The Presidential Election 2019 In Retrospect


Rev. Fr. Vimal Tirimanne, CSsR

As the dust settles on one of the stormy Presidential elections in Sri Lanka which was marked by an unprecedented amount of promises by both the main candidates, it is opportune to seriously evaluate certain aspects of the race in retrospect. There are both positive and negative points of which we the Sri Lankan citizenry need to take serious note of.

A non-violent, free and fair Election

First of all, it is one of the violence-free elections ever, in recent times in our country. Similarly, the relatively non-violent aftermath of the election is also significant. Some, especially the leaders of the outgoing government have attributed this development to the 19th Amendment which they introduced immediately after their taking office in 2015.

It could also be due to the overwhelming majority with which Gotabaya Rajapaksa won, so much so, all those who were very eloquent and violently rhetorical in opposing him during the pre-election period have been dumbfounded with his stunning victory. One may dare to associate this non-violent aftermath also as an indication of the political maturity our citizens are slowly but surely growing into.

The non-usage of decorations for political rallies such as flags and banners made out of non-decaying plastics and polythene is yet another sign not only of our emerging political maturity but also of the growing environmental consciousness of the citizenry. One also needs to mention that as usual, the number of citizens using their franchise was very high this time, too, exceeding 80%. Compared to the Western democracies (who wish to portray their version of democracy as the ideal for the whole world), this is very high because not even in the USA, the UK and in the EU countries such as Italy do they have such a high voter turn-out at any election. All these surely are very positive signs which indicate that we are still a vibrant democracy.

The two-party political system

Interestingly, as the election day was approaching, some of the self-appointed urban political pundits were speculating eloquently about the emergence of a third force as "people are fed up with the two-party political system" that has taken us, the Sri Lankan citizens, for granted ever since our Independence. The noble aim to promote such a third force was to change the unhealthy political culture that has prevailed especially during the past few decades, thanks to the principle-less two main political parties that had governed the country.

While there was a lot of truth in what they were saying, they conveniently forgot that in almost all those so-called "thriving democracies", too, there exists a two-party political system. The Democrats and Republicans in the USA, Labour and Convservatives in the UK, the BJP and the Congress in India are just a few illustrations of this vital phenomenon.

Interestingly, most of those who enthusiastically mooted this view for a "third force" were mostly from the urban areas of Sri Lanka, and most of them belonged to those who earnestly voted for the outgoing President Maithripala Sirisena and the so-called "yahapalana" government, calling the previous Rajapaksa government ‘corrupt’. The day-light robbing of the Central Bank through the Bond Scam (in which most in the ‘yahapalana’ government cronies were alleged to be involved) and the Easter Sunday Bombing (due to the destruction of the fine security network that was already in place from the time of the annihilation of the LTTE militarily) did make the former supporters of the "yahapalana" open their own eyes and ears wide.

Worse still, the indifferent if not lackadaisical attitude of the same "yahapalana" government to have a fair and impartial inquiry into these two significant but tragic issues during their tenure in office, made most of those who voted for them badly disillusioned. Till the candidates handed over their respective nominations to contest the Presidential elections, the common slogan of this group of people (most of whom were from the upper middle class urban elite) was that they will not vote for any of the candidates of the two main political blocks in our country, some even going to the extent of stating that they would refrain from voting at all, out of sheer frustration with the Sri Lankan political culture.

However, as the elections were approaching, they gradually changed their stance and were pinning all their hopes and certainties on one Nagananda Kodituwakku as the right person to lead a third force, but with his failing to file nomination papers, they had to swiftly and uncritically switch their allegiance overnight to some other candidate; that candidate happened to be the retired Army Commander, Mahesh Senanayake. None of them knew for sure how he would be in the political arena, but the need to pin their hopes on someone as a "third party" at any cost, apparently justified their decision to back Senanayake.

A careful analysis of the just-concluded Presidential election results would substantiate the present writer’s claim that almost all the crowd that rallied around this so-called "third political force" hailed from urban Sri Lanka, as Mahesh Senanayake received the bulk of his meagre 0.37% of the total vote only in urban electorates. However, it is more than obvious that such a percentage of the total vote is pathetically negligible in the background of all-island voting map, and falls far short of being a "third force".

Even JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake who ranked third in the overall voting, could muster only 3.16% of the total vote. In other words, this election has clearly shown once again that the two-party system still prevails solidly in our island nation and will be so for many decades to come as long as the key deciding factor in Sri Lankan elections remains the vast majority of rural voters whose perspectives of reality and basic needs are very different from those of our urban folks who are obsessed with promoting a "third force".

Urban/Rural and North/South Divide

As a matter of fact, one of the main facts which is often conveniently overlooked by Sri Lankan election analysts is the neat and clear-cut division between the urban and rural voters of the country. Although still it is the urban elite who call the shots in the running of the affairs of our nation, so to say, especially in the decision-making, it is the vast rural folks that would always decide who should rule the country, as had been evident in almost all the recent elections, including the just-finished Presidential election.

Even at the 2015 Presidential elections, the then out-going President Mahinda Rajapaksa won convincingly in the rural areas of Sri Lanka, especially in the South. If not for the North-Eastern minority Tamil and Muslim vote, Maithripala Sirisena, too would have lost that crucial election. To brand those rural voters simplistically, if not naively, as "Sinhala Buddhists", as our city-based political analysts and their NGO allies are accustomed to, is not only unfair but unrealistic as this group includes also Sinhala Catholics and many others who live among the Sinhala Buddhists!

The entire Catholic coastal belt (except for Negombo and Wattala electorates) voting overwhelmingly for Gotabaya this time, further substantiates this point. However, one also needs to admit that this election more than any other has indicated a clear-cut division between the North-Eastern Tamil and Muslim minorities and the vast majority of the Southern Sinhalese. This division was intensified this time by those political leaders and parties who claim to represent those ethnic and religious minorities (such as the TNA and the SLMC) when they appealed openly to their respective voters to unite and defeat Gotabaya citing their perceived fears that the latter would be working against the minorities, if elected.

In Sri Lankan polity, unfortunately, the minorities seem to be held captive by their so-called "political representatives", often preventing them from freely choosing their own candidates at elections – it has been customary of late for these so-called "representatives" of the minorities to indicate those candidates/political parties for whom they ought to vote which is a clear violation of the individual freedom of the minority voters. Their open call this time to support Sajith boomeranged as the majority in the South in response united in an unprecedented way to vote for Gotabaya, proving once again that a Sri Lankan President could be elected even without the support of the minorities.

Significantly, Gotabaya received the highest percentage of votes in the southern-most Matara district while Sajith received his highest percentage in the northern-most Jaffna district. Moreover, if not for the North-Eastern vote, Sajith Premadasa would have been routed completely at this election. He managed to win only the six provinces of that geographical area while Gotabaya swept all the remaining provinces.

The role played by the so-called minority parties such as the TNA and the SLMC which are exclusively based on race and religion should be taken into account seriously in the aftermath of this Presidential election. Is it a particular minority group that freely voted or is it the will of a handful of so-called "minority representatives" who made their followers to vote the way they voted? The role played by exclusively racist and religious political parties has been crucial in forming governments in Sri Lanka in recent times, but this time around they could not use their political clout, as the South overwhelmingly voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

It has become so common to brand the Rajapaksas as "racist" (as we heard again so often during the recent election campaigning, from their opponents’ platforms as well as from SMS messages via electronic media) but interestingly no one calls the minority political parties that are exclusively based on race and religion, by such derogatory terms. It is high time to pay our serious attention to this issue, if we are really interested in national integration and harmony.

In recent times, we have been hearing the need to ban hate-speech in our country as a first step towards religious and racial harmony and this is surely praiseworthy, but one also needs to do something about those political parties that are based exclusively on race and religion in our country because they too are notorious divisive factors that threaten social and political harmony of the island.

Using either religion or race, these exclusively racial or religious political parties had been leading their respective followers towards further isolation from the mainstream affairs. Only the leaders of those parties (most of whom are comfortably placed in Colombo) have been enjoying ministerial posts and all the perks they entail, under successive governments. Also, they have been notorious of being in office no matter what political group came into office, but conspicuously they had done very little (if at all) for the voters they claim to represent, as is so evident in the North and the East of Sri Lanka.


Accusations of corruption and the enforced fear psychosis

During the recent election campaign, accusations of corruption were hurled at both the main parties but a question the ordinary voter asked was: "if the Rajapaksas were so corrupt, what did the ‘yahapalana’ government do to bring them to justice, during their more than four and a half years in office?" Moreover, the glossing over of the day-light robbing of the Central Bank thanks to the Bond Scam allegedly under the patronage of quite a number of "yahapalana" big shots and the reluctance to appoint an impartial commission to probe into the Easter Bombings apparently did not go unnoticed as Sri Lankans used their franchise this time.

Ever since the Presidential elections were called, the untiring efforts of the opponents of Gotabaya Rajapaksa to block him from contesting also boomeranged against them. First, they went to courts about his so-called "dual-citizenship", then, they filed court cases against him in the USA, then, they tried to malign him saying that he was a terrible dictator, but the ordinary voter seems to have flatly refused to buy such crap. Even the references to the so-called "white-van" episodes (a phenomenon which in fact began in the late 1980’s under the Premadasa regime during the JVP insurrection) against Gotabaya during the election campaign, thus the efforts to create a fear-psychosis, seem to have gone unheeded, by the ordinary voter.

Elections Promises

Equally important to note is the fact that the Sri Lankan voter is no longer to be taken for cheap rides with unrealistic election promises which were in abundance at this election. When one candidate promised to give free fertilizer to paddy farmers, the other promised to give such concessions to all the farmers in Sri Lanka. Both the candidates made promises but some of them were really bizarre and even dared to reach levels that are normally repugnant, in our Sri Lankan culture. For example, the promises to provide sanitary pads for women and free passports for all those senior citizens who were to go on pilgrimages, brought the history of Sri Lankan election promises to a new height (or was it a new abyss/depth?!).

Even the notorious promises of bringing rice from the moon by Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike and granting eight kilos of cereals ("eta ata") by J.R.Jayawardena in the 1970’s, were pushed to an insignificant horizon by such bizarre promises this time around. Yet, the general Sri Lankan voter refused to be hoodwinked by such promises, which is another indication of the growing political maturity of the ordinary Sri Lankan voter.

Easter Bombing and its Effect on the Elections

Last but not least, one shocking election result deserves a special comment here, namely, the result of the Negombo electorate. All reasonable persons expected the voters there to teach the "yahapalana" government a bitter lesson at this election as it did not make any reasonable and impartial effort to probe into what really happened last Easter Sunday and to bring the culprits to justice. Yet, to the surprise of many, Negombo gave a comfortable sailing through to Sajith Premadasa, while the vast majority of the rest of the North-Western coastal belt which is dominated by Catholics did not vote for him though traditionally this area is considered a bastion of the UNP. The only other electorate which Sajith managed to gain in this area was Wattala which he won by a very narrow margin.

This generated so many questions all over the island. For example, here in Kandy where I live, the three-wheeler drivers whom I know, the fellow passengers with whom I travel by public transport, and many other acquaintances of mine (most of whom are predominantly Buddhist) were asking me in the aftermath of the elections various embarrassing questions that could be encapsulated as: "Father, what happened to the Catholics of Negombo? We, voted against the ‘yahapalana’ government this time mainly to show our solidarity with our fellow brethren in Negombo, but they seem to have voted the other way!"

One person in her unbelief and frustration even dared to say passionately: "We need to send another Zaharan to blast another bomb in that area again so that at least then they would open their eyes and ears!". Inexplicable as it is, the way the Negombo voters used their franchise is explained away by some analysts by pointing out other would-have-been crucial factors that were at work there, such as the rivalry between two SLPP organizers in the area, the drug menace which is allegedly blamed on one of them, the vast number of Muslims in the Negombo electorate,…etc.

Of course, the Katana electorate wherein is situated the Katuwapitiya St.Sebastian’s Church (one of the main venues of the Easter bomb blasts), voted against the "yahapalana" government convincingly. Yet the fact that the neighbouring Negombo electorate could not follow-suit at least to show their solidarity with their fellow citizens will remain an unanswered question. In this regard, it is also important here to note how the prophetic voices of the Catholic Church (especially that of His Eminence Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith who was a lone voice in the wilderness calling for a just and impartial inquiry) were silenced by certain media cronies of the "yahapalana" rulers and their NGO henchmen by unjustly accusing them of using the Church pulpit for politics.

The end result was that during the election campaigning proper, very few significant non-political Catholic religious voices were heard calling for an impartial and fair inquiry into what really happened. It is in this sense that some were expressing the view of the need for Catholics to form their own political party to make their voice heard too, just as the Muslims have the SLMC. Even the official statement issued by the Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka on the eve of the recent Presidential elections shied away from explicitly calling for an impartial and fair inquiry with regard to the Easter attacks. Thus, there was no one to raise a voice for a just and fair inquiry into the Easter bombings. Consequently, the Easter tragedy turned out to be an insignificant item for the election campaign. As such, one cannot forget these important factors too, when one considers the strange way in which the predominantly Catholic Negombo electorate voted this time.

Rev. Fr. Vimal Tirimanna, CSsR Kandy

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