By Vishwamithra –
“One person with passion is better than forty people merely interested.” ~ E.M. Forster
Election fever has gripped Sri Lanka again. The year 2022 wrote a preamble of what could be expected in 2023. For the first time in the recent history of the country, just two and half years ago, the chief ruler had to run away, not only from his post, but also the land and the people who elected him. The people jammed the streets in Colombo and other big city centers. Aragalaya as a living organism came to life amongst the youth of the land. From the Cinnamon Gardens mansions to the Pettah slums and Galle city to the most rural village in Galenbindunuweva Township, people raised their hitherto unheard voices. Aragalaya came to be associated with a new political reality in the land.
Nevertheless, for some who identified themselves with the super-rich class, Aragalaya died a sudden death when petrol and diesel were available at the gas station pump. For them Aragalaya was just an ornament around their necks which yet remain un-burnt and well preserved complexion thanks to the latest version of Botox, a protein that relaxes muscle contractions injected under the skin to erase facial wrinkles. The styles and polishes of a decadent social segment may well have been exhibiting their dying lifestyles in the face of marauding sociopolitical forces! The context and preconditions were set in the preceding year. If and when an election of any kind, parliamentary, presidential or even local government, is held, the free will of the people comes to play the most decisive role it can in a functioning democracy. March 9, 2023 could very well be that decisive day. The collective voice of the people cannot be marginalized and thrown into the dustbin of social debris.
Such a monumental occasion could not come at a more appropriate time. The Opposition, if they are clever and crafty enough, should convey their strategy, tactics and the fundamental message as a referendum on the incumbent powers, the President, the Cabinet of Ministers and Parliament.
When the voting public lines up at the polling booth, they must be allowed to choose between the incumbent and those who reject the incumbent. A binary choice, instead of voting for one party of one symbol and a candidate of another symbol, should not be even discussed at electioneering meetings. There should not be a third choice.
Placing of deposits ended at 12 noon Friday, January 20. Forty six (46) recognized political parties and one hundred and thirteen (113) independent groups have paid the deposits. One wonders as to how long a single ballot paper would look like. That is part of the informational and educational processes to be undertaken by each political party. However, Sri Lankan voter has never found it difficult to understand the complexities associated with the ballot papers and the number of rejected votes as a percentage of the total polled in each of the past elections attests to their capacity for comprehension. If the older generation does not understand the younger one always comes forward and explains the way in which one has to cast his or her ballot.
Complexity is not the way in which the ballot paper is designed or the methodology of casting preference of one over the other candidate or party. The complexity dwells in the party or which candidate to vote for. It becomes even easier if the voters are told whom to vote against. A referendum on those who represent the current government and Status Quo is the simplest and most efficient way to conduct this election campaign, specifically for the Opposition parties.
The Players on the Field
There are five major political entities that seek the vote from the citizenry this time. They are: 1. National Popular Power (NPP) or Jathika Jana Balawegaya which is an electoral coalition established in 2015 by Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD) and his Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Well entrenched in and notorious for exhibitionist politics and campaigning, AKD and his gang still have not realized the danger in indulging in campaigns that falsely reflect powers and inner forces that they really do not possess. They cannot expect magical results. The downfall of the JVP in last few elections, in fact, since the days of Rohana Wijeweera, is owing to this dangerous trend to believe in powers that they don’t have. Holding massive public rallies with incredible self-discipline and order does to translate into votes unless they build more than a superficial base. The NPP’s base is still not large enough to be a winning party in an election in Sri Lanka. Although this writer has opined many a time as to the authenticity and sincerity of the JVP and its leadership, I dare say that once again, the NPP may not be declared the winner of the overall election. To be catapulted from a mere 3.7% as per Presidential election results in 2019 and 3.8% as per parliamentary election results in 2020 to 30% to 40% of the country’s vote is phenomenal. It may not be impossible but very unlikely. If the NPP does win more than 50% of the local authorities, it would be more than a miracle, yet miracles do happen as they did in the 1956 landslide victory for the SLFP led by SWRD Bandaranaike.
Samagi Jana Balavegaya, on the other hand, has a solid base in that it is made up of the original UNP base which counts to almost 25% of the total vote base in the country. Yet as per AKD’s interpretation that the UNP and SJB belong together in the Status Quo could be very ominous for Sajith Premadasa and his SJB if AKD succeeds in branding the UNP and SJB together and argue that offer a clear choice before the people as a referendum on the entire non-NPP parties grouped together and the NPP as the other choice. In such a referendum election, given the circumstances created during the Aragalaya period, it will not be wise to cast one’s bets against a total sweeping victory for the NPP-led candidates. It will be, as I mentioned earlier, a miracle, but in the context of the unprecedented crisis the country is facing today, it is not all that dreamy to expect such a miraculous episode.
One should not forget how and why JR Jayewardene introduced the Proportional Representation (PR) System. It was to make sure that the UNP would last forever in power. But at that time there were R Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali in the UNP-fold. Ranil Wickremesinghe as the UNP leader, since the demise of Gamini Dissanayake, has seen the UNP to its present ruinous state.
What could Sajith and his cohorts in the SJB do to avert such a humiliating circumstance as the second Ranil? By not offering the SJB as a party and himself as an alternative as a believable ‘Change’, Sajith will suffer immensely if the voters reject them at the local government level. To be grouped and branded as part of the Status Quo is unquestionably a political minus in the current conditions. The progressive and enlightened steps and the forward-looking trend that was set in during the Aragalaya period cannot be disregarded as insignificant. Nor could any political party that seeks votes in any election since then be indifferent to the new thinking that manifested itself, especially amongst the youth. Against a backdrop of a demand for a ‘System Change’, the only way and manner in which a political party seeking the support of the masses could be successful is by breaking away from the traditional and anachronistic politics. Sajith and the SJB seem to be unwilling for that kind of radical change.
Furthermore, where would the breakaway voters from the current UNP and the Pohottuwa go? A significant part of the breakaway voting bloc from the UNP might decide to hang on to the SJB but more than 80% of votes that would break away from the Pohottuwa would decide to vote with the NPP.
Sajith and the SJB cannot just be weighed down by history’s fairytales. The recent history of the UNP is malignant to the current flow of events. How far has the SJB been successful in attracting today’s youth into its party? Elections are not happening in a vacuum. The surrounding circumstances and the crucial context within which elections are held are even more important than the rallies, pocket meetings and candidates. The macro-picture is critical and its relevance cannot be ignored.
Contrastingly, one should not get bogged down in the micro-picture of electioneering such as where to hold a mass rally and what should be included in the manifesto so on and so forth. That is why the concept of a referendum is valid and more than legitimate in the planning, strategizing and executing of a grand election campaign. Listening to AKD on their initiating of the campaign in Anuradhapura, one would have come to an irresistible conclusion that he or she was hearing what they wanted to hear. Always drawing the eyes and ears to the symbol of the party, Compass (Maalimawa), AKD was not only strategic in his approach, his empathetic appeal to the average voter is unmatched by Sajith and his cohorts.
Who will win the overall victory, whether the SJB or the NPP will depend largely on many factors amongst which the following would be crucial and decisive:
1. Who will make this election a referendum between the Status Quo and the ‘New’?
2. Which party has a more vibrant grassroots-level organization?
3. Is the country emotionally and intellectually ready for a ‘System Change’?
4. Which party would be able to muster the cash/money power to organize a national-level campaign?
5. Who is more credible in the eyes of the people, Sajith or AKD?
Whoever or whichever comes first to the voter would be the winner. Both the traditional UNP led by Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Pohottuwa candidates led by the Rajapaksas will be swept away and a new sociopolitical reality would emerge whose countenance and process will be judged very harshly at each step they take by a questioning voter after the victory.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org