By Chamindry Saparamadu –
The vote in Uva has raised hopes for many: a possible defeat of Rajapaksa at a future election has built a certain momentum. It has generated discussion, debate, hypotheses and predictions. The electorate seems to have been awakened from a deep slumber. For an ecstatic UNP, it signals a probable opportunity of going alone and winning at the next election: It is possibly the best bargain for the party stalwarts. For the groups working tirelessly towards an opposition coalition, a common programme has now become a hard sell to the UNP as much convincing is needed more now than before. The regime, meanwhile, finds itself in a catch 22 situation: a choice between early polls or living its full term until 2016. A careful consideration of options is vital at this point.
A realistic assessment of the Uva result is called for in order to make any predictions regarding the outcome of a future election. What explains the Uva result?
Needless to say that joining of two factions within the UNP had a tremendous impact on the election campaign. Sajith Premadasa’s re-entry into the electoral fray definitively stirred the complacent UNP constituency. The regime’s waning popularity as a consequence of the rising cost of living seems to clearly have influenced the vote. However, one could hardly ignore the overwhelming appeal the young and charismatic UNP’s chief ministerial candidate Harin Fernando had on the constituency. Essentially, an electorate swayed by charismatic leadership was captivated by Harin through his well designed electoral campaign. Without a doubt, Harin had been able to attract the anti-government sentiment that was expressed as a protest vote for the JVP and the DNA in the Southern and Western provincial council elections in March this year. This explains the decline in the vote for the JVP and the DNA in Uva. The singular focus of a united UNP effort had a crystallizing effect on the campaign. Whilst the UNP collectively focused its full thrust on Uva campaign, the UPFA campaign seems to have been weakened by internal divisions. Post-Uva murmurs tell us that SLFP heavyweights wilfully abstained from putting their strength behind the campaign of Shashindra Rajapksa. A formidable electoral victory for Sashindra, in their view, would have been a reaffirmation of the electoral indispensability of the Rajapaksa family, which is hardly a victory for the SLFP at this point.
Nevertheless, a probable defeat of Rajapaksa and a victory for the UNP/opposition seems to hinge on number factors and eventualities.
Given the ease with which the Sri Lankan electorate is wooed by a charismatic leader as opposed to a collective programme, much depends on who will challenge the incumbent in power. Rajapaksa is losing popularity but there is no doubt that he still remains the most popular politician amongst the existing lot. Who can challenge him at the national level?
What is the opposition’s capacity to steer a national level campaign? Two issues need to be considered. What is UNPs organizational capability at ground level? It is unclear at this point whether the JVP would extend support to a common opposition candidate or a UNP candidate. JVP’s organizational capacity at the ground level is undisputed. Can the UNP lead an effective nationwide campaign sans JVP support? Needless to say a well planned campaign at the ground level is essential to defeat the SLFP political machinery that is well entrenched in the electorate.
The second issue is whether the effect of state and pro-regime private media can be effectively thwarted by the opposition. There is no doubt that the UPFA would use the media to its maximum advantage reaching the widest audience possible.
Much would depend on who will support and who will oppose the UNP or a joint opposition alliance. Rumours are afloat regarding closed door discussions and lobbying of minority parties. How bargains are stuck, concessions and compromises made would be decisive. The negotiations so far seem to reflect how each actor strives to maximize its share of the bargain rather than working towards the collective goal of challenging the common opponent. It is likely that the Tamil National Alliance would base its support on condition of a North-East merger. This raises a number of issues regarding how the Sinhalese Buddhist vote base could be galvanized. Past Electoral politics in the South have been centred on a continuous process of mobilizations and counter mobilizations around the ethnic issue. An agreement to merge the North and East may trigger strong Sinhalese nationalist sentiments which could be a rallying point against such an agreement.
The vociferous anti-regime critique of the JVP set the stage for the UNP to mobilize the disenchanted vote in their favour at the Uva election. This raises issues regarding JVP’s political strategy at a forthcoming Presidential election. What will JVPs political position be? Will they be as critical and will they strengthen an opposition campaign when the party’s long term political survival is best assured by a third Rajapaksa term?
The most decisive factor at a national election, in my view, is how the UPFA would act in the next few months; how mistakes are rectified, politics manipulated and resources are manoeuvred. President Rajapaksa has not been a part of the post-Uva electoral discussions. However, answers to three questions might tilt the balance in his favour. Amidst speculations, will the SLFP be able to present constitutional reforms that would capture the imagination of the electorate emasculating the election slogans of the Opposition? Given this regime’s high track record in delivery, how well would a constitutional reforms package originating from the Rajapaksa camp appease the electorate? Is the regime able to give economic concessions through the 2014 Budget addressing some of the main economic hardships of the people? Is President Rajapaksa able to critically reflect upon the Uva election result and make amends with the SLFP organization in a way that he can muster full and unconditional support of the SLFP? Rajapaksa’s astute political savvy far outweighs that of any contemporary politician. He is sure to play his best political game this time around as well.
As said at the outset, the outcome of a future election depends on certain dynamics and eventualities. Actions and reactions of political actors, the partnerships they build and how personal interests are negotiated for the benefit of the collective would play a vital role in the final realization of these eventualities. At this point therefore, optimism for the future based on the Uva electoral results rests on shaky ground.
*Chamindry Saparamadu is a lawyer based in Colombo