do not allow the emperor to wear his clothes again that the Uva voters removed!