By Rajan Philips –
The presidential electoral maelstrom is more pre-occupying than the seamless climatic shift from unusual inter-monsoonal storms to regular northeastern monsoons. The election campaign is officially two-weeks old and will be over in another four weeks. The monsoons are just starting and have months to go before they cease. Already, there are landslide and flood warnings for several districts which will determine the distinct paths to victory that the two leading presidential candidates must necessarily follow. No court ruling or presidential repository powers can protect a country from the fury of nature when its government has been reduced to a state of nature at least for the last decade. At the least, so to speak, Sri Lanka should start working in concert with other South Asian countries to increase the region’s collective understanding of the implications of the warming of the Indian Ocean for the vagaries of monsoonal weather and the devastating cycles of drought and floods. It is climate change and the warming of the Indian Ocean, not the atoll of Diego Garcia, that will pre-occupy the younger generations of Sri Lankans, whether in Elpitiya, Palaly, or anywhere else on the island. For now, and for the old fuddy-duddies, the pre-occupation is the November election.
The campaign so far has featured the SLPP’s impressive Elpitiya victory in its southern fortress, after Sajith Premadasa’s massive show of strength in the UNP’s Colombo backyard. Last week saw the opening of the Palaly International Airport which Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe were forced to attend as two lame ducks rather than as live presidential candidates, as they were hoping to. Elpitiya and Palaly have different implications for the two different district-paths that Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa must travel to snatch victory in November. And the Court of Appeal has given the reasons for its ruling which rescued Mr. Rajapaksa’s candidacy by dismissing the challenge to his citizenship as collateral, if not mischievous.
Paradoxically, the Rajapaksas are now praising the independence of the judiciary after thuggishly impeaching a sitting Chief Justice six years ago. Legal luminaries, on the other hand, are concerned with the flaws in judicial reasoning in spite of judicial independence. The Court of Appeal did what it had to do, and it is left for others to judge without consequence whether the court’s ruling is a ruling of convenience, or of constitutionality. Whatever one might think of the court ruling, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ride with the luck of the law continues in the courts. A victory in November might give him the cloak of immunity from pending legal challenges, but it will not dispel the cloud of doubts that his detractors will keep seeding.
The one matter that the Court of Appeal went to some length in disparaging, namely the lawyerly claim to presidential plenary powers, would appear to have missed the mark in candidate Rajapaksa. He seems to be at the plenitude of assumptive powers already, and is making a wide range of plenary promises. If these promises, from freeing prisoners to spraying fertilizer, are intended to please specific sections of the voting population, what effects will they have on other sections of the voters? How will the conflicting effects affect the very narrow paths to victory that Rajapaksa and Premadasa are constrained to follow? And what legal and constitutional implications will flow in the event of a Rajapaksa victory and his choosing to implement his presumptuous promises, without having a legislative majority in parliament?
Paths to Victory
No matter who ends up winning the election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Rajapaksa will have to each win different groups of Sri Lanka’s 22 administrative districts which have become the electoral units for presidential elections. After the alternating electoral sweeps in 1982 by JR Jayewardene and the UNP, and in 1994 by Chandrika Kumaratunga and the SLFP/PA, the distribution of support for the two main political alliances has become somewhat frozen among the 22 districts. Of the seventeen administrative districts in seven provinces, excluding the Northern and Eastern provinces and their five districts, the Rajapaksas are virtually unassailable in at least ten districts.
They are the three districts in the Southern Province (Galle, Matara and Hambantota), two districts in the Sabaragamuwa Province (Kegalle and Ratnapura), two in the North Central Province (Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa), and at least one district each in the Western (Kalutara), North Western (Kurunegala) and Uva (Monaragala) provinces. Elpitiya is ‘on the other side of Bentara’, in Galle District, which is one of the 10 districts that Gotabaya Rajapaksa must necessarily win to win the November election. It is easy to predict that he will win all of them, so there should have been no surprise about the Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabaha results. But winning the 10 districts alone is not enough with the election, as Mahinda Rajapaksa found out in 2015.
Though not as unassailable, the UNP can count on winning the other seven districts: two in the Western Province (Colombo and Gampaha), the three districts in the Central Province (Kandy, Matale and Nuwara Eliya), and potentially one each in the North Western (Puttalam) and Uva (Badulla) provinces. There have been deviations such as when President Premadasa won 16 of the 22 districts in the 1988 election, and Mahinda Rajapaksa won the same number of districts in 2010.
Interestingly, seven of the 16 districts that Mr. Premadasa won convincingly in 1988, namely, Polonnaruwa, Kurunegala, Kegalle, Ratnapura, Badulla, Monaragala, and even Hambantota are now safe Rajapaksa havens. It would require quite a vote swing for Sajith Premadasa to win any one of these seven districts that his father won in 1988. In 2010, Mahinda Rajapaksa won six of the seven districts that Sajith Rajapaksa must win in November. The exception was Nuwara Eliya, which the UNP has always won.
The now frozen pattern first emerged in 2005 when Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe evenly split the electoral map at eleven districts each, and in 2015 when Maithripala Sirisena edged out Mahinda Rajapaksa winning 12 districts to 10. The tallies of both Wickremesinghe (2005) and Sirisena (2015) included the five ‘outlier districts’ in the Northern and Eastern Provinces: two in the North (Jaffna and Vanni) and three in the East (Batticaloa, Digamadulla and Trincomalee). But they should not be considered as outliers only because Mahinda Rajapaksa is the only presidential candidate who did not win any of the five districts in any of the three elections he had contested. He won two (2005 and 2010) without them and lost one (2015) without them. If the five districts were not blamed when he won without them, they should not be blamed because he lost without them.
On the other hand, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena have won all five districts of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, but not with the same results. Kumaratunga won twice (1994 and 1999), Maithripala once (2015), while Wickremesinghe and Fonseka each lost the only election either man contested, in 2005 and 2010, respectively. Ever the unfortunate, Wickremesinghe lost the election in 2005 in spite of winning Jaffna and the other four districts because he could not win them big enough, thanks to the no-vote order of the LTTE in the North and East. In that sense, Jaffna and the rest of North did help Mahinda Rajapaksa win his first election in 2005, as the first President from the South.
Jaffna was in fact an outlier of sorts until 1994 when it first voted for a winning candidate. That was Chandrika Kumaratunga and she carried Jaffna again in 1999. Overall, Jaffna has voted against two winning UNP candidates (1982 and 1988) and twice against the same SLFP winner, Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005 and 2010). In 2015, Jaffna joined eleven other districts in the country in voting for one (Sirisena) and getting two (plus Wickremesinghe) in return. And what a return it has turned out to be, not only for Jaffna but also for the country! So, it was very fitting that Sirisena and Wickremesinghe would return to Jaffna as lame ducks, in potentially their last official appearance together to open the Palaly International Airport.
What role, if any, will Palaly play in influencing the vote in the Jaffna District, and by extension in the Northern Province. The conventional wisdom is that the majority vote in all five districts in the North and East will go to Sajith Rajapaksa. Gotabaya Rajapaksa will have to buck quite a historical trend to prize away even one of the five districts in his first ever electoral contest, where his older brother could not win any in three presidential attempts after being in parliamentary politics for 35 years. Mahinda Rajapaksa is known to have begun his political forays into Jaffna in the 1970s, as a 25-year old MP and sidekick of Anura Bandaranaike and enjoying the hospitality of Alfred Duraiappah, a former Mayor, MP and SLFP organizer in Jaffna. That was hardly a positive introduction to Jaffna’s peninsular political terrain and nothing much seems to have changed in the Rajapaksa’s approach to Tamil politics, Muslim politics, or upcountry Tamil politics.
Politics of co-option does have its space and its agency in Sri Lanka, and it was demonstrated on Friday by the ceremonial signing of the agreement between the SLPP/SLPA and the CWC. Presidential electoral politics is all about alliances and MOUs, none of which are meant to be seriously pursued or honoured. And the voters have gotten used to these charivaris and gotten used to, as well, to sending their own message from the polling booths.
As for Tamil politics, it is seemingly going around in full circles with the TNA reportedly being put on the spot to choose between political realism and rhetorical fantasies. Palaly International Airport may have been intended as the best demonstration of political realism in the Wickremesinghe playbook. The upgrading of the airport for international flights is unquestionably a positive development. But its political effect would have been far greater if there had been other matching developments on the ground, and if the government and the TNA had shown some persistence and purpose in getting the Provincial Councils to work as they are supposed to. With the northern provincial council literally put on logs, it would be foolish for anybody to raise federalism as a touchstone issue for the presidential election. Whatever might be the domestic and diaspora pressures, it would be hypocritical for the TNA to ratchet up demands on the current presidential candidates after letting Ranil Wickremesinghe sleepwalk through nearly five long years of government.
The challenge for Sajith Premadasa in the North and East will not be about fending off Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but about raising the level of enthusiasm to ensure reasonably high voter turnout. The voter turnout in the other 17 districts has usually exceeded 80% and cannot likely go any higher, but the five districts in the North and East have historically shown a tendency for low turnouts and that could hurt Sajith Premadasa insofar as his path to victory depends on them.
The Rajapaksa camp are naturally exhibiting the Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha victory as a sure sign of victory in the November election. Just as they have been using the February 2018 Local Government election results for the same purpose. Their assumption is that the 1.5 M votes that went to the SLFP in February 2018, will automatically swing their way in November and get them over the finish line to a first ballot victory. There are reasons to be cautious, however. Nearly 500,000 of the 2018 SLFP votes are in the districts of Colombo, Gampaha, Kandy, Matale and Nuwara Eliya. Another 200,00 are in the five districts in the North and East. It may not be prudent to assume that the SLFP votes in these ten districts will automatically swing to the SLPP candidate. The SLFP leadership’s decision to join the SLPP bandwagon was not unanimous. And the broadsides of Chandrika Kumaratunga against the SLFP leadership’s capitulation to the SLPP, will not be without some effect especially in the highly competitive and vote-rich Gampaha district.
In charting their path to victory, Sajith Premadasa and the UNP/DNF might look at the August 2015 parliamentary election as a starting point. The UNP was thrashed in the 2018 LG election but that was mostly because the traditional UNP voters did not show up to vote. This time it could be different, and the August 2015 results should be sufficiently encouraging. In August 2015, the UNP/UNF did obtain a larger number of votes than the SLFP/UPFA out of the total vote in the 17 districts outside the North and East, and with the JVP contesting separately. This was an improvement from the January 2015 presidential election, when Maithripala Sirisena, with the JVP vote share included, polled fewer votes than Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 17 districts. As a note of caution, the SLFP was in disarray in August 2015; and for the November election, the UNP/DNF may have a challenge in securing the traditional Catholic vote in the Colombo, Gampaha and Puttalam districts.
Unless one of the two leading candidates gets an unexpected political windfall, the November election is generally expected to be a very close election, and a potential first ballot winner should likely win at least 12 of the 22 districts. Going by the 2015 results, Sajith Premadasa must try to retain the 12 districts that Maithripala Sirisena won, while Gotabaya Rajapaksa must try to prize out at least two of those 12 districts. Going again by past results, the districts likely to be in play are Gampaha, Puttalam and Badulla. Ultimately, every vote in every district will count in the final verdict. The travesty of a direct presidential election, however, is that the votes cast for the losing candidate(s) will not count for anything after the election. There is assured representation for all sides in a parliamentary election. Not so, with the directly elected and executive president. The winner takes all, and will claim all plenary, residual and repository powers depending on who is on his hind legs and arguing.