“Terrorism has become a festering wound. It is an enemy of humanity.” – Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Do terrorist bomb explosions and elections have a relationship? In South Asia, a region engulfed with a high level of terrorist activity, the record clearly shows that terrorists see the run-up to an election as an opportune time to act. India and other South Asian nations have faced terrorism during election time. Erica Chenoweth explains that high levels of political competition in democracies relative to non-democracies help explain why democracies experience more terrorism than non-democracies.
On May 21st, 1991 in Sriperumbudur, the late Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was campaigning for his forthcoming election when a 17-year-old suicide bomber, Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, also known as Danu and a member of LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s Black Tiger suicide squad, successfully carried out an attack. It had a significant impact on the Indian election. The pre and post bombing election results varied greatly between phases since the assassination took place after the first round of polling. The Congress party did poorly in the pre-assassination phase but did well in the post-assassination phase, securing a victory for the Congress coalition with the Prime-ministershipof P.V. Narasimha Rao. The recent Indian general election in which Rahul Gandhi, the son of Rajiv Gandhi, was leading the Congress party, had to face the suicide attack that killed more than 40 Indian soldiers on Valentine’s day in Pulwama.
The Indian election was directly impacted by the bombing and the subsequent India-Pakistan dispute, giving Modi a springboard to come out from his unaccomplished economic targets and higher unemployment to a different election narrative. Milan Vaishnav, the director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explains that the Pakistan crisis provided Modi with a golden narrative. “The thing about a national security crisis is that it plays up decisiveness, leadership, and nationalism. These are three characteristics he often touts.” The retaliation to hunt down terrorists played out well in favour of PM Modi’s election campaign, framing him as a defender of the nation. PM Modi’s comments such as “Even if they go below the seven seas, I will find them” worked well to secure a clear majority who saw his leadership as an integral part of India’s national security.
In Pakistan, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was shot and bombed at her election rally in Rawalpindi on December 27th, 2007, a few weeks before the election. The suicide attack was carried out by a 15 year old called Bilal, a horrific moment impacting the Pakistani elections. The end result of the election which followed was PM Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) coming back to power.
Similarly, in Sri Lanka, bombs and elections are not uncommon to the general public. Gamini Dissanayake, the 52-year-old UNP presidential candidate, was completing his presidential campaign when a female LTTE suicide bomber carried out an attack two weeks before the Presidential election on October 24th, 1994. The bombing had a significant impact on the UNP’s party leadership, and many experienced politicians lost their lives, which had a significant impact on the election. Post assassination, his wife, Srima Dissanayake, was defeated by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK). Another attack was carried out by LTTE during CBK’s second term election on December 18th, 1999, in which she was targeted at her Town Hall election rally in Colombo, where she injured her right eye. This attack had a direct impact on the voters in the Presidential elections, where she managed to secure the sympathy vote by appearing before television after the attack, resulting in an election victory against Ranil Wickremesinghe.
If you analyze all five scenarios (Table 1.0), the directly targeted assassination attempts have worked in favour of the candidate or his predecessor who was the targeted victim, resulting in victory over the opposition. There is only one scenario where the opponent won in 1994.
The 4/21 extremist attack which killed 250 innocent civilians had a devastating effect on the Government, resulting in changes to its corruption/war on drugs narrative towards fighting terrorism and national security. As the impact settles down over time it’s important to analyze the impact it will have on the coming election.
In the Sri Lankan forthcoming election, anything that turns the discussion to terrorism or national security will help the presidential candidate who has a background on the subject.
According to Daniel Benjamin, a Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution Think Tank in Washington, D.C., terrorists want to demonstrate that they are central players in determining outcomes, and they especially want to portray to their audience that they make a powerful impact on the world stage.
Do the terrorists try to tilt events to help preferred candidates or political parties during elections? There is not sufficient precision to ensure the terrorist act can get a candidate elected. However, there is clear evidence in South Asia that bombs during elections have a significant impact on electoral outcomes.
Terrorist attacks do not necessarily affect voting patterns, but they leave a significant fingerprint on pre and post-election outcomes.
Democracies provide their citizens with many peaceful channels to express their grievances, and discontented individuals could easily organize and conduct violent attacks on the state using civil freedom in democracies. According to Princeton scholar Deniz Aksoy in her paper on ‘Elections and Timing of Terrorist Attacks’, “democratic election times are periods of heated political competition and this competition has implications for terrorist group activity.” Further, she found that only in democracies with least the permissive electoral institutions is there an increase in the volume of terrorist attacks.
Analyzing the volatile and torn democratic fabric of South Asian nations, it is important to understand and foresee probable underlying factors that could trigger terrorist attacks before elections which will assist to swing votes from pre-attack to post-attack. The highly emotional voter percentage will be sufficient to swing the votes towards the victim and influence the result. In South Asia, elections and terrorist attacks do have a strong correlation. Given the frequency of attacks during election campaigns which most of us have experienced in the past, they will likely have a direct impact on the outcomes of future democratic elections.
*Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is the director general of the National Security Think Tank of Sri Lanka (INSSSL) under the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense. The views expressed here are his own.