Originally Published 2014-12-10 00:00:00 Published on Dec 10, 2014
It looks as if campaign fever for the January eighth presidential poll is yet to pick up a full fortnight after it all began. At this rate, the poll might conclude without the campaign reaching the conventional climax and the nation getting a new President or a President for a new term possibly without the usually high 75-per cent turnout.
Sri Lanka elections: Mahinda Vs Mahinda, still

It looks as if campaign fever for the January eighth presidential poll is yet to pick up a full fortnight after it all began. At this rate, the poll might conclude without the campaign reaching the conventional climax and the nation getting a new President or a President for a new term possibly without the usually high 75-per cent turnout.

Strange are the ways of politics. It's thus an irony that President Mahinda Rajapaksa, while in office, has been able to create a contestant from within his camp, not once but twice. The last time round, it was Sarath Fonseka, his trusted army commander who not very long earlier had shared the laurels of the LTTE war victory with him. This time, its' Maithripala Sirisena, who was a veteran Minister in his government, until the day he unilaterally declared his nomination as the common Opposition candidate.

Stranger still are the ways of political alliances. The long and purportedly strong array of leaders on the Opposition dais with a few more undecided yet on joining them, there is a make-believe that they have in them to upset President Rajapaksa's electoral apple-cart. They had thought so the last time round. The voter felt otherwise.

Conventional wisdom also has it that President Rajapaksa has an edge. Rather, he can win the elections and he alone can lose the election. If Maithri wins the elections, it would be not because the combined Opposition's calculations and charisma worked, but more because anti-incumbency has had its effect against the Rajapaksa presidency and candidacy.

Including the TNA and the SLMC, which are undecided as yet, all political parties now in the Opposition camp barring the JHU were there on Fonseka's side in 2010. The religious-right JHU commands respect in a section of the Sinhala-Buddhist urban middle-class but it does not have as many votes to upset election results. Turning turtle after nearly 10 long years of cohabitation with President Rajapaksa, the prodigal son's credibility is at stake among supporters.

The noticeable absence of any 13-A reference in the JHU's MoU with Candidate Sirisena is a pointer for the traditional party supporters. Yet, it has not made alliance decision easier for the TNA. The latter is already confused, confronted as the Diaspora Tamil nationalists' implied call for a poll-boycott has found resonance nearer home. The BBS may have made the JHU look an angel for the Muslims and the SLMC, but that does not help either.

Will CBK magic work?

Apart from Sirisena, the entry/re-entry of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga to the poll and political scene this time is believed to be a game-changer. After nominating her Prime Minister Rajapaksa as their ruling SLFP's presidential candidate, CBK and her late brother Anura Bandaranaike had openly campaigned against him in the closing weeks of the 2005 poll campaign. Prime Minister Rajapaksa at the time still made it to the presidency.

It remains to be seen if after 10 years of self-imposed political exile, when scores of first-time voters too are around, the CBK magic would still work as it had done between 1993 and 1994, when she was on a winning streak. From Western Provincial Council Chief Minister in 1993, to Prime Minister in 1994 and two-term President in 1995 and 1999, CBK was on an electoral victory march, until the intervening parliamentary polls of 2001 dented it. The Opposition UNP won parliamentary majority.

It then required CBK, one of the draconian provisions of the Executive Presidency to dissolve Parliament without having to offer any explanation to the nation, for her SLFP to come re-claim the majority in the 225-member House. A two-term ex-Minister under President Chandrika, Leader of the Opposition, Mahinda Rajapaksa thus became Prime Minister, and in turn the President a year later.

This time round, it will take CBK more than human efforts to turn the SLFP voter-table against President Rajapaksa. If she succeeds, it would be a success that she could celebrate as much as her own electoral victories of the Nineties. It's not without reason. In 2005, after Siblings Bandaranaikes had campaigned against their own presidential candidate, PM Rajapaksa had polled 54.78 per cent vote-share in their native Gampaha district, against 44.23 per cent for UNP rival Ranil Wickremesinghe. In the Bandaranaikes' pocket borough of Attanagalla division in the district, Rajapaksa polled 60.52 per cent votes, or more than the district average. UNP's Ranil closed at 38.32 per cent.

Figure of speech

In the 2010 presidential polls, likewise, President Rajapaksa polled nearer to double the votes that went to Fonseka in the latter's Galle district 63.69 per cent against 34.83. In Fonseka's native Ambalangoda division in the district, he polled 35.98 per cent votes against President Rajapaksa's 62.79 per cent. The only division that went in Fonseka's favour in the district was urban Galle, where he polled a marginally high 51.12 per cent against President Rajapaksa's 47.74 per cent.

The figures speak for themselves. They should also make the common Opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena to sit up and take notice of the huge hurdles that he would have to surmount, for making it to the presidency. For, in his native Polonnaruwa district too, President Rajapaksa had polled 64.92 per cent vote-share in 2010 against 33.62 per cent for Fonseka. Five years earlier, President Rajapaksa had polled 55.91 per cent in the district against Ranil Wickremesinghe's 42.85 per cent.

It does not stop there. An independent analyst has worked out that of the 161 electoral divisions in the country, President Rajapaksa had topped in all but 34 in 2010. With the TNA and the SLMC backing Fonseka, the 34 that went his way included 17 Tamil and at least four Muslim-dominated divisions, apart from six of the 15 in urban Colombo.

Interestingly, Fonseka had drawn a blank in terms of divisions won in 11 of the 22 electoral districts. That included Polonnaruwa. Two years later in the 2010 North-Central Provincial Council polls, President Rajapaksa's UPFA polled 58.15 per cent vote-share in the district, followed by UNP's 39.04 per cent. Now, it's for Maithripala Sirisena to prove to self and supporters that he was the cause for the good performance of his erstwhile ruling alliance and his one-time boss in successive elections since 2005 and take off his current campaign from there.

Third amendment

Where does it all leave the competing poll campaigns? Despite claims and hopes to the contrary, it's becoming increasingly clear that President Mahinda R would have to do as much to lose the election as he would have to win it. The Opposition can still hope for the Rajapaksa camp-followers, through their anticipated expressions of competitive loyalty, to do it for them than expect their own cadres to work out a magic victory for Sirisena.

The Sirisena campaign has also not been able to build on the surprise value that his candidacy impacted on the voter, as was expected to be. From public platforms, every Opposition leader, from CBK to Ranil W to Maithripala S, continue to harp more on expectations of more cross-over from the ruling combine than on their own inherent strengths.

A crucial cross-over or two, including that of Provincial Council majorities, at the critical hour between now and the polling day, can make a difference. Over-dependence on such expectations can lead to lethargy, and a sense of victory in their ranks, when none is exactly in sight. Apart from exposing that the combined Opposition has none to offer the voter other than promises of more cross-over, opening the flood-gates at the last-minute could also make the voter wary that this one is no different from the incumbent and those before him since Independence.

The irony is even more striking in the case of the Rajapaksa campaign. President Rajapaksa is on record early on that he had files on ministers and coalition MPs, but would not use them against them. While proving detractors right on charges blackmail politics, that too with retrospective effect, such statements down the line, if repeated, can take the campaign farther away from the core of their claims and counter-arguments against their competitors, is it on stability and accountability, economy and development.

If the election issue is still expected to revolve around Executive Presidency there again, both campaigns have to explain the confusion in their midst. As anticipated for long, to the combined Opposition, that too with the JHU now in its fold, the concept is still their own blind men and the elephant. The Rajapaksa leadership having resisted all temptations to whittle down the powers of the Executive Presidency through his two terms is now talking about his plans for the same.

Maybe, if he had agreed, the JHU would have lost the only credible reason to leave the ruling alliance. Maybe, the divided Opposition would too have lost the only cause that could give them a certain legitimacy to be seen together, and seen as being together, for a second presidential poll in a row - after the voter had given his views on the same in Elections-2010.

Candidate Sirisena is credited with promising to abolish the Executive Presidency within 100 days of coming to power, and also make UNP's Ranil W, Prime Minister straightaway. What he has not said is neither is possible without effecting mass-defection from the present-day ruling combine, particularly the SLFP. As if to legitimise such a course, the Sirisena campaign, starting with the candidate has been talking about a national government, with someone even offering to accommodate President Rajapaksa obviously not in that post or that of the prime minister.

If elected president, under the Third Amendment to the Constitution, Sirisena should be in office in about a month's time from now (and not as rendered in these columns on 30 November 2014). Whether he has the legal right to offer prime minister's post to Ranil W or anyone else, when it's neither on offer, nor is he in a position to do so, is an attendant question.

The amorality of defection politics that they all have been charging the incumbent with is another factor. But then it's true of every other party and leader in power in the country, almost since Independence. None can claim monopoly over it, as with corruption, lawlessness, institution-abuses, etc. The question is if the new-generation, particularly the first-time voter, is as much concerned about it all in historic terms, or sees only what is before him, and also makes a decision, based on what is seen and what he ought to have known, as well.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy : The Sunday Leader, Colombo, December 7, 2014

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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