By Kumar David –
Statistics is a dangerous game and electoral statistics are quicksand, hence I will draw only the broadest conclusions from the outcome of the three Provincial Council elections of September 8. The first impression and one that is valid is that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s UPFA has held its ground in the Sinhalese heartland – what are the implications of this for the next three to four years up to the next presidential elections? The second outcome is that the TNA (strictly it was the Illangai Thamil Arasu Katchi – ITAK – that contested alone) has emerged as the principal representative of the Tamil people of the East. What does that say about the Northern Province? And thirdly, what does the UPFA’s sucess imply for the apparently paradoxical wave of anti-government sentiment that is sweeping across the Colombo classes (bourgeoisie, elite and fixed income working and middle classes)? What are the real qualitative changes implied and hidden in these results and to what extent do these results matter so far as medium term political fundamentals are concerned? I will mull over these questions.
The basic statistics are mandatory; the UPFA took 60% of the vote in the Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Kegalle and Ratnapura Districts, which along with the Southern Province – which did no go to elections – constitutes the Sinhalese heartland. The UNP was able to garner only 35% in each of these districts. Does this say it all; is the Sinhala-Buddhist petty bourgeoisie still rock solid with the government? In the main yes, but with reservations. What reservations?
I believe that the percentage poll at between 60-65% is on the low side even for a PC election though I have not had time to search through the statistics of all previous PC elections. If some 5-10% more than usual refrained from voting, it is likely to be opposition voters who realiszed that theirs was a lost cause. In any case, in Sri Lanka, the ruling party invariably wins provincial and local government elections. This is the opposite of the experience in Europe and America where by-elections are an opportunity for people to express dissent. Lanka’s contrarian behaviour is to do with the profound corruption of a public whose main interest is to be on the government’s side and be well positioned to extract favours.
There is also the need to compare voting trends – but should we compare with the 2008 PC polls in the middle of the war or the 2010 parliamentary poll when the UPFA was riding high on a wave of victorious post-war jingoism? Let’s do both. In 2008, the UPFA share was 56% and 59% in the NCP and Sabaragamuga respectively, and the UNP 38% and 41%, respectively. In round number we can then say that the UPFA has improved by about 3%, and UNP declined by about 5%, in 2012, if the 2008 PC elections are used as a benchmark.
Comparison with the 2010 parliamentary vote in the same group of districts indicates an opposite trend. At that election the UPFA polled 66% in the electorates of these districts and provinces while the UNP took about 30%. Hence we can conclude that the UPFA has lost and the UNP gained about 5% in the 2012 PC poll, if the 2010 parliamentary poll is used as a benchmark.
In summary, in respect of the Sinhalese heartland, we can say that the UPFA vote rose from 58% in 2008 to 66% in 2010 and fell back to 60% in 2012. The UNP share of the vote fell from 39% in 2008, to 31% 2010, but recovered to 35% in 2012. The broad conclusion is that the UNP has recovered about half the ground that it lost between 2008 and 2010, during the past two years.
I began with a cautionary word about statistics, so I will confine myself to general remarks. First, comparison with 2010 parliamentary election, when the Rajapaksa brigade was riding high on a chariot of victory in a racist war and soon after victory in a presidential poll, is not meaningful. Hence, the first broad conclusion is that the UNP is still in electoral shambles. I would have refrained from drawing such a harsh conclusion if it had crossed the 40% threshold and perhaps edged towards 45%; but forget it now, the UNP simply cannot go it alone in the period up to and including the 2016 (or prior) parliamentary and presidential elections and have any hope of victory.
I advance this hypothesis despite being aware that local government and PC polls in this country are bum-sucking exercises for the public to coddle up to the president. Even parliamentary elections are not much better in the wake of an all powerful, all corruption forgiving, and unlimited cabinet portfolio granting, Executive Presidency. That is to say, that while admitting the government will do nowhere near as well in a future presidential election, I still dismiss the proposition that there is a large latent UNP vote, and pro-UNP swing, that will “come out at the right time.” Nope, not a hope in hell; the UNP, whether sporting Ranil, Karu or Sajith, is a lame duck. It needs to get serious about politics, an art it has forgotten for two decades, and line up with a united opposition and a “one-issue” presidential challenge, targeted exclusively at abolishing the Executive Presidency. Thereafter, it can go forward to parliamentary elections, under a Westminster model, and try its luck.
I grant that Lanka’s economy is in decline. However, the pain has not reached the petty bourgeoisie. The fruits of ending the war are continuing to benefit small business, farming and the informal economy. The big issues of global depression, oil prices, fiscal crisis, mounting debt, trade deficit and a potential global food crisis, will not reach the village and the marginal classes for quite a while. Perhaps it will be another two years before these issues smack the petty bourgeois – unless the government steers a new course and forestalls it. Nevertheless, I hold that even in two years, even if the economy is in steep decline, it is not the UNP but a broad opposition alliance that can ride the wave.
Tamils plumb for the TNA
ITAK (I prefer the TNA because a united front of Tamil parties is much better than succumbing to the greed of ITAK functionaries for posts and privileges) has done remarkably well. It is the 51% that it secured in the Batticaloa District to the UPFA-Pilleyan 31% that settles the matter of Tamil allegiance and is harbinger of what to expect in the Northern PC elections, if ever the international community can get Rajapaksa to cease his shameless breach of the Constitution. He dare not allow NP-PC elections because an autocrat knows not how to deal with even one PC that is prepared to defy him.
Hence the last broad conclusion that I draw is that very likely Rajapaksa will use every subterfuge to thwart NP-PC elections because Batticaloa District voting (in Padiruppu poling division the ITAK took 77% of the vote) has shown that the TNA will score a substantial victory in the Tamil majority North. The president does not care one hoot for local or for that matter international opinion; only excruciating pain will compel him to allow NP-PC elections to be held.