By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
In the 2015 Presidential Elections in January 2015, Maithripala Sirisena defeated President Mahinda Rajapaksa by a majority of just under a half a million votes. It was in no small measure due to ethnic Tamil and Muslim communities voting for him in large numbers.
Statistics in Chart 1 says it all.
|MS-Maithripala Sirisena / MR-Mahinda Rajapaksa||SP-Sajith Premadasa/GR-Gotabaya Rajapaksa|
2019 was worse than in 2015. Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) received only 8% of the Northern vote, 24% of the Eastern ballot, and 18% of the total N&E vote. Mahinda Rajapaksa, in 2015, received 20% of the Northern vote, 26% of the Eastern ballot, and 24% from the N&E vote.
Some believe; President Sirisena won the 2015 Presidential election due to a majority of the minority and a minority of the majority voting for him. It gave way to the theory no candidate will henceforth be able to win a Presidential election without the support of minorities.
Nevertheless, GR’s decisive victory less than five years later in November 2019 has effectively put that theory to bed.
Minority political parties based on ethnic and religious lines may have overplayed their importance and role in national elections. It galvanized the Sinhala voters to rally round GR who campaigned on the need for enhanced security.
What makes this victory for GR more decisive is the fact, all the odds were stacked against him. In the run-up to 2015 Presidential elections, Mahinda Rajapaksa being the President and his party in control of the government, had unfettered access to state resources.
GR had no such advantage. It was his opponent’s party governing the country, albeit with a President who decided to remain neutral after all efforts to gain nomination from either side failed.
GR also had to deal with the vexed question of his nationality. The judiciary eventually gave him carte blanche. Nevertheless, such an issue and the ensuing legal battle was a hinderance and unwanted distraction for any political campaigner. There were also other allegations and several court cases, namely funding for the Rajapaksa Memorial, murder of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge and rugger player Thajudeen, and the infamous MIG fighter aircraft deal being some of them.
The elite Colombo society, despite their discontent with the Yahapalana government, especially with former President Sirisena and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, were all out to defeat GR. They had also begun to take a closer look at candidate SP, a silent bystander for too long. The hitherto relatively unknown Deputy Leader of the UNP spoke a brand of English not heard among Presidential candidates in a long time. He displayed an ability to reach out to the hearts of his audiences, in both English and Sinhala languages in cities and rural areas.
On the other hand, GR, a proven administrator, portrayed a less impressive image with his calm and moderate tone, dependence on a teleprompter, and regular prodding by the elder sibling. He refrained from publicly criticizing his opponent, indeed a commendable gesture.
The final result proved without ambiguity, the disconnect between the small group of elitist city dwellers and the rural masses. On November 16, GR defeated his opponent Sajith Premadasa with an impressive majority of 1.3 million votes, as illustrated in chart 2.
|Chart 2||Total Votes||Postal Votes 2019|
The Yahapalana government bent over backward to appease state sector employees. They received the promised pre-election monthly salary increase of Rs 10,000. Nevertheless, the postal voter figures tell another damning story, as seen in chart 2. No further explanation is necessary. Postal voters consist of state employees to enable them to vote early and perform election duties.
|Chart 3||Voting patterns by Province|
|Province||Reg Voters||Total Polled||Valid Votes||GR||SP|
Figures in chart 3 is a glimpse of voting patterns based on Provinces. It reflects a deepening of the North and South divide. Both candidates are Sinhala Buddhists. Minorities, especially the Tamil community, have never been comfortable with the Rajapaksas, especially former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the newly minted President GR who is also the former Defense Secretary, both key players in defeating LTTE terrorism. One of the chief complaints of the Tamil community is the disappearance of former LTTE carders after they surrendered in 2009. The Sri Lankan armed forces led by MR, GR, and retired Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka rescued nearly 290,000 Tamil human shields held hostage by LTTE, a fact nobody speaks of today. Judging from the figures, most of them did not vote for GR either.
As illustrated in chart 4, almost one million voters became eligible to vote since the 2015 Presidential election. Both polled votes and valid votes have increased by over one million, respectively. GR has increased his number of votes by 1.1 million or 20% over the number of votes received by Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015, despite receiving a below-average minority vote. Meanwhile, SP received over 652,000 or 12% lesser number of votes than did President Sirisena in 2015 despite the overwhelming minority votes in his favor.
|Chart 4||Comparison of key data – 2015 and 2019 Presidential Polls|
|Year||Reg Voters||Total Polled||Valid Votes||GR / MR||SP / MS|
It would be pertinent to examine the reasons for such a development. The million or so new voters would be between 18 and 23 years. It is not conceivable, this entire group of young persons voted for GR who at 70 represents the age group of their grandfathers rather than 52-year-old SP closer to the age group of their fathers.
Perhaps closer to home is a sizable shift of the traditional UNP vote block. It is an indication, Yahapalana development programs such as Suraksha, Gam Peraliya, Enterprise Sri Lanka, and langame paasela, hondema paasela (the nearest school the best school) had no bearing.
The newly elected President’s detractors accuse him, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the SLPP for spreading a fear psychosis in the country to arouse the Sinhala community, especially the extremist elements. The increased involvement of Buddhist clergy in the political arena and frequent use of Buddhist temples for political gatherings further exacerbated matters. Two death fasts by Buddhist Priests during the last six months on political issues is a case in point.
The fear factor undoubtedly played a crucial role in voting patterns, with economic factors and corruption being contributory factors. It affected all communities on different issues.
For the Sinhalese, their concerns began when the Yahapalana government unreservedly cosponsored the UNHRC Resolution 30/1 in September 2015. The arbitrary manner it was carried out according to the whim and fancy of former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera is viewed by many Sinhalese as over appeasing the Tamil community. The subsequent claim by President Sirisena of not being consulted did not help. The Sinhalese consider the TNA demand for recognition of a Tamil nation within an undivided Sri Lanka in a federal arrangement as disguised separatism as with the demand for the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The government’s failure to discipline one of its Tamil junior ministers making a public announcement of a wish for the revival of the LTTE to maintain law and order in the North is an example of political expediency. The UNHRC Resolution also paved the way for regular visits by UNHRC sanctioned Human Rights interlocutors considered by many as unnecessary interference. The Easter Sunday bombings resulting in 250 plus deaths and over 500 injured in April heightened security concerns. The wishy-washy manner adopted by the government in the subsequent investigations with several politicians, despite their suspicious conduct, was capitalized by the Rajapaksa group and SLPP to heighten security concerns further. Then came the 13 demands from the TNA, which also included some of the issues mentioned earlier shortly before the election date. While GR and the third front runner rejected the demands outright, SP’s less than convincing refusal may have also caused damage to him in the South.
The Tamil and Muslim communities have their fears. How both the previous Rajapaksa and Yahapalana governments handled anti-Muslim riots in 2014, 2016, and 2019 is sufficient justification for such concerns. No investigations have been forthcoming, nor has a single person been prosecuted for rioting and vandalism. The Tamil community experienced anti-Tamil riots over half a dozen times since Independence. They justifiably see a repetition of government inaction in the handling of recent anti-Muslim riots. They are also yet to forgive the Sinhalese for militarily defeating the LTTE.
The country had gone through a political quagmire in the last five years due to the failed unity government. Cohabitation has proved an utter failure, and the need of the hour is a stable government. Towards this end, the best possible solution would be the dissolution of Parliament followed by snap parliamentary elections, which will hopefully bring about a government with a working majority but certainly not a two-third majority. The two occasions on which political parties won a two-thirds majority in 1970 and 1977 turned out to be unmitigated disasters. One can only hope this time around; crossovers will not be forthcoming.
The inevitable SLPP government in the next Parliamentary election calls for a strong opposition to keep the new government in check. At the time of going to Press, Ranil Wickremasinghe has been appointed Leader of Opposition by the Speaker during the period of the interim caretaker government. It has caused a rift with SP and 40 UNP MPs demanding SP’s appointment to the post.
It would be sensible for Ranil Wickremesinghe to give way for a younger leader. If not, it would be best for SP to break away and form his party with a group of younger followers. A breakaway group formed the SLPP from the SLFP after the electoral defeat suffered in 2015. Within a short period of fewer than five years, they captured the Presidency and presently on course for victory in the next parliamentary election. It is in no small measure due to the organizational capabilities of Basil Rajapaksa, younger brother of GR. SP, too, should seek a seasoned organizer and political campaigner with similar skills with an eye on 2025 Presidential elections.
To conclude, congratulations and best wishes to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.