Electoral Prospects; Political Scenarios


by Tisaranee Gunasekara

"....a life of trust, not a reality composed of nothing but endless trauma."

Avraham Burg (The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes)

Statistics and politics tally. The confluence indicates that the UNP is likely to emerge the single largest party on August 18.

Under certain favourable conditions, the UNP might even be able to win an outright majority.

The UNP winning big (with or without a clear majority) will save Sri Lanka from being plunged into a politico-constitutional cold-war, post-election. There is no doubt that Ranil Wickremesinghe and not Mahinda Rajapaksa is President Maithripala Sirisena’s preferred prime minister. Understandably; the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combo worked in the past, and can work in the future.

Though no politician or party should be trusted implicitly, a UNP victory is the better outcome for democracy, rule of law, accountability and reconciliation, in the current context.

A functioning Sirisena-Rajapaksa combo, on the other hand, is impossible to imagine. Not only is there clear mutual antipathy between the two leaders. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s continued penchant for maximalism and for familial politics will mean that if he shares power, it will only be with a sibling or an offspring. Never with his former general secretary who defeated him. If the UPFA emerges the biggest winner on August 18 (with or without a clear majority), a bitter power-struggle within and outside parliament will be inevitable.

At UPFA election meetings diehard Mahinda-supporters rave about their leader becoming the president again. Mr. Rajapaksa himself sounds as if he is re-fighting the presidential election rather than contesting a parliamentary election. In the eyes of Mr. Rajapaksa and his faithful, the election is just the first step in winning back the power they lost in January 2015.

If the politico-statistically impossible happens and the UPFA emerges the biggest winner on August 18, President Sirisena will be compelled to appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister, whether he likes it or not. Whatever his constitutional powers, as a democratic leader Mr. Sirisena cannot – and should not - ignore popular will. If a majority of Lankans opt for the UPFA, Mr. Sirisena can deny the premier-post to Mr. Rajapaksa only at the risk of becoming a tyrant himself. Once ensconced as Premier, Mr. Rajapaksa will select a cabinet crammed with his loyalists. The new government will move swiftly and decisively to rollback every single democratising and anti-familial measure of the last eight months. Parallel moves will be made to purge those SLFPers seen as Maithripala-loyalists and to turn the party into a homogenous Rajapaksa-appendage.

A defining feature of this election campaign has been the battle within the battle, the cold war waged by Rajapaksa supporters against their less-extreme fellow SLFPers. According to the worldview of the Rajapaksa-faction, any SLFPer who is not a Rajapaksa-loyalist is an enemy. The standard candidate-on-candidate personal competition for preferential votes was thus turned into an inner-party war, waged by Rajapaksa-loyalists against everyone else. Maximalists like their Master, they do not accept a middle ground between supporting and opposing Mahinda Rajapaksa. The request not to give a preference vote to any candidate who is not wholeheartedly behind Mahinda Rajapaksa is openly made at political meetings, large and small.

This extreme campaign by the Rajapaksa faction has deepened politico-personal disagreements within the SLFP to the point of a clear politico-ideological division. If the UPFA wins the election, Rajapaksa loyalists will launch an all-out purge against enemy-SLFPers. The resultant split can manifest itself in outbursts of violence, especially at the grassroots level, plunging the country into a morass of instability.

Which Way?

Mahinda Rajapaksa wants to take back the state and reinstall familial rule. He is surrounded by a group of hardliners who will insist on extreme solutions and decry any attempt at accommodation as treachery. They will not stop, until the 19th Amendment is made null and void through a 20th Amendment, President Sirisena is impeached, forced to resign or worse and Mahinda Rajapaksa regains control over the party, the government and the state.

Going by his campaign speeches, Mahinda Rajapaksa seems to believe that if he had a fault in his presidential-past, it was his niceness towards his enemies. He accuses the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration of being vengeful and maintains that he never harboured any ill will towards his opponents. Clearly he has forgotten the dire fates which befell those who refused to obey his every order, from General Fonseka and CJ Bandaranayake to the people of Rathupaswala. This self-assessment indicates what the country can expect, if Mr. Rajapaksa returns to power.

Addressing his diehard supporters upon his return to Medamulana on January 9, Mr. Rajapaksa said, "We must remember they got their majority vote from Eelam…" Several supporters shouted, "Why didn’t you kill and take?" i

What such a leader, backed by such followers, can do is all too easy to imagine.

Fortunately, a UPFA victory is more likely to belong to speculative literature than to history. Politico-statistics indicate a UNP led parliament.

Will the UNP win the sort of victory the PA won in 1994? Or will it win the sort of victory the UPFA won in 2010?

At the 1994 parliamentary election, despite a superbly organised campaign and despite the UNP’s loss of morale, the PA failed to gain an outright majority. The PA polled 48.94%, and won 105 seats, well short of a majority. That was because the parliamentary election was held before the presidential election. Had the parliamentary election been held after Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga won the presidential election, the UNP’s defeat as well as the PA’s victory would have been far more substantial.

In 2010, the parliamentary election was held just three months after the UPFA won the presidential election. Mahinda Rajapaksa polled 57.88% at the presidential election. At the parliamentary election the UPFA won a massive 60.33% of the vote, and gained 144 seats.

It is noteworthy that this huge leap in the UPFA’s average vote happened despite a clear drop in its vote count. At the presidential election, the UPFA candidate polled 6.02 million votes; at the parliamentary election, the UPFA polled 4.85 million votes, a clear decrease of 1.17 million votes in just three months. The UPFA’s much higher average vote at the parliamentary poll came not from a genuine improvement in its performance (or popularity) but from a drastic drop in the voter turnout. Though the number of registered voters was the same for both elections (14.09 million), the total polled decreased exponentially from 10.5 million in January to 8.63 million in April. The valid vote went down from 74.5% in January to 60.33% in April. This drop in voting-figures affected the Opposition in general and the UNP in particular, far more than it did the ruling UPFA. Demoralised by the January defeat and by internal fissures, a sizeable section of the UNP opted not to vote, enabling the UPFA to win big.

The voter turnout on August 17 is likely to be lower than on January 8. This decrease will affect the total vote of all parties, but the main loser is likely to be the UPFA. Some of those who voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa in January are likely to abstain; another section will vote for the JVP. The extent of the UPFA’s defeat and the UNP’s victory will depend on the magnitude of these twin-shifts.

Back or Forward?

In the absence of reliable and regular opinion polling (including at the beginning, the middle and the end of the election campaign), it is hard to predict the final outcome with any degree of certitude. What is possible is to surmise the likeliest outcome.

August 19 is likely to witness Ranil Wickremesinghe being reappointed as the prime minister and the formation of a UNP-led ‘National Government’.

What Mahinda Rajapaksa would do, post-defeat, may depend on the scale of the defeat. If the UPFA’s defeat is clear and considerable, the blame will have to be borne by Mr. Rajapaksa and his cohorts. In such a scenario, a continuation of the Rajapaksa-project will become impossible.

After being defeated at the presidential election, Mr. Rajapaksa could plan to regain power via parliament. But Mr. Rajapaksa will not have a similar fallback option if the UPFA suffers a clear and undeniable defeat in the parliamentary election. ‘First we’ll take the parliament, then we’ll take the presidency’ can sound plausible. But ‘First we’ll take local government bodies, then we will take provincial councils, then we will take the presidency’ would sound too ludicrous even to most Rajapaksa supporters.

But if the UPFA’s margin of defeat is narrow, Mr. Rajapaksa’s comeback dreams may survive. He and his acolytes might try to make the parliament as chaotic and the country as ungovernable as possible; they will definitely try to engineer massive defections, form a government and launch a full-scale power-grab.

The Rajapaksa faction bears a striking resemblance to American Tea partiers, those hardliners who occupy the extreme rightwing fringe of the Republican Party. Andrew J Perrin, Associate Professor of Sociology and lead author of the study ‘Cultures of the Tea Party’ defines the Tea Party as the "new cultural expression of late 20th Century conservatism"ii. The 2010 study identified four fundamental characteristics of the Tea Party movement: Authoritarianism; Ontological insecurity (Fear of change); Nativism (opposition to immigrants and non-white Americans) and Libertarianism.

The Rajapaksa cohorts obviously share three of those four characteristics. They are authoritarian; their ideal leader is a paternalist monarch. They definitely suffer from fear of change; they dream not of moving to a better future, but of returning to a utopian past. And they are Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists who regard all minorities as aliens. If Libertarianism is defined as opposition to political-correctness, then that too is a quality Rajapaksa-loyalists share with Tea Partiers.

Factions and factionalism is nothing new in Lankan politics. But the Rajapaksa faction, like the Tea Partiers, is qualitatively more hardline, partisan and extremist than has been the democratic norm in Sri Lanka. Compromise is alien to them. They will not rest until they have regained power. Only an undeniably clear defeat on August 18 can stop them.

Is Sri Lanka going to continue her forward journey towards greater democracy (albeit with warts)? Or will she retrograde, into the Rajapaksa era of familial rule and dynastic succession?

Sri Lankans opted for the future on January 8. They are likely to reconfirm that choice on August 17.

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