“In a one to one meeting with Polchief, President Rajapaksa’s chief opinion pollster and close advisor Sunimal Fernando said their polling figures less than a week before the presidential election indicated the race statistically was a dead heat.” US ambassador Patricia A. Butenis wrote in a confidential cable to Washington.
Colombo Telegraph found the cable from Wikileaks database. It was classified as “CONFIDENTIAL” by the ambassador Butenis. The cable written in 22nd January, 2010, under the name “ RAJAPAKSA POLLSTER SAYS RACE IS NECK AND NECK”, further says “ undecided voters were at an unprecedented 17 percent, with six percent leaning toward Rajapaksa and eleven percent towards Fonseka. Fernando said the President was doing very poorly in the East, mainly due to the corruption issue, but surprising well in the North. In the Western region, which includes Colombo and its suburbs, Fonseka had been doing well in the city (75 to 25 percent) but recently had begun to slip following television interviews and Rajapaksa’s position was stronger in the Colombo suburbs.
Read the full cable;
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 COLOMBO 000047 SIPDIS DEPARTMENT FOR SCA/INSB E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/22/2020 TAGS: PGOV PREL PREF PHUM PTER EAID MOPS CE SUBJECT: RAJAPAKSA POLLSTER SAYS RACE IS NECK AND NECK COLOMBO 00000047 001.2 OF 002 Classified By: AMBASSADOR PATRICIA A. BUTENIS. REASONS: 1.4 (B, D) ¶1. (C) SUMMARY: President Rajapaksa's chief opinion pollster told us their figures and those of the opposition all showed the presidential election to be very close. Undecided voters were at an unprecedented 17 percent (six or seven percent this close to the election date was more the norm), with six percent leaning toward Rajapaksa and 11 percent toward Fonseka. Fernando said the president was doing poorly in the East, mainly due to the corruption issue, but surprising well in the North, where many Tamils were grateful to be free of LTTE terror. In Colombo and its environs, the president was gaining on Fonseka. Both candidates were jettisoning negative messages and focusing on economic prosperity. Fernando observed that election violence -- which he attributed to both camps -- hurt Fonseka and helped Rajapaksa because when voters got jittery they tended to stick with the leader they knew, despite his faults. END SUMMARY. TOO CLOSE TO CALL ----------------- ¶2. (C) In a one-on-one meeting with PolChief, President Rajapaksa's chief opinion pollster and close advisor Sunimal Fernando said their polling figures less than a week before the presidential election indicated the race statistically was a dead heat. Fernando said he was friends with the chief pollsters for the UNP and for SLFP(M) leader and Fonseka advisor Mangala Samaraweera, and that the polls of all three -- which he claimed were the only reliable opinion polls in the country -- indicated a close race, with the opposition pollsters showing Fonseka slightly ahead and Fernando showing Rajapaksa slightly ahead. ¶3. (C) Fernando was disappointed that his original plan to query 25,000 voters nationwide had taken much longer than anticipated, partly due to technical glitches. "For 1.5 million rupees (about 14,000 USD) we could have had the proper equipment," Fernando complained, "but those idiots (running the president's campaign) turned it down." The delays in completing the survey meant that the results stretched across different time periods and thus were potentially inaccurate. Nevertheless, he was confident that his results were not far off from reality, particularly given the overlap with opposition results. REGIONAL DIFFERENCES SIGNIFICANT -------------------------------- ¶4. (C) Fernando said the president was doing "very poorly" in the East but "surprisingly well" in the North -- both regions with large Tamil populations. He explained the difference as due to different expectations and economic-development levels. The Tamils in the North had until recently been terrorized by the LTTE and were grateful to be liberated. In the East, the war was a more distant memory and economic questions overshadowed. There were many road and other development projects in the East, but many of the contracts were going to firms from outside the region due to corruption. The locals liked the roads but resented the fact that the contracts went to non-locals, and thus they were anti-Rajapaksa. With the North still a war-ravaged region, such economic considerations did not come into play. Moreover, Fernando argued that the Tamil National Alliance's (TNA) announcement supporting Fonseka had backfired in the North, where many Tamils believed the TNA and India used them for their own purposes and did not really look out for their interests. Rajapaksa, at least, had eliminated LTTE terror. ¶5. (C) In the Western region, which includes Colombo and its suburbs, the general had been doing very well in the city (75 to 25 percent) but recently had begun to slip following COLOMBO 00000047 002.2 OF 002 television interviews. Fernando said the general generally spoke quite well but interspersed his remarks with extremely crude attacks on Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and this coarseness turned off many Colombo sophisticates. Fernando said his wife was a member of a "very snooty" ladies' bonzai tree club that had earlier all been for Fonseka but were now evenly split. ¶6. (C) Fernando said Rajapaksa's position was stronger in the Colombo suburbs, home to many newly prosperous business people who resented the snobbish attitude of the Colombo -- and generally UNP-leaning -- elite, were particularly strong Buddhist-Sinhala, and had been JHU (Buddhist monk party) supporters in the last election. VIOLENCE HELPING RAJAPAKSA -------------------------- ¶7. (C) Interestingly, there was still a large segment of undecided voters -- 17 percent (a more normal figure so close to the election date would be six or seven percent). Fernando said that about six percent of undecided voters were leaning toward the president while 11 percent were leaning toward Fonseka. As the election approached, the campaigns were adjusting their strategies. Fonseka, he said, was focusing less on Rajapaksa corruption, which many people saw as mud-slinging, and more on a positive economic message. Rajapaksa, too, was giving less time to patriotic themes -- which Fernando's polls said interested few voters -- and more to his own economic-prosperity message. ¶8. (C) Fernando said that while the overall figures for election violence -- which included trivial matters such as ripping down opponents' posters -- were attributable more to the ruling party, the serious figures on assaults and killings could be attributed to both camps. (NOTE: Our impression is that while opposition forces have engaged in serious violence, pro-Rajapaksa forces have probably been engaging in it more. END NOTE.) Fernando argued that the increase in serious violence by both camps was on balance more detrimental to the Fonseka candidacy. This was because Fonseka was an unknown entity, and when people became rattled by news of violence, they became nervous about change and tended to stick with the leader they knew. Moreover, according to Fernando -- and we have heard this from other supporters of the president -- many people were concerned about the potential of Fonseka becoming a military dictator if put in the position of president. COMMENT ------- ¶9. (C) Fernando's reasoning that election violence helped Rajapaksa is worrisome. Fernando himself seems to us a decent man and appeared to be offering this observation as only that. Others in the Rajapaksa camp, however, may take a more pro-active view and very well may be stirring up violence as a way to scare undecided voters to stick with the devil they know, despite his faults. We took the opportunity of the meeting to pass on our concerns about violence, as well as the importance of a free and fair election, and to note that relations with the U.S. and the rest of the international community could be affected adversely by an election that went poorly. We believe Fernando will pass this message to the president. BUTENIS