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Print edition : September 18, 2015

Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa (right) greets Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party, as he arrives to be sworn in as the new Prime Minister in Colombo on August 21. Photo: DINUKA LIYANAWATTE/REUTERS

President Maithripala Sirisena arrives in the eastern town of Muttur on August 22 to meet Tamils, some 205 families of whom were to be returned their land that had been occupied by the Army during the war with the LTTE. Photo: Ishara S.Kodikara/AFP

Voters queue up at a polling centre in Colombo on August 17. Photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

The United National Party’s victory in the seventh general elections symbolises voters’ desire for peace and reconciliation and an end to divisive politics.

ELECTION “fatigue” and rains did not deter Sanjaya Dais, a middle-aged bank executive in Colombo, from exercising his franchise on the D-Day, August 17, when Sri Lanka held the seventh general elections under the 1978 Constitution. “It is my duty to cast my vote. Also, I am particular that certain forces should not return to power. You know who I am referring to,” Dais said smiling, as he got into his Honda Insight hybrid car. Ordinarily, Somavati, a Sinhala woman working in a plantation on the outskirts of the southern and picturesque city of Galle, looks after one of her grandchildren when her son and daughter-in-law go for work. On the polling day, she had more spare time for herself. “I have traditionally been voting for the SLFP [Sri Lanka Freedom Party]. Why should I change this time?” she asked. She knows that for the past 15 years, the SLFP has been contesting as part of either the People’s Alliance (PA) or the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). She added that many of her neighbours were supporters of “Elephant”, the symbol of the United National Party (UNP).

Dais and Somavati represent two streams of political thought in the country. There is nothing surprising about their eagerness to participate in the polling process as the two individuals appear to be supporters of the two principal political players. But what comes as refreshing is the deep interest of internally displaced youngsters in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

Robinson of the Sabapathipillai camp, about 10 kilometres from Jaffna, and Chitravel Prashanth of the Kattaipadichan camp, around 35 km from Trincomalee, are both first-time voters. Notwithstanding the trauma that they had been through in the past 10 years, they felt that it was imperative to be part of the system instead of remaining outside it. It is not that they were unaware that their participation in the process alone would not lead to an improvement in their lives.

V. Niranjan, founder of the Jaffna Managers Forum, a body of public-spirited persons holding discussions on a variety of issues of importance to the town, said, “We have moved from the gun culture to the democratic culture.” This time, about 61.5 per cent of Jaffna electors cast their votes even though the overall turnout went down by about five percentage points compared with the presidential elections in January. This was in tune with the nationwide trend of a fall in turnout, Niranjan pointed out. Eight months ago, around 81.5 per cent of the people exercised their franchise, whereas in the parliamentary elections this time the tally was 77.66 per cent.

Poll preparedness

Apart from the statistics, the way the elections were held attracted widespread appreciation. They “were administered”, according to the European Union Election Observation Mission, which employed over 80 observers for the July-August electioneering and the August 17 polling. The elections “offered voters a genuine choice from among a broad range of political alternatives,” said the Mission in its preliminary statement. Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon, executive director of the Campaign for Free and Fair Election (CaFFE), one of the country’s civil society organisations advocating electoral reforms, said that originally he had not expected the turnout to be high because of “election fatigue” among a large number of people in the light of the high-profile presidential election held seven months ago. But, the poll preparedness of the Election and Police departments played a big role in ensuring such a response from the voters.

What has not gone unnoticed, however, is the well-established trend of high voter turnout. In the previous six parliamentary elections, the country saw a turnout of around 75 per cent generally. In fact, the figure of 77.66 per cent this time was the highest ever since the country adopted the present Constitution 37 years ago. It erased the earlier record of 76.24 per cent turnout in the 1994 elections.

Presidential-like contest

What was more important was the message thrown up by the elections. It was simple and direct—either the return of Mahinda Rajapaksa (UPFA) or one more chance, possibly the last one, to Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP), who had remained out of power for 10 years after he lost in the 2004 parliamentary elections.

Even though the parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka are not usually fashioned on the lines of the presidential elections, this time everything boiled down to the contest between the two leaders. The campaign of these leaders hogged the limelight and their statements received the maximum attention from the media. A noticeable and healthy feature of the campaign was that they did not attack each other personally.

Wickremesinghe campaigned extensively, whereas Rajapaksa chose to focus on the UPFA’s strongholds and virtually ignored the Northern and Eastern Provinces, where Tamils live in large numbers.

The UNP leader mostly focussed on development and talked more about his party’s five-point plan covering areas such as the fight against corruption, ensuring freedom, economy, infrastructure development, and education. But his rival kept on raising issues concerning national security and attacked the UNP saying it was soft on such matters. Rajapaksa said that even the unitary character of the Constitution would be compromised if Wickremesinghe were to capture power, whereas he would leave no room for separatism. The UPFA even accused the UNP of having entered into a pre-election pact with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on the issue of federalism even though it is well known that Wickremesinghe and his colleagues are opposed to the concept.

Post-election chances

Even as the election campaign was drawing to a close, two factors were visible in favour of the UNP. In the event of the principal players capturing more or less the same number of seats and requiring support from other parties, the UNP stood a better chance of coming to power as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the TNA would support it. It was also a foregone conclusion that the minorities—Tamils and Muslims —would vote overwhelmingly against Rajapaksa.

The other factor was the much-discussed role of President Maithripala Sirisena in spoiling the chances of his predecessor. The day after the filing of nomination papers was over, Sirisena, in a speech made before sections of the media, expressed his opposition to Rajapaksa in unmistakable terms. A few days before the polling day, he wrote a letter to Rajapaksa, which was promptly leaked to the media. Reiterating his position that he would not appoint Rajapaksa Prime Minister in the event of the UPFA getting a majority, Sirisena was hard-hitting in his criticism of his predecessor for the way he conducted the campaign. The irony is that Sirisena is technically the chief of the UPFA (by virtue of being the SLFP president) and Rajapaksa is the head of the election committee.

D.S. Jayaweera, a psephologist, said the President’s position created confusion among voters. This was evident in Polonnaruwa, the home district of Sirisena. The UPFA could have bagged it but for his stand, Jayaweera said.

Besides, the other advantage of the UNP was that it had been in power after Sirisena was elected President in January. The regime, since then, had announced a number of sops for various sections of society, the last one being a cut in the price of cooking gas cylinders.

Yet, the contest became so close that the swing of a few thousand votes in some districts made a difference. For example, in districts such as Matale, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, the overall difference between the two was just 12,000 to 15,000 votes.

District-wise performance

A perusal of the electoral district-wise performance of the parties shows that the UNP achieved a net gain of two districts compared with what the common opposition candidate did during the presidential election in January. At that time, Sirisena, backed by the UNP, the TNA and a host of other parties, polled a larger number of votes in 12 districts. If one were to remove three districts where the TNA is a critical player, the effective tally would come down to nine. But the UNP won the majority of seats in 11 districts this time, with the gain of Kegalle and Matale.

The nature of the verdict, too, has provided several significant meanings. One, people are tired of politics based on racial and religious division. Either in the Northern Province, where a few parties sought to whip up the sentiments of Tamils or in those parts of the country where the Sinhalese constitute a majority, the general response of voters was one and the same—reject such elements.

The true position of Rajapaksa’s hold over the people has come to the fore. It was said quite often that earlier he had access to very many resources and so an accurate assessment of his standing was not possible. But now it is clear that about 42 per cent of the voters support him. However, one should not interpret in a simplistic manner that all these voters were driven by the Sinhala-Buddhist notion of majoritarianism. Better delivery of government services and improved coverage of welfare measures during the Rajapaksa regime are among the reasons for his hold on voters.

Also, some amount of disenchantment with the present regime has started creeping in among certain sections of people. Jayaweera said that in Anuradhapura, paddy farmers had to resort to distress sale as they had not got the assured remunerative price. In addition, a sense of fear had developed among government servants in view of the administration’s drive against those who were in power earlier. The feeling among them was that they were being harassed in the process, the psephologist said. What has also surprised many observers is the poor performance of the JVP. The party was expected to net 15 or 16 seats whereas it got only six. Thissara Jayasekara, another psephologist, said that even though the JVP’s campaign was appealing to many, the party could not succeed because of its past.

The rural population in the southern parts of the country still remembers what the JVP did during the periods of “insurrection” in the early 1970s and in the late 1980s. If it wanted to do well in future, it had to undergo a complete restructuring, Jayasekara said. However, the JVP maintains that it performed poorly as the electoral fight became a straight contest between the UNP and the UPFA. “There is very little space for us,” said H.P. Dummika, the JVP’s Galle district organiser.

As the country waits for the new Council of Ministers to be formed on September 2, voters like Dais and Prashanth want the government to address expeditiously issues concerning livelihoods, reconciliation and the growing threat of drug abuse.

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