By S. I. Keethaponcalan –
Uva Provincial Election and Its Implications for the Presidential Race
Significance of the recently concluded Uva election was its implications for the presidential vote, which will materialize sooner than later followed by the general election to the national legislature. Uva confirmed that the incumbent president’s chance of winning a third term will not be as easy as it was originally contended.
It was widely believed that President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has the authority conferred by the constitution to call for a fresh presidential election after completion of four years in office, would face a snap presidential election in early 2015. The current term commenced on November 19, 2010. One of the main effects of the Uva election results is that it has augmented the need for the government to call for an early election. There are two reasons for this. One, the Uva election results confirmed that the government vote bank is gradually shrinking. The ruling party which won the Uva provincial election in 2009 with 72.39 percent of the votes and 25 seats managed to secure only 51.24 percent of the votes and 19 seats in 2014. An approximate 21 percent dent in the government votes would come as a shock to the party leadership. Of significance is the fact that in the recently held (March 2014) Western and Southern provincial council elections the government lost 12 and five seats respectively. The President therefore, needs to face and win the election before popular endorsement drips to an unmanageable level.
Two, for the first time since the government effectively overpowered the LTTE in 2009, the main opposition party, the United National Party has gained substantial votes and seems to be in a position to electorally challenge the government. The UNP’s votes in Uva rose from 22.32 percent in 2009 to 40.24 in 2014. The government will be keen to conduct the presidential election before the UNP gains momentum based on the recent election results. Now, an early presidential election is almost confirmed as the government immediately went into action. Last week it opened a Presidential Elections Operations Room in Colombo and informed sources indicate that the annual national budget will be presented in October, which will allow the government to submit a “voter friendly” budget and permit the handouts to reach the constituents well before the election.
The fundamental significance of the Uva results, however, is that they have created some doubts about President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s chance of winning a third term. The conventional wisdom is that Rajapaksa will win the next presidential election with ease. Uva has demonstrated that it will not be a cake-walk. Despite the shocking setback, pro-government commentators who woke up the morning after the election argued that the government did not lose the election, but had won. The government won the vote with about 51 percent of the votes. In a presidential election the winner needs only 50 percent of the votes plus one. Therefore, the argument is that the Uva results do not prove that the ruling party cannot win the next presidential election. This however, is a superficial analysis, because Uva as a province does not reflect the demographic realities of the country.
Uva entails two districts, Badulla and Moneragala. Moneragala is predominantly Sinhala in nature as it has about 95 percent Sinhala people. However, Badulla to a certain extent reflects the demographic composition of the country. 73 percent of the total population in Badulla are Sinhala and the minorities form the rest. The government managed to win only 47.37 percent of the votes in Badulla. In a presidential election the whole country will serve as one electoral unit. Therefore, the government will do well to take note of the Badulla results and ethnic politics rather than the provincial results.
Sri Lankans generally vote heavily on ethnic lines. The Sri Lankan Tamils, especially since the end of the war, have demonstrated serious hostility towards the government and supported the TNA. In the Northern provincial council election the TNA secured about 80 percent of the total votes cast in the predominantly Tamil province. In the presidential election one can expect the Tamils to vote for the candidate endorsed by the TNA and TNA will not be able to support Mahinda Rajapaksa. The TNA will find it easy to endorse the UNP if Ranil Wickremesinghe is the candidate. Therefore, Rajapaksa cannot count on the Sri Lankan Tamil vote.
There is also a heavy concentration of Tamils in the Western province. The Western province Tamils traditionally vote with the UNP. In the recent past however the Democratic People’s Front, headed by Mano Ganesan, has taken control of a large chunk of this block of votes. One reason why Ganesan was able to secure the support of the Colombo Tamils is that he is seen as a pro-UNP personality. He is already working with the UNP and likely to formally endorse the UNP. The President’s standing within this block of votes is also weak.
The Sri Lankan Muslim community favored Mahinda Rajapaksa in the last presidential election and their votes, in the recent past, tend to go to the government because all of the Muslim parties are with the government currently. The Muslim dissatisfaction of the government however seems to be growing due to the recent ethnic clashes against the Muslim community. It is widely believed that Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), which is spearheading the anti-Muslim campaign, has the blessings of some of the leading elements within the government. Many Muslims believe that the government is unwilling to arrest the anti-Muslim activities of the BBS. This could easily channel the Muslim votes towards the UNP. It is imperative to note that two of the Muslim parties which are part of the government teamed up and contested the Uva election separately precisely because they knew that the Muslim votes cannot be garnered under the government symbol. The Democratic Unity Alliance (DUA) however, could not win a single seat in the Uva province. Therefore, the majority of the Muslim votes will go to the UNP.
Even in the Badulla district minority voting behavior could differ between a provincial election and the presidential election. In the Badulla district the India Tamils form about 18 percent of the total population. The Indian Tamils probably voted for the government in the Uva election because their own candidates were contesting under the government symbol. In the presidential election however they could and most probably will vote for the UNP. For example, in the 2010 presidential election the Indian Tamil majority Nuwara Eliya district went to Sarath Fonseka. In the Nuwara Eliya district Fonseka gained 52.14 percent of the vote and Rajapaksa managed only 43.77 votes. Therefore, in a presidential election the governing party is unlikely to get what it gained in the Badulla district in September 2014.
The point is, Mahinda Rajapaksa will not have adequate support from the minority communities in the forthcoming presidential election. This leads us to the pertinent question, can Mahinda Rajapaksa win the presidential election with only the Sinhala votes. Given the prevailing realities, Rajapaksa can win only if he has about 65 percent of the Sinhala votes. The ruling party was able to gain only 58.34 percent of the votes in the predominantly Sinhala district of Moneragala in the Uva election. Also, Moneragala is President Rajapaksa’s home turf. Therefore, it is unlikely that President Rajapaksa can gain the support of about 65 percent of the Sinhala votes.
Meanwhile, it is imperative to note that all anti-government votes did not go to the UNP. They also went to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and a very minor portion to Sarath Fonseka’s Democratic Party (DP). The JVP fielding its own candidate in the forthcoming presidential election would hamper the UNP’s chances of winning. Meanwhile, the JVP will find it difficult to endorse the UNP as well. The DP, given its dismal performance in the Uva election, could be convinced to join the UNP under a grand opposition alliance. Therefore, in a free and fair election, Ranil Wickremesinghe has a very good chance of winning if the UNP can form an alliance with the DP and the JVP, or convince the JVP to stay away from the election, while accommodating the minority groups.
*An earlier version of this article appeared in the Eurasia Review. Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland.