By S. I. Keethaponcalan –
In a recent article on Sri Lanka’s forthcoming presidential election, this author has argued that the incumbent president’s quest for a third term will not be a cake-walk and the race will be tight. The primary reason for this argument is that the president does not have adequate support among the minority communities. In the absence of meaningful minority backing he needs about 65 percent of the Sinhala votes, which under the present condition, will not be an easy task. Therefore, like it or not, he needs to go on a relentless offensive for the Sinhala-Buddhist entire vote, using most nationalism as the primary weapon.
The unfolding political scene in Colombo indicates that the president may face problems even within the Sinhala-Buddhist community, making the forthcoming presidential election a tougher race. The issue emanates from the recent politics of Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), hitherto an ardent supporter of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The JHU came into force with the aim of creating a dharma rajya in Sri Lanka and is one of the first political entities to join the broad coalition built by the president in 2005. The JHU, a political party, is founded strongly on Buddhist ethos and philosophies and managed to stay loyal to the president until very recently.
Last week, charging that too much political power is concentrated on one man, i.e the president, Venerable Athureliye Rathana Thera, one of the powerful leaders of the JHU, demanded that the constitution be changed adopting the parliamentary system of governance with some modifications. This may be a response to the growing popularity of the slogan of abolishing the executive presidential system in Sri Lanka among the Colombo elite. The party also has other demand such as limiting the cabinet of ministers to a minimum and so on. What is interesting to note is that the demands sound like a precondition for the party’s support for Mahinda Rajapaksa in the forthcoming presidential election.
According to a leading Sri Lankan weekly, Thera has declared that “the constitutional amendment should be passed before the presidential election” and has warned that “we will have to politically defeat him (President Rajapaksa) if the changes are not done.” The tone of Thera’s message makes one wonder whether the decision to leave the government is already made and the present slogan of constitutional change has been taken up for political expediency. The party is also talking about a third, common candidate. One, however, has to wait and see if the party will leave the government on this issue. The government on the other hand is not in the mood to alter the constitution to accommodate the reformists. If both parties fail to come to a compromising and face saving-formula, the JHU may be forced not to support the government in the presidential election. Absence of the JHU support will be a serious political blow to the government, because it has the potential to reduce Sinhala-Buddhist vote. The JHU’s vote bank does not look substantial at this point in time, but it is symbolically very important to preserve the outlook of the government.
Another new issue that could also dilute the government vote is the controversy over the president’s eligibility to contest for the third term. Some constitutional and legal scholars are of the view that the president is ineligible to contest again, which will not have a practical impact because the president’s candidacy in the forthcoming election is already decided regardless of the legal implications of the argument. The government will not consider this a major issue because regime supporters have already rejected the notion. But the danger is that the neutrals in this election could buy into this argument and may decide not to vote for the sitting president. This could take a tiny bit of Sinhala-Buddhist vote from the government.
In essence, it is possible that the government may not be able to secure an overwhelming endorsement from the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency. If this happens, Sri Lanka may be forced to count the preferential votes. According to the constitution, a candidate, in order to win, needs to receive “more than one-half of the valid votes cast,” which is 50 percent plus one vote; not 50.1 percent or 51 percent votes. One of the possible scenarios is that no candidate receives the required 50 percent of the votes cast if an election is held in January next year. This could happen if President Rajapaksa fails to secure an overwhelming endorsement from the Sinhala-Buddhist voters and the UNP fails to build a broad coalition, or if there are too many candidates to split the votes.
What happens then? Sri Lankan voters are allowed to indicate their second and third preferences when they vote in a presidential election. If no candidate receives more than one half of the votes cast, according to the constitution, the preferential votes need to be counted. This process involves three steps. First, all candidates except the two who received the most number of votes will be eliminated from the competition. Given the presidential election history in Sri Lanka, it is clear that there will be more than two candidates. Second, the second preferential votes of the eliminated candidates, if cast in favor of one of the remaining two candidates, will be added to their account. Third, the third preferential votes of the eliminated candidates, if cast in favor of one of the two remaining candidates, will be added to their account. Then, the one who receives the “majority of the votes” will be declared the winner.
Sri Lanka has never counted the preferential votes as there was always a clear winner, even in some of the closest contests. For example, Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1988, President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1999, and Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005 received only 50.43, 51.12, and 50.29 percent of the votes, respectively. Therefore, the public has no knowledge of the numbers and patterns of preferential votes. Perhaps this time around it will be different and Sri Lankans may be counting the preferential votes for the first time. The major contenders, therefore, will need to campaign not only for the votes but also for the preferential votes of the minor candidates. Alliance building among major and minor candidates could continue even after the candidate names are officially declared by the Department of Elections.
*Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland