By Malinda Seneviratne –
Speak to any leader or spokesperson of any political party that contests and election after all the results are out and it would be surprising if you can find even one person who does not come up with one or more positives. Even someone who voted for the party that got less than a dozen votes from a province which has close to two million voters is happy. He or she would say ‘I made the correct choice and it is not my fault that others are stupid!’ Elections are winner-makers, therefore.
The ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) was the winner. The number of votes and seats as well as the margin of victory over the closest rival certainly yields bragging rights. The United National Party (UNP) would have to strain to claim victory; the party’s vote-share declined in the West and improved only marginally in the South. In terms of absolute numbers, again, there’s a decline in the West and a tiny gain in the South; this despite an increase of approximately 200,000 and 100,000 eligible voters in the two provinces respectively.
The victory-claim is necessarily convoluted. The party has to draw from the UPFA’s relative losses (votes, share, seats), throwing in a ‘friendly’ interpretation of rejected votes and abstentions. The UNP can thus claim that the majority did not turn up to show support for the government and add that the President’s Geneva-related call was snubbed.
The Democratic Party (DP), new to the PC elections, has stronger victory claims. They pushed the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) to 4th spot in the Western Province, picking up 9 seats as opposed to the latter’s 6. In the South, where the JVP is stronger, the DP came 4th and yet bagged just 2 seats less than the JVP. It can now claim that it is a viable option for those who are sick of the two major parties and are not enthused by the JVP.
There was an almost 4 fold increase in the JVP vote in the Western Province. The improvement in the South is relatively less. The overall improvement allows the JVP to claim that there’s a swing not just away from the UNPF but towards the JVP, something the UNP cannot really claim.
These claims have to be weighed in terms of the overall context in which the election was held, meaning the key issues that the respective campaigns focused on, the timing of the election, the differences if any with the situation in 2009, which was when the previous election was held.
There are two comparisons that are relevant. First, between the political contexts of 2009 and 2014; the previous elections to these two provincial councils were held around the end of a 30 year long struggle against terrorism at a time when the Government’s military strategy was about to deal a death blow to the LTTE (Western, April 2009) or had just done exactly that (Southern, October 2009). That was euphoria-time and as such would have helped inflate the vote in the UPFA’s favor. Euphoria is not forever and a more realistic picture of approval and disapproval was on the cards this time around. If one added ‘regime-fatigue’, it would further explain the drop in numbers for the UPFA.
There’s another comparison that should be made: the degree of loss (UPFA) in these two provinces against the 2009-2014 comparison in the most recently concluded provincial elections outside the North, those of the Central and Wayamba provinces. The UPFA actually gained in the Central Province in 2013 (compared to 2009). It’s ‘losses’ in Wayamba, in terms of vote-share, was minor. Indeed, in terms of absolute numbers, there was a gain in Wayamba.
In this context, the decline in the West and South is significant and warrants examination. In other words, if euphoria-decline didn’t translate into vote-decline in Wayamba and the Central Province, then it could not have been a factor in the West and South.
The UPFA had the incumbency-edge and you can count blatant and surreptitious abuse of state resources as part of that advantage. The UPFA was riding a wave of election victories stumped only by the largely expected loss in the North. An incoherent, disorganized and even confused United National Party further handicapped by in-fighting and inevitable bickering added to this edge.
‘Geneva’ was painted into the election context, by the UPFA as well as the opposition parties. The President openly said that the outcome of the UNHRC vote was not important; what mattered was the people of Sri Lanka. The opposition picked up on this, countering that the UPFA was deliberately brining in a ‘non-issue’ to distract the voter from real, experienced, problems right here in Sri Lanka; problems related to things like rule of law, democracy, corruption and general hardships.
A third factor was the possibility of a low voter turnout. There was election-fatigue. The Southern and Western PCs did not stir up a lot of enthusiasm among the people as would have a general or presidential election.
We can go about this exercise in terms of the fortunes (and their fluctuations) of each party in relation to others in the fray and in the context of party-specificities. In other words, who lost votes to whom and who managed to ‘steal’ whose votes.
For example, where did the 100,000 or so votes that the UPFA ‘lost’ in the Southern Province end up? Well, some of those votes might have not made it to the polling booths. On the other hand, if percentages mean anything, a drop from 68% to 58%, cannot be explained by stay-at-home alone. Some may have thought that it’s not worth the bother since the margins indicated a win anyway. Others, however, may have thought that the margin allowed for ‘lesson-teaching’ as some have argued, especially since this was not a key national election. Where did they go?
On the face of it, the biggest beneficiaries of any defection appears to be the JVP and DP, although theoretically ex-UPFA votes could have gone to the UNP while ex-UNP votes in turn going the JVP-DP way. Either way, the two ‘smaller’ parties have gained at the expense of one or both these parties. Now it can’t be that such a voter would have thought his/her vote would result in either the JVP or the DP coming on top. Perhaps some were swayed by manifesto, rhetoric or ‘freshness’, the DP being a ‘new face’ and the JVP having re-garbed itself with a name-face change at the top, Anura Kumara Dissanayake having replaced Somawansa Amarasinghe as party leader.
Quite apart from the ‘protesting’ nature of such votes, it has to be recognized that both the DP and JVP contrasted themselves from the UPFA and UNP by laying greater stress on issues related to good governance or rather the related rhetoric carried more weight when it emanated from the JVP and DP than from the UNP. UNP Governments don’t exactly have stellar track-records on such matters, after all. Moreover, that party’s commitment to things like democracy, transparency and accountability have become seriously suspect considering the way various key individuals and factions have behaved within the party. The DF, on the other hand, is led by Sarath Fonseka, a man who is identified with ‘discipline’; ‘discipline to the point of brutality, arrogance and crude dismissal of course, but discipline nevertheless. The JVP, as always, carried out a disciplined election campaign, polythene-less and thuggery-less; it was a party-first, focused and decent campaign.
The ordinary voter who has to face the indignities that flow from a highly politicized system of law(lessness) and (dis)order or see the same on a daily basis, even if he/she is likely to re-vote for President Rajapaksa and the UPFA in a critical election (based on the ‘known enemy’ or ‘lesser enemy’ theses), may have seen an opportunity to vote in a way that preference could be ‘seen’.
Whether it was by default (in the above manner) or by conscious agreement with policy and program, the rise of the DP and the re-emergence of the JVP have given these parties platforms for advancement that the electorate has not given either the UPFA or the UNP. What they do with it is of course left to be seen.
The JVP, certainly, can congratulate itself for remaining in the equation even after suffering several setbacks. The JVP appears to have struck a chord with the urban middle class, including people who probably preferred Mahinda Rajapaksa to Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UPFA to the UNP. Whether this sudden loyalty is of the ‘lesson-teaching’ kind or something more enduring only time will tell.
What is important is the fact that the JVP has provided a rallying point for those who have given up on this government fixing institutional flaws and don’t see the UNP as an entity that could ever be serious about such things. The party has roughly come to where it was in 2000. It is excellently positioned to provide leadership to agitation and given history to collude willingly or otherwise with forces seeking to manufacture political instability. The endgame of such a scenario won’t see the JVP coming to power but being decimated in order to make way for a pliant or even servile governing entity. The political maturity of the JVP will be tested of course.
The DP and its leader Sarath Fonseka, can now begin to woo both UPFA and UNP votes. It might be harder to win over some big names but there will always be second or third tier individuals who are disgruntled with party leadership. They won’t make a difference; Arjuna Ranatunga did not, after all.
Is this the beginning of the end of the UPFA, as some have argued? Well, if those who came out to vote were the diehard loyalists, then we can talk of solid vote bases. That’s 37% in the Southern Province and 34% in the Western Province in the very least. In a general or presidential election the numbers would be close to 40% or more. That’s a comfortable enough starting point for any party in any campaign. Add average abstention figures and the UPFA would be hovering over 50%, which is what is needed in a presidential poll, a victory in which would naturally snowball into a more than adequate performance in an ensuing general election. It is something that should worry the opposition, whose numbers taken individually or as a whole is still a long way behind. It should be read as an indictment.
Things can change and can change very fast of course. As of now, the result must tell the regime that all is not well. There are questions that need to be answered, problems that need to be resolved. A critical mass is building up out there far away from the comfort zones of the powerful. Politics is not arithmetic. There are moments when a single incident can wreck the equation and make for a sweep in one direction or another.
Some might say that the Government has lost legitimacy. Perhaps and perhaps not. If not, it is not too far away from that turning point.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com