Colombo Telegraph

In Predicting Presidential Elections?

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

In predicting the upcoming presidential elections, there are no regular opinion polls conducted in Sri Lanka, like for example in Australia. In Australia, which is a compulsory voting country, before we went to the polling booth last time, on 7 September 2013, we roughly knew through these polling predictions that the Labor would lose and the Liberals would win at the national parliamentary elections. As I have expressed in analyzing those results and predictions, it is possible that some voters must have been influenced by these predictions at least marginally. Thank God, we don’t have them in Sri Lanka. In my opinion, these opinion polls should stop at least a week before an election, or otherwise free and fair elections might be indirectly influenced, even in an advanced country like Australia.

How Can We Predict?

In the absence of such regular polls, however, how can we predict the results of an election or more precisely the upcoming presidential elections in Sri Lanka? There can be intelligent guesses by carefully observing the opinion or campaign trends. There can be wild guesses as well. I can remember from my childhood that people even used to bet money or precious items like wrist watches or gold rings on the basis of those guesses. However, when one prediction was right, the other was wrong.

Of course we have soothsayers or astrologers who predict the results by reading the horoscopes of candidates and planetary conditions. If these are accurate, then the prediction of presidential election is easy because there are only two main contenders, MR and MS. One may even argue that what is the point in having elections? We should have a Council of Astrologers to select the best candidate for the country without spending lots and lots of money and energy.

On the lighter side, I also understand that there was a TV panel discussion of four astrologers recently. After all their readings and arguments, they finally concluded that planetary conditions are almost equal for both candidates, two of them predicting MS would win and the other two favoring MR.

Unfortunately we have something called democracy, invented by the ‘Westerners,’ and we have adopted it reluctantly though and we want to give every ‘tom, dick and harry’ a say in the selection of our President. Yet, why do we need to predict the elections? Even I am not very sure, except it might give me pleasure or credit as an academic, if I predict the most obvious, like the astrologers!

Let me get little serious. Let me ask this question: what factors are important in deciding who will win the election? What are the different methods that we can use in predicting? People or analysts have expressed many views. Some have stressed the personalities of the two candidates. Others have stressed political issues confronting the country such as corruption, mismanagement (family) and unresolved minority issues. The traditional economic factors also cannot be ignored. People who would rally around these issues, however, would be different.

The two candidates are not independent candidates. There are political parties behind them, however shambolic. Those political parties do have traditional vote banks; not static but fluctuating. These are called ‘primary votes’ irrespective of the candidate/s or the issues. They may relate to broader party policies or ideologies. Then you have ethnicity, religion or even caste intervening. We always forget the gender issue. At this elections that is the most unaddressed. It is basically a male competition, naturally violence involved.

One thing about this election is that both candidates are strong Sinhala Buddhists. (I doubt that CBK was like that in 1994). Therefore those constituencies of non-Sinhala Buddhist backgrounds or their majorities would prefer the most amicable person for them. This would also depend on what the political parties of those constituencies would say. For example, TNA to the Tamil voters and SLMC to the Muslim voters. Then it overlaps with political party preferences.

Some Past-Patterns

All these factors are complicated that impinge on the final outcome. Then how could we decide what factors are more important in the election? Or how do we separate the wheat from the chaff? This is the key question for any predictor. We can go backwards and see what factors became predominant and why? I am making a quick sweep. We know that cultural/nationalist sentiments predominated the 1956 elections. On the other hand, economic factors predominated the 1977 elections. But both were parliamentary elections and not presidential ones.

It appears to me that when it comes to presidential elections, personalities and past records of incumbents’ (as relevant), and national policy issues play a major role among other factors. Because, firstly, the presidential system is highly a personalized system. Secondly, issues become predominant since public ‘good or bad’ becomes related to those personalities. There is nothing wrong in people holding the President responsible for all the ills in the country. This is the case in other countries as well.

We have had six presidential elections previously – 1982, 1988, 1994, 1999, 2005 and 2010. If I again use a quick brush, Hector Kobbekaduwa was no match for JRJ in 1982. In addition, economic performance under JRJ was impressive and fairly uncontroversial, except for the workers particularly in July 1980. Both the personality and the issue factor however favored JRJ.

When it came to the presidential race in 1988, it was difficult for Mrs. B to compete with R. Premadasa irrespective of her past popularity and also unpopularity (1971-77). Atmosphere was violent and only 55 percent could reach the polling booths. Although the running party was the same as before (UNP), Premadasa presented a new vision towards the rural constituencies.

At the presidential elections in 1994, voters wanted a change, weary of continued violence and instability. Finally, after the assassination of Gamini Dissanayake, Mrs. Dissanayake was no match for CBK. There were several political factors in operation which were quite similar to today, I might briefly revisit later. The threat of the LTTE was a key issue at the 1999 presidential election. Vote for CBK was to manage the situation against RW’s appeasement, yet with an eroded popularity from 62 percent to 51 percent. Apart from the sympathy vote, gained after the bomb attack on CBK, policy issues were again predominant.

By 2005, perhaps voters wanted a change again rationally or not. The victory margin was slender. A key factor preventing RW’s victory over MR was LTTE’s boycott. The role of accidents or irrationality in political history is amply demonstrated by that election through which the country undoubtedly benefitted immensely. Thereafter, MR’s victory over SF in 2010 was a cake walk. People paid their gratitude to the incumbent immensely. However, it is a doubtful question whether the people would repeat the same in 2015. The factors that have intervened in between 2010 and now (2015) are crucial. These are crucial even in predicting the results.

All the above are ideas or set of ideas. They may be influenced by my academic discipline (75 percent) and personal political preferences (25 percent). Both are intermingled. Let me quote an authority (“Predicting Presidential Elections” by Ray C. Fair, Stanford University Press, 2002, p. 2). I am even ‘plagiarizing’ my title from him!

“We call an idea or a set of ideas offered to explain something a theory. A theory may or may not be a good explanation….What is important is that there be some way to test whether the theory is any good.

In this article, I am confining myself mainly to the theoretical side of the prediction. I may try, if the time permits, to test this theory or hypothesis before the election. In testing my hypothesis, a survey would have been the best. However, it is practically not possible at this stage or even otherwise. Therefore, I may depend on what the others have done through surveys, I must say critically. The other available method is by analyzing the past election results, objectively. Even here, there can be various methods of doing so. There are different analyses or interpretations already done by different people.

Some Questions

On the theoretical side, we can ask some pertinent questions going back and forth. Some answers might reveal certain aspects of the electoral behavior of the voters and also the political leaders (or the rascals!). This is educational and even be useful for the future. After all, all our exercises or efforts should help to advance our knowledge on the subject of elections, electoral behavior and the operations of democracy. Our exercises should not be just about manipulation of figures.

How did MR beat RW in 2005? It was quite a skillful endeavor under an extremely disadvantageous situation. First he projected himself as a reliable and a reasonable leader even for the LTTE. Mahinda Chinthana 1 was innovative. The coup de grace came when he managed to neutralize the Northern Tamil voters through an understanding or deal with the LTTE. The majority was a mere 180,000 votes, which could have been offset, if the Tamils had voted.

Then how did MR win the 2010 elections when the TNA backed SF? The answer indicates some exceptional circumstances. It was not merely the defeat of the LTTE that gave him the edge, because SF was the celebrated Army Commander. It was the peak of MR’s popularity, after the victory of course, and there was some hope that even the longstanding ethnic conflict might be resolved under his leadership. No one should underestimate the moderate constituency that voted for MR in 2010. If his campaign was a chauvinist one, a person like me, for example, or many other academics would not have campaigned for him in 2010.

It is my hypothesis, therefore, that people vote, not only to gratify war but also to achieve peace. There are ‘war voters.’ But there are ‘peace voters’ as well. The voting behavior in 1994 presidential elections and 2001 parliamentary elections also showed this phenomenon. One should not ignore that MR’s 2005 manifesto also was primarily a peace manifesto. On the other hand, ‘triumphalism’ was not that prominent in 2010 elections. Therefore, peace constituencies also voted for him in 2010. The voters obviously preferred a civilian leader to a military leader.

In a parliamentary system, party vote constitutes the election bedrock. Prior to the introduction of the presidential system, it could reasonably be assumed the following percentages for different parties. UNP 35; SLFP 25; Minority Parties 10; Left 5; Others 5 and 20 percent being floating voters including newly registered. However this has changed considerably under the presidential system, the floating voter percentage rising to around 30 percent and the party bases dwindling.

What have become prominent are candidates and issues. Why does the JVP support MS, at least indirectly, despite the UNP dominance in the opposition? The issues. The same goes for the minority parties, TNA and the SLMC. Why did the JHU breakaway from the government? The issues. What became apparent particularly after 1994 was that the UNP voter base dwindled to around 25 percent while the UPFA party vote rising to over 35 percent.

However, the UPFA or the SLFP party base is now shaken by Maithripala Sirisena becoming the opposition candidate strongly supported by CBK with nearly 30 MPs crossing over. This is major erosion, possibly leading to a major voter swing. If the government’s ‘separatist phobia campaign’ has been successful, these cross over could not have happened or continued.

Voter Issues

If we focus more on the MR MS competition, who is addressing the voter issues and what are they? Traditionally we believe that people are concerned about their cost of living, salaries and income. That is true. This is common to the lower and middle income groups in the urban sector and for almost all sections of the rural masses except perhaps a small group of rural rich. MS has offered a Rs. 10,000 salary increase. There are always grievances in a developing country, unlike in a developed one, even if the economy is sound (GDP etc.) according to the Central Bank or others. Rising expectations are generally high among the middle classes.

In addition, rural people are more concerned about land issues and education. Land is their survival and education is their upward social mobility. ‘Divineguma program although had the potential to address the land and some of the related issues, it is a political scheme than a socio-economic program. It rotates around the UPFA’s voter base and activists of around 25 percentage of the people. The operations are corruptive. They cannot be blamed because having seen their political higher-ups lavishly using state resources they also want some spoils. In addition, there is a huge bureaucratic structure which eats into its resources.

What about the educational aspirations of the rural? It is completely a mismanaged one. The unprecedented university unrest is only the tip of the ice burg. The opposition common candidate has pledged 6 percent GDP for education in his Manifesto. This was a recent demand of the university and the educational communities. Nothing of the sort from the incumbent. Bradman Weerakoon has related his experience in an interior village of Kalutara District where he lives now in this respect which has a relevance to our point (Groundviews, 4 January 2015). This is what he has said:

“Since the date the Election was announced until the 25th of December the only canvassing in the village has been for Maithripala. The highlight of the canvassing effort was a joint UNP/SLFP 30 member large group distributing the common candidates manifesto and 100 day programme. It is noteworthy that the group was composed of the principals of the five schools in the neighbourhood and pradeshiya level political figures.”

The battered members of the educational community, university and school, are prominent in the Maithripala campaign.

The present is an election, however, where political issues predominate. It may be true that the majority of the rural people are oblivious about the issue of the abolition of the executive presidential system. But they know that MR is contesting for an unprecedented Third Term. Along with it, is the family rule, corruption and violence by the government goons. People are aware that the governance and issues of justice might be different under the opposition.

There is a clear roadmap in the opposition candidate’s Diary for the first 100 days. The Rajapaksa manifesto in contrast is a repetition of the old slogans and promises. On the issues of sovereignty, territorial integrity or unity of the country, the people in the South would consider the credentials of Rajapaksa and Sirisena to be almost equal. They would not see an imminent danger of separatism. One may say that the voters are not that rational. But they are not that irrational either.


It is true that MR had a high approval rating according to a leadership Gallup Poll in Asia in 2011. There was no competitor at that time. He was not unpopular at that time, or rather popular. Hun Sen’s (Cambodia) and Saignason’s (Laos) approval ratings were even higher. Even today, MR might not be that unpopular as a person. But his family and entourage have eroded his political or public popularity. Moreover, the issues have overtaken him and as a result his political stature has strongly dipped.

The 18th Amendment and the impeachment of the Chief Justice, Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake, the ever women CJ, have been major black marks in MR’s political face. The most despicable has been the violence unleashed against the opponents and even against the ordinary protestors (Rathupaswela). The same continued during the election campaign under his authority. I am not sure whether it has stopped after the end of the campaigns.

Maithripala Sirisena is a formidable competitor. He comes from a more rural background if that is appealing to the voters. He has the ability to erode the SLFP’s or even UPFA’s voter base as the SLFP’s General Secretary for 13 years, along with the former President, CBK. He is more photogenic and six years younger to the incumbent. He was educated at Royal College, not Colombo but Polonnaruwa. His Manifesto is more promising than the incumbent’s one. A novelty of a 100 Days Diary is issued with the Manifesto. There is nothing much new in the incumbent’s Manifesto, except the repeated ones.

The incumbent’s campaign mainly rotates around scaremongering about a (non-existent) danger of separation of the country since the TNA is supporting MS. It contradicts all the positive claims built around the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. It is almost a non-issue except among the hardcore SLFP/MR voters around 35 to 40 percent. Therefore, in this author’s opinion this bizarre single issue campaign will not succeed.

Basis of Projection

Let us begin some initial projections from the most unfavorable figures of the 2010 presidential elections for the opposition candidate. The total registered voters at that election were 14,088,500 and out of which 10,495,451 or 74.49 percent voted. However, 101,838 or 0.97 percent were rejected as spoiled.

Mahinda Rajapaksa apparently polled 6,015,934 or 57.88 percent of the votes. I used the term ‘apparently’ because there was a possibility of around 2 percent being fraudulently casted or counted. However, I would not estimate that for the projection. The opposition candidate, Sarath Fonseka, polled 4,173,185 or 40.15 percent of the votes. All others polled 204,494 or nearly 2 percent. That included Shivagilingam (9,662) and more importantly, Mohomad Ismail (39,226).

The gap between the two candidates or majority of Mahinda Rajapaksa was 1,842,749 or 18 percent. If we assume that the same voters vote at this election, then the required ‘swing of votes’ from MR to MS should be 921,375+1 or 9 percent. However, even if the same voters vote at this time, there is a possibility that those who voted for SF last time might vote for MR this time. However, that swing cannot be more than 1 percent in my view and that can easily be offset by additional 1 percent from MR to MS.

This means by and large 10 percent swing is sufficient for MS to win this election. All others could be bonuses.

Even the ruling party sponsored estimates have admitted that there is a swing and even if MR wins, the majority or the overall percentage would be reduced. In assessing the final swing for the opposition, questions could be asked on two counts. (1) How many voters would have possibly moved away from MR to the opposition since 2010 before the beginning of the election campaign? (2) Howe many voters possibly have or would move away from MR to MS as a result of the election campaign? These two questions anticipate two shifts or swings, one before the campaign and one after.

Both questions could have been ‘scientifically’ answered through independent opinion polls or election surveys. However, in the absence of them, there are several ways of estimating the ‘swing factor’ in general. One is to estimate it through the provincial council election results in 2104 that in fact prompted the President to call for the presidential elections two years earlier. The Western, Southern and Uva results show the swing to be quite higher than 10 percent on average in all three provinces. Abu Ayman, an independent electoral analyst, has estimated that MR’s ‘popularity decline’ must have been in the range of 2.5 to 3 percent since 2010, annually. I cannot disagree. His report is published on 2 January 2015, titled “Presidential Election 2015: Perspectives and Outcomes.”

What are the other bonuses? There are 15,044,490 voters this time. This is an entry of 955,990 new (young) voters. Although there is no firm guarantee, majority of them would tend to vote with the opposition. There are no remarkable minority candidates, Tamil or Muslim, at this election. However, the strength of the campaign or the issues overriding party or candidates might be the decisive. There are possibilities of projecting the possible results based on, for example 2010 results, on the basis of the ‘swing factor,’ both before (10%) and after the campaign started (10+5%) on district basis. I might attempt this at the next opportunity.

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