By Dayan Jayatilleka –
A common opposition candidate is commonly regarded as a good idea but on second glance isn’t necessarily so. It can be a good idea but only in one set of circumstances. That is if the common candidate is capable of securing the largest number of votes against the incumbent, thereby ensuring a real race for the presidency, which can restore some balance to the political system also by acting as a springboard for an opposition victory at the parliamentary election or a referendum.
Thus the real question that should be posed is who the candidate would be who can get the most votes. On the surface it would seem that this would be the candidate who can secure the endorsement of the largest number of political parties and civil society organizations. But this isn’t necessarily true.
The best Opposition candidate would be a common candidate if he/she can draw on the support of opposition parties and groupings which can really bring in votes. If these parties, organizations and personalities are mere factions they will not add much to the vote bank of the opposition candidate.
Moreover an Opposition candidate who cannot secure the main vote base of the opposition while he/she can draw in smaller vote bases, would be losing on the roundabouts what he /gains on the swings.
Simply put, the selection of a common opposition candidate should not depend on how long the list of endorsements is but on how accurately he represents the actual ratios and balances of strength in the opposition ranks.
This selection depends upon the realization that the United National Party remains, actually and potentially, the largest Oppositional formation by a very long chalk indeed. This is not an argument on my part, for a purely UNP candidate. But it certainly is an argument for a candidacy that accurately reflects the leading role of the UNP and that the UNP is the main force of the opposition.
No other party or combination of parties, civil society groupings and personalities can come anywhere close to matching the UNP in terms of votes.
Furthermore, no candidate who loses/fails to mobilize the fullest potential UNP vote, can hope to compensate for it by securing the support of the Chandrika led SLFP dissidents, the JHU and Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha.
The current search for a common candidate is predicated on a platform of the abolition of the executive presidency. It thus seeks to impose upon the masses a concern that is not their own, and is that of a few urban factions.
A credible common candidate would construct a political platform from the bottom up, giving vent to the grievances and aspirations of the masses. If anyone thinks that the central aspiration of the Sri Lankan voter is the abolition of the executive presidency i.e. to act as electoral cannon fodder for Chandrika’s old slogan of a ‘constitutional revolution’, the election results will prove them ridiculously out of touch.
In a country where 75% of the populace is Sinhala, any viable electoral strategy must be based on “winning the majority of the majority” (as Sirisena Cooray used to say). By extension, any smart choice of a common candidacy must be based on picking someone who can win the majority of the majority of Opposition voters, i.e. someone who can win all actual and potential UNP votes, bringing out those who have stayed home because of Ranil and their own patriotic sentiment. Someone, in short, who can get the UNP’s 40% base vote and more.
Here, the target of 40+ means that the Plus must be recognized as smaller than the 40% base vote. The common candidate cannot be someone who can bring in the plus, through endorsements from the JHU, CBK, SF and Ven. Sobitha, while being unsure of securing the UNP’s 40% base vote. A common candidate cannot be one who risks trading in the 40% for the unspecified Plus which could turn out to be marginal.
Ok, so how is the common candidate to be selected? One must now move from the realm of speculation and debate to an objective and concrete mechanism and process.
The indispensable step is to ascertain to the highest possible degree of accuracy, which personality can bring out the largest number of UNP votes. This can be established by two methods, both of which I suggest should be utilized.
The first is to commission an independent public opinion poll or market research survey. This should not only present a choice of personalities but also of issues (such as the demonized executive presidency).
The second and more important method is one that should be used the day after President Rajapaksa issues the gazette on the forthcoming presidential election. This is the convening of all elected representatives (parliamentary, provincial council and pradesheeya sabha) of the UNP and the selection by secret ballot of the candidate. At the very least it should be a secret ballot of the UNP parliamentary group. The person who wins this ballot is obviously the one who can bring out – and thus bring in –the maximum number of UNP votes. A common candidacy must be built in concentric circles, around this democratic choice by the overwhelmingly pre-eminent party of the Opposition, namely the UNP, of the most indispensable single UNP personality.