15 December, 2019

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The Forgotten Majority – The Way Forward?

By Yohan Abeynaike

Yohan Abeynaike

Yohan Abeynaike

The elections are over and much will be said and written about these historic days. Amidst these discussions I present a preliminary analysis of an often forgotten and misunderstood constituency.

The Change-makers

The euphoria of victory has engulfed us all. Many will want to take credit for their role in the final outcome. Was it the political coup spearheaded by the former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe in getting Mr Maithripala Sirisena to defect that changed the tide? Was it the minority Tamil and Muslim voters who braved physical and other forms of threats to vote overwhelmingly for the opposition? Was it the integrity and courage displayed by the Election Commissioner and his staff together with the IGP N.K. Illangakoon and the police that helped to ensure that the mandate of the people is heard and respected? No doubt, the answer is all of the above and all of these must share some of the credit.

However, there seems to be another group of people that have been largely forgotten in the discussions taking place so far, i.e. the Sinhala voter. The Rajapaksa government had long forfeited the support of the Tamil population due to the war and the subsequent refusal of the government to address their legitimate grievances. Despite the efforts of the hardline elements of the Tamil Diaspora to encourage a boycott of the polls, the Tamil population in the country rightly recognized the dangers of that approach for their day to day lives. The Muslim population also did not really ‘have a choice’ after the murderous rampage promoted by the BBS who had state patronage. Despite the long delay of the Muslim political leaders to make the switch, the Muslim population had already made up their minds well in advance of the polls.

Maithri SThis leaves the Sinhala population. The ending of the war was a great positive to the Sinhala voter. The ability to live and work without the threat to life was a powerful incentive to support the incumbent. The very visible development of the infrastructure also created the perception that the country was heading towards a brighter future. However, the cost of living was increasing. The first family was controlling a lion share of the budget. Corruption was on the rise and all forms of dissent were being suppressed. It seems to me that it is the Sinhala population that really had a choice to make – keep the status quo or vote for change. Both candidates had their pros and cons as reflected by the vote. However, the critical mass who defected ensured the victory of the opposition.

The JHU’s recent claim to making the difference at the election, however, must be challenged. Their traditional support base is the more hardline Sinhala population. Their main strongholds of Maharagama, Kesbewa, Homagama, Avissawella etc were all won by the incumbent. While the powerful rhetoric of the JHU leaders was attractive and decisive, it is the more moderate Sinhala population that shifted their allegiance to the opposition.

The Opinion-makers

A closer look at the final results shows a glaring divide. 10 of the 22 polling districts were won by President Rajapakse. Mr Sirisena won the Gampaha and Puttalam polling districts only by about 4,500 votes. The Badulla district was won by a meagre 281 votes. It seems that in the Sinhala dominated districts the voters were very much divided about who to vote for. This underlines the fact that the Sinhala voters were the ones who had to make a real choice at these elections.

However, there is another interesting aspect that needs to be mentioned. In a number of the polling districts that President Rajapakse won comfortably, the main town in those districts were won by the opposition. This trend is seen in Matara and Galle where these towns are the only polling divisions in the district won by Sirisena. In Kurunegala and Matale the main towns are 1 of 2 polling divisions won by Sirisena. This goes to show, arguably, that the ‘elites’ in those polling districts have voted counter to their neighbours. They have taken a stand and shouted “not in my name” to the status quo. In the terms of the Roger’s Innovation Adoption Curve, they have become the ‘Innovators’ and ‘Early Adopters’ of the opposition message of good governance. As the country looks to go forward the support of these elites need to be harnessed as they will be the opinion makers of their respective areas. This will be the challenge of the new administration.

The Peace-makers?

The message of good governance has resonated with the electorate. The new President has received the support of all the communities to establish the basic tenents of a democracy. He has shown courage to step out of the status quo and run counter to his political masters. However, his thoughts and ideas with regard to the national question are still largely unknown. The broad coalition that he has built around good governance must extend to tackling and resolving the ethnic conflict in our country. This election has shown that there is a critical mass among the Sinhala population who are willing to go beyond ethnic loyalties and personal preferences to bring in something that is good for the wider nation.

These opinion makers must be mobilized to also act courageously with regard to the ethnic conflict. They are the ones who can provide leadership and attitudinal change among those in their neighbourhoods. President Rajapaksa missed out on the great opportunity he had for this in the immediate aftermath of the war. President Sirisena has this same opportunity now. We pray that his response will be different from his predecessor.

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Latest comments

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    The author points out that a larger number of Sinhalese (especially those in the main town centres) voted for the new regime, and they should not be forgotten. Of course not.

    However what also must not be forgotten is that a majority (albeit slim) of the Sinhala Buddhist block placed their vote firmly in front of Mahinda Rajapakses name. And MR’s campaign rhetoric focused on Eelam fear-mongering and its so called “mega development”.

    This shows that a major portion of the Sinhala south placed their votes on uneducated guesses and emotion (love for the maha raja) while the minorities placed their votes firmly in front of a campaign rhetoric of good governance and anti corruption, thereby placing their vote on educated calculations rather than emotion.

    Ergo a majority of the minorities voted sensibly while a minority of the majority also decided to come out and do the same.

    But the fact remains – a majority of the majority remained uneducated. And they need to be educated.

    In conclusion, more money should be spent on education so that future elections can be fought on REAL substance and not rhetoric.

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    Yohan
    Thank you for writing this..

    Pl let me point out:

    1.”These opinion makers must be mobilized to also act courageously with regard to the ethnic conflict. They are the ones who can provide leadership and attitudinal change among those in their neighbourhoods”:
    Pl remember there is support for your idea:
    ”Structural and geo-technical engineers know that when a long building is constructed especially on weak soil, it is almost mandatory to have a movement joint to separate the building into two. ………….here is probably a good case for Southerners to give their Northern counterparts greater freedom of ‘movement’. …. the Northerners need greater freedom; and the North needs a movement joint to settle differentially, while preserving national integrity.” _ Does the North of Sri Lanka need a ‘Movement Joint’? Prof Priyan Dias, 24 December 2014, Groundviews.

    2.”President Rajapaksa missed out on the great opportunity he had for this in the immediate aftermath of the war”:
    You’re supported again(in addition to submissions by many Sinhalese to LLRC):
    ”President Mahinda Rajapaksa, had such overwhelming political support that they were in a position, if they chose, to expend political capital by taking concrete steps toward communal reconciliation.” – Prospects For Post Conflict Reconciliation And Development In Sri Lanka: Can Singapore Be Used As A Model? Prof John Richardson, Text of a presentation at Global Asia Institute Speaker Series (2010), National University of Singapore, 5 November 2010 in Groundviews

    3.”President Sirisena has this same opportunity now. We pray that his response will be different from his predecessor” isn’t going to be easy but he must have the courage to do what the Sinhalese rulers of the last 67yrs failed to do, without worrying about re-election:

    Ethirveerasingam’s comment in the article: ” I like to share conversations I had with *Lalith Athulathmudali and **Ranil Wickremasinghe (when they were a *Cabinet Minister and **Opposition Leader). L. Athulathmudali, 4 Feb 1985: ‘’Proposing a federal constitution will be political suicide.” R. Wickremasinghe, 13 May 1997: “We are a political party. Like any other political party, we will not do anything that will not get us into power, nor would we do anything when we are in power to lose power” – Rajapaksrized Chauvinism in Flowery prose: Sri Lankan Diplomat’s outright humiliation of Sri Lankan Tamils, Maitree de Silva, 8 February 2009 in Groundviews

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    Yohan
    Please keep us informed on any programme on this:
    ”These opinion makers must be mobilized to also act courageously with regard to the ethnic conflict. They are the ones who can provide leadership and attitudinal change among those in their neighbourhoods.”

    CT
    Please give Yohan my eddress – I wish to contact him.

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      Yohan
      Pl give your twitter accout or email next time you write here.

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    Yohan,

    You remind me of my shinhala colleques in 1971 ,who did not have any bias.Your article is a jewel, in my opinion .Keep on writing and educate the Sri Lankan masses .
    Tamil did not support President Srisena just to get rid of MR but to have democracy reinstated.

    Chris.

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