By Siri Gamage –
There are various opinion pieces in the media about the possible outcome of forthcoming Presidential election in Sri Lanka. Some utilise results from the previous Local Government elections held a few years back; Others analyse campaign strategies, timing etc. of the two main candidates. Some recognise the impact of other candidates such as Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Mahesh Senanayake. The potential effect of numerically minority votes in the Northern and Eastern provinces are also mentioned. However, in a country where there are no systematically conducted opinion surveys by independent polling agencies, analysis of anecdotal factors cannot be avoided. In this context, there are several key factors that need to be elaborated to help in our thinking on this subject so close to the election day- in particular the voter behaviour.
Party Members and Loyalists
Voters closely aligned or identified with major parties and minor parties tend to stick to their guns no matter what the campaigns and policy announcement of alternative candidates are. This comprises the hard core voters who have been socialised into following a certain colour, symbol, party or leader. Party affiliation is ascertained by party membership, active involvement in political campaigns at the local level, and official positions held in party organisations. To some extent families and friends of such party loyalists also align toward supporting one party candidate or another for the same reason. Some calculations indicate that the UNP, SLFP, Podu Jana Peramuna (PJP), JVP and even the TNA and Muslim Congress have such a voter base some amounting to millions. Yet the stark reality is that no candidate can win a Presidential election merely on the basis of support from party loyalists, their families and friends. Therefore, support from a large number of voters who do not belong to a given party are essential for victory. The strategy adopted to achieve this goal by parties seem to be to form coalitions in particular with smaller parties and civic organisation such as those led by professionals, artists etc. Through these the parties aim to reach a wider voter base and garner support.
Voters who are not affiliated with Parties
We can assume the majority of voters belong to this category. In the urban and rural areas, many people do not wish to be involved in active politics. Their aim is to lead a life of harmony and peace without engaging in divisive politics that lead to conflicts. While they recognise that those involved closely with party politics gain avenues of access to politicians who hold power (or the government bureaucrats many of whom are political appointees) and in return can secure material benefits, recognition, positions of power etc. these voters also recognise that such benefits have a short life. When the opposite party gains power they know that party loyalists are persecuted. Therefore, they want to maintain a distance from those party affiliates aware of long term security of family, work, businesses, etc.
This category comprises of various types of voters. Independent minded voters who read newspapers and listen to TV and radio discussions, debates etc. are one type. They tend to base their opinions on not what the parties, candidates, party loyalists and their spokes people say or promise. Personal experience (positive –negative), unfulfilled promises, failures of governments can loom large in the minds of such voters. Many of them have already seen the ups and downs of mainstream party politics as well as coalition politics. Many have seen various infrastructure projects such as roads, air ports, ports as well as signs of expanding neoliberal economic model, e.g. high-rise apartments, shopping centres, supermarkets. By the same token they have seen the poor state of public transport, rail, hospitals, roads and many other issues affecting their quality of life and cost of living. Included in this type are those who belong in lower socio economic and middle class-not necessarily English educated. Their sources of information can purely be mono ethnic. However, some educated persons especially those who have gone through university education and professionals as well as those who have experienced overseas work experience can also be included here.
To what extent the personal experience, evaluation based on range of information sources and party promises, predicament of the country, nation, ethnic community, religion or the future prospects of the children will impact on their voting decision is unknown. Lack of credible political science research on this topic is a hindrance to make any informed judgement.
Part of this type of voter category can be labelled as floating voters. They tend to vote differently at each election based on their assessment. One question being mentioned in media commentary is about how many of those who voted for Yahapalana government in 2015 will change their mind this time and which candidate they will support? Perceived or real abuses of power and privilege as well as excesses can also be a dominant factor in the decisions of such voters. While the fading memory of the Rajapaksa era abuses and excesses can be favourable to PJP candidate, failure of the present two-headed government to provide security to churches before the April terrorist attacks can be a negative for the NDF-UNP candidate.
The volume of votes to be gained by a given candidate from such floating voters is thus mediated by ‘Emotional’ factors as against ‘Rational’ factors that involves comparison, analysis and evaluation. Self-interest plays an important role along with the national interest. It is possible to assume that even the illiterate individual in the rural areas engage in some level of comparison, analysis and evaluation but theirs is different from such exercises undertaken by more educated persons.
Again, making predictions about this category of voters especially newly enrolled ones could be a difficult task. One segment of this type will be party loyalists, and the rest independent minded who will want to make a decision based on a range of factors including their own personal and family circumstances. Employment prospects, assistance in education, security, concerns on environment and corruption in governance can loom large in the decision-making process by the youth. To some extent, factors such as ethnicity, religion, regional development can also be influential factors. Some youths are impressionable by the aura of modern development projects and new media landscape also. However, with the new media and exposure to multitude of messages they may also be literate about hidden dimensions of party politics, privileges enjoyed by the ruling class, and weaknesses or failures in governance at different levels. International experience of some youths can eye openers to the many ills in society.
Rights of the Majority & Insecurities
It is no secret that for some years anti-Muslim sentiment among the Sinhala Buddhist(SB) majority has been a growing phenomenon. This functioned as a political undercurrent in previous elections also. However, after the April 2019 terrorist attacks by Muslim terrorists, it seems that the SB sentiment has galvanised further. This was reflected in the recent Pradesheeya Sabha election held belatedly in the South. Added to this are the feelings among SB community that we need a strong leader to navigate the country through the multiple crises. Crises not limited to the debt crises. There are other concerning developments such as the spread of drugs, deterioration of discipline, increasing trend toward crimes, lack of trust among communities, family breakdowns, agreements with foreign governments that may compromise the sovereignty of the country and more. The insecurities generated in the minds of SB majority, or at least a significant component of it, can favour one candidate over another in the elections. If this feeling of insecurity and anxiety turns into votes in the Southern electorate, the candidate from the Podujana Peramuna can secure a landslide victory easily surpassing the 50% mark. However, what is unknown is how the profile of NDF candidate will ameliorate such a victory? Given the grassroots nature of his politics and the appeal that he has as a relatively young person can work in his favour in the Southern electorate. This is in contrast to a situation where Ranil Wickremesinghe came forward as a candidate.
Unlike previous elections at this time the electorate is somewhat confused about the contestants, especially from the two main camps because the two camps cannot be understood in black-white terms. This is especially so after four and half years of a two-headed national government where the two main parties joined hands –rather unsuccessfully- in governance. Confusions arising in the public mind from a two headed yahapalanaya government pulling in two directions and its multiple failures impacting on the security and well-being of the people. Due to the cross overs of MPs and even ministers in the recent past, the voter cannot be sure of one’s colour or the party. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government that came into being unconstitutionally in October, 2019 lasting for 52 days is still in the minds of voters.
Added to this are the plethora of party/candidate symbols in circulation. Political arguments about who is better to govern dominate the campaign in this last week before the election but there is a growing sense in the community that they all are the same. The key question is whether voter frustration with the existing mainstream coalitions will turn them into a third alternative and if so to what extent? At this time, we can only speculate and speculation is not that helpful.
What helps the voter in such a confused state is the clear messaging over a period of time by relevant parties and leaders about their political platform, what they will do if they come to power and how their promises can benefit the voters? Generally, voters do not focus their mind to the elections until late in the campaign. When they do so, the mood of the electorate can swing one way or another.
NPP movement led by Anura Kumara has executed a disciplined campaign with clear messaging and policies. Many believe they can attract a larger voter base this time compared to the previous elections. How large this will be the question? Some believe that the JVP in particular has a designated voter base and it will not be able to move this up significantly. However, the idea that ‘we do not need all 225 MPs who failed us’ has gained ground. The contributions made by other alternative candidates including Mahesh Senanayake have been a factor in moving public opinion away from the major parties or coalitions.
Emergence of third candidates has diluted the neat categorisation of mainstream parties into two camps because those dissatisfied with both can now turn to a third alternative at least in theory. If we assume that the NPP movement led by Anura Kumara will attract more votes this time, we can predict that this can bite into the voter base of the two main candidates. In such event they will not be able to reach the 50% mark as expected.
Role of Minority Votes and Pluralistic/Majoritarian Hypothesis
One logic is that if the NDF candidate can muster a large volume of voters from Tamil and Muslim areas/provinces as well as Christian votes, it is a mater then of securing nearly half of the Sinhala Buddhist votes to secure victory. Alternatively, in the other camp knowing this possibility, what they stipulate is an overwhelming majority vote from the Sinhala Buddhist areas/provinces plus some votes from Tamil, Muslim and Christian voters their candidate can secure victory. This one camp relies on a pluralistic assumption whereas the other camp relies on a majoritarian hypothesis. These two possibilities are in hypothetical stage and can only be tested in the forthcoming election. It is true to say that in the 2015 Presidential election, the former proved to be the realistic one. Conditions in the electorate are different this time.
Election Result: Possible Scenarios
Here we can only stipulate possible scenarios rather than any prediction.
Landslide victory for Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a possibility due to the insecurities and anxieties in the mind of SB voters plus the failures of Yahapalanaya government and unfulfilled promises etc. This is a scenario where he can command more than 50% first preference votes. However, the emergence of support for Sajith Premadasa in the final two weeks of the campaign and questions being raised about Gotabaya’s citizenship, potential for democratic deficit if he wins as well as the questioning of his nationalistic credentials can be mitigating factors. His brother Mahinda was a grassroots politician. Whether the electorate will perceive Gotabaya in the same way is a critical question. Generally, he is perceived as a technocratic leader behind whom there is an army of technocrats, engineers, bureaucrats, former security personnel rather than a populist leader. His appeal is more to the Sinhala Buddhist middle class, or more preciously its nationalistic elements rather than grassroots peasant, farming, clerical elements. It is here that the role of PJP is playing a role to garner support from Pradesheeya level voters.
Alternatively, irrespective of the failures of Yahapalanaya government, given the Sinhala Buddhist credentials of Sajith Premadasa and his grassroots nature of politics, there is a possibility that he can muster a majority of votes from SB areas/provinces. The presence of Sarath Fonseka, former commander of the army, is a plus factor in presenting an image of a future government where security can be assured. If this scenario becomes true, then he can secure an easy win with the minority votes in his favour –provided that the history is repeated as in 2015.
Neither Mr. Rajapaksa or Mr. Premadasa being able to muster the 50% first preference votes and therefore having to rely on 2nd and 3rd preferences. Outcome of such a scenario is very difficult to predict and prolong the announcement of results. If we assume that a small number of people who vote for one or other party will mark their 2nd and 3rd preferences to another candidate, the one who commands a majority among these voters will be able to cross the 50% mark. It is possible to assume that those voting 1st preferences to NPP, will mark their second preference to Sajith rather than Gotabaya. By the same logic those from the North and East who vote NDF will vote for NPP or another independent candidate rather than vote for Gotabaya. If the magic of 2nd and 3rd preferences come into play, the role of floating voters will still be a determining factor. Role of young voters will be crucial here.
Either way, this will be an interesting election result that will either bring back Rajapaksa team including its elders to power OR an emerging relatively young leader who does not belong to the party establishment as such and surrounded by a team of equally young MPs and junior ministers of the current government. If the latter outcome comes true, President Sirisena will go to political oblivion. On the other hand, if Rajapaksa victory comes true, Sirisena will reap the results of his manoeuvrings undertaken during his official term by way of re-entry to the parliament as a nominated MP or in some other capacity. Electorate will look for internal political and economic reforms in order to minimise waste and corruption and face he key challenges facing the country. Whether the winning candidate will continue with the neoliberal, pro globalisation, import-oriented economy or as promised by both mainstream candidates build a national economy giving priority to agricultural development and local manufacturing will be a critical issue. Mahesh Senanayake, Anura Kumara Dissanayake and other alternative candidates –once defeated -will continue to build their organisations and political platforms eying for the parliamentary elections that will follow. Sri Lanka’s non-aligned stand will be further tested with the competing interests of regional and world powers. So will the independence and sovereignty of the country.