By Rajan Philips –
Mahinda Rajapaksa won the 2010 presidential election polling 58% of the votes against Sarath Fonseka’s 40%. All he needs to do to win this time is to manage the leaks from that high water mark and make sure that his share of the vote stays above the 50% mark. He won the 2005 election by a squeaker with 50.29% of the votes and a vote difference of 180,786 over Ranil Wickremesinghe. He knows a win is a win even if he manages just one vote over his third presidential rival in ten years. The narrowest of win will be good enough for Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) and he has the state machinery to clampdown on outcries of fraud and to start his third term under a worse cloud of controversy than he will end his second term.
Maithripala Sirisena, on the other hand, may have to secure a more convincing victory to ensure a smooth transition from the MR regime and a strong mandate to swiftly implement the changes that he and the Opposition have been promising and that many in the UPFA governing alliance are silently waiting for. A ‘convincing victory’ would mean winning a majority of the 17 districts in the seven provinces in the south and a majority of the five districts in the two provinces in the North and East. In my view, this double majority will confirm Mr. Sirisena’s electoral credibility in the majority south, even as it will facilitate a new direction towards national reconciliation inclusive of those who are invariably excluded in the so called ‘majority of the majority’.
On a districtwide basis, Mahinda Rajapaksa won 16 of the 22 districts in the 2010 presidential election, with Sarath Fonseka winning the remaining six (the two districts in the Northern Province, all three in the Eastern Province, and the Nuwara Eilya District in the Central Province). In the much closer 2005 election, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) won 11 districts each, with RW winning all of the five districts in the North and East, all the three districts in the Central Province, and one each in the Western (Colombo), North Western (Puttalam), and Uva (Badulla) Provinces. There is no question that Ranil Wickremasinghe would have won the election handily, in 2005, if the LTTE had not issued the fatwa on the Tamil voters. Just over 1% voted in the Jaffna District that ranks third with over 700,000 votes after the vote rich Districts of Colombo and Gampaha (each totalling more than a million votes).
A ‘convincing victory’ for Maithripala Sirisena (MS) would mean that he wins more than the 6 districts in the south and west, while winning all or most of the five districts in the North and East. On the other hand, for President Rajapaksa, a narrow victory would mean that he manages to stem the erosion of his support (58% vote base and 16 districts) in 2010 from going below 50% and 11 districts he won in 2005. Given the collapsing course of the government campaign so far, not even President Rajapaksa will be expecting to do better on January 8 than what he did in 2010. The question for the President and his campaign team (which is mostly the President) is whether he/they will be able to hang on to the eleven districts that Mahinda Rajapaksa won in 2005. The corollary question for Maithripala Sirisena is how much better he can do than what Ranil Wickremesinghe did in 2005, even though Mr. Sirisena can win the 2015 election by winning just the 11 districts RW won in 2005 provided at least 50% of the voters in the Jaffna District turn out to vote. My argument is that he should do more, although he does not have to, and let me discuss the two questions by looking at the 22 electoral districts under three categories: Five Districts (in the North and East), Six Districts (that RW won in the south and west), and Eleven Districts (that MR won in 2005).
Five Districts in the North and East: President Rajapaksa did not win any of the five northeastern districts in either of the two elections he won in 2005 and 2010, and it is fair to assume that he will not win any of them even in 2015. The fact of the matter is that the President and the government did not make any special effort to win any of the five districts in the forthcoming election. On the contrary, the government campaign has been predicated on engineering a lack of support in the North and East to expand its vote base in the south and west. Put another way, it is the government that alienated the majority of the voters in the North and East and the voters there do not need any prompt from anybody as to which candidate they should be voting for. The Muslim political leaders in fact followed their followers to jump the government ship at the eleventh hour; otherwise. they would have faced a hostile backlash at the next parliamentary election. The TNA has done itself good by sticking to the old Chelvanayakam principle: “we might lose everything, but let us keep our honour intact.” The TNA’s decision to openly support Maithripala Sirisena should also shut up the lunatic Tamil boycott brigade, at least for now if not for ever.
Six Districts in the South and West: These are the six districts (Colombo, Puttalam, Badula, Kandy, Matale and Nuwara Eliya) that RW won in 2005. From an objective stand point, the common opposition candidate will not be worth the symbolic Swan he is flying on if he is not able to win every one of these districts in the January election. The dynamics of the two campaigns and electoral arithmetic are also strongly indicative of Maithripala Sirisena securing the six districts as RW did 2005, and perhaps with even greater vote margins in a number of them. Otherwise, all the hype and hoopla surrounding the opposition campaign will amount to nothing.
Eleven Districts in the South and West: President Rajapaksa won these districts (Gampaha, Kalutara, Kurunegala, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Galle, Matara, Hambantota, Ratnapura, Kegalle and Moneragala) in 2005 and again in 2010. Whether he will be able to retain all eleven districts for a third time, and which, if any, of these districts will be captured by Maithripala Sirisena is the central question of voting arithmetic of the January election. But that is not the only question. The potential shifts in these districts will be sharp indicators of public opinion in regard to the different issues that have been raised and canvassed in this campaign.
The shifts will also be indicative of the effectiveness of what might be called the ‘Sirisena Factor’ in this election; namely, the extent to which the opposition will be able to (1) peel away traditional SLFP voters who voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005 and 2010; and (2) attract new especially young voters to the opposition based on their revulsion to family bandyism, government corruption, and the abominable underworld of drug economy that are allegedly associated with the current regime. In the two districts of the North Central Province, the Sirisena Factor will also include the local pride in voting for ‘the son of the soil’ to become president of the country.
From any standpoint, Mr. Sirisena should win his two ‘home districts’, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura. Given the UNP’s strong showing in the Uva Provincial Election, Maithripala Sirisena should also be able to win Moneragala District in addition to Badulla District won by RW in 2005. The real bellwether district will be Gampaha District. The Sirisena Factor should be highly effective for Maithripala Sirisena to not only ‘capture’ Gampaha for the joint opposition, but also ‘recapture’ it for the old SLFP of the Bandaranaikes from its new pretenders.
If Maithripala Sirisena is able to win the five, the six and four of the eleven districts, as I have discussed, he will have a tally of 15 of the total 22 electoral districts in the island. That will give him the convincing victory comprised of the ‘double majority’ that I noted at the outset. The most one-sided assessment I have heard from an Opposition enthusiast is that the government’s only strong district is Kurunegala and that it is seriously vulnerable in every other district. This is far too optimistic even for my predispositions. At the same time, if Maithripala Sirisena were able to win more than fifteen districts, his victory could quickly magnify from a convincing victory to a landslide victory.
As things stand, however, a narrow Mahinda win, convincing Maithripala win, as well as an electoral landslide – are all in the realm of possibilities with no certainties. What is both clear and certain are the unexpected directions that the campaign has been taken and the surprising new trends that have been emerging. Very clearly, the government did not anticipate and was not prepared for any of this, and has still not been able to plug the leak created by Mr. Sirisena’s defection in the voting vessel of the UPFA governing alliance. The leak is now wide open and others have been opening new leaks at every level of the once unassailable UPFA cauldron. On the other hand, the common opposition candidate is benefiting from the positively anarchic energy of the combined and independent campaigns carried out by the different opposition parties and groups, including the DNF, the UNP, the old SLFP loyalists, the JHU, the JVP, the TNA, and the Muslim political parties.
To what extent all of the leaks and erosions and shifts and opposition energies will translate into actual votes, is something only the voters can tell us and we have to wait for their verdict. Meanwhile, we can only hope that the people in every part of the country will be allowed to exercise their vote freely and fearlessly, that the counting of the votes will be done in absolute fairness in accordance with every letter of the law, and that the main contenders will accept and abide by the verdict of the people in the true spirit of democracy.