Presidential race: the Anura Kumara Dissanayake factor
Posted on September 14th, 2019

By C. A. Chandraprema Courtesy The Island

September 14, 2019, 8:28 pm 

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Anura Kumara

Major split in the yahapalana vote All ‘also rans’ floundering Second and third preference hopes unrealistic

With the JVP fielding its own candidate, the yahapalana vote bank breaks up in a very significant way. At the presidential elections held in 2010 and 2015, the JVP vote was a part of the anti-Rajapaksa common candidate’s vote bank. This time however, it will not be possible for the JVP to avoid fielding a candidate of its own if the UNP fields a party member as a candidate. Some think that Karu Jayasuriya may be able to get the JVP to stand down and obtain their vote. But if the JVP allows their members to vote for the member of another party that will set in motion a process whereby the JVP ultimately gets swallowed up by the other party that their voters vote for.

All the small parties that have had semi-permanent links with a bigger party have haemorrhaged leaders, members and voters to the bigger entity. It happened to the LSSP and CP after the 1950s when they began collaborating with the centre-left SLFP. Today the LSSP and CP have become permanent allies in an unavoidable marriage with the larger social democratic entity they linked up with – the SLFP and its successor the SLPP. The Sri Lanka Mahajana Party which linked up with the SLFP in 1994, has virtually disappeared from sight. There are plenty of examples like that. The monk Dambara Amila was once a member of the JVP.

Today, he has no association with the JVP but is a prominent member of the NGO cabal supporting yahapalanaya. Up to now the JVP has been a cadre based political party. That never changed even when they contested the presidential election of 1982. At the Parliamentary elections of 1994, 2000 and 2001, they relied only on their party vote. At the Parliamentary election of 2004 they for the first time, began joining coalitions with the SLFP to fight elections. One parliamentary election and one presidential election later, by 2008, the end result of this was that they had lost a good number of leaders, cadres and voters to the UPFA with Wimal Weerawansa breaking away to join the Rajapaksa camp.

Bitter experiences of the past

At the presidential election in 2010 and 2015 the JVP supported a common candidate, with the second attempt being successful. Then the JVP fell a victim to its own success because they had to share the blame for the misdeeds and failings of the government they had helped bring into power. They have now run out of options and strategies. Since they have now fallen down a well, the only way out is through the mouth of the same well. In promoting a common candidate in 2010 and 2015, the JVP set aside its own identity as a Marxist Leninist party and joined a loose coalition led by the UNP which had as its main aim the dislodging of the Rajapaksas from power.

With the JVP’s move to field Anura Kumara Dissanayake as its presidential candidate, they have now taken that approach to its logical conclusion and for all practical purposes shed the red colour and their Marxist Leninist ideology and positioned itself as a liberal alternative to the UNP and the SLPP. They tried out this approach in a limited way at the local government elections in 2018, and they found that it would work up to a point by attracting the voters disgruntled with the UNP to their side. If they are to harvest the floating vote that may be leaving the UNP, they have to field their own candidate and to maintain a sufficiently people-friendly image.

This is why Anura Kumara Dissanayake had shed the red shirt of radicalism for pastel coloured alternatives and why the red banner of the party has been replaced by a shade of purple. This is the JVP in sheep’s clothing – a new approach taken with the hope of swelling their ranks by harvesting disgruntled voters from the yahapalana project. There have been many twists and turns in the JVP’s history. They moved from armed insurrection to popular politics after getting out of jail in 1977. They reverted to armed insurrection again in the mid 1980s, to be followed by another phase of engaging in democratic politics after 1994.

They started collaborating with the SLFP in mid 2001 when the so called ‘pariwasa government’ was set up with the JVP helping to prop up the failing PA. This was taken to a new level when the JVP entered into a coalition with the SLFP to contest the 2004 Parliamentary election. The JVP soon left this coalition and opted to remain independent in Parliament until the presidential election of 2005 when they once again helped the UPFA to win the Presidential election of that year. Their justification for supporting Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005 was on the argument that it was necessary to keep Ranil out. By 2010 the JVP had come to the conclusion that Mahinda Rajapaksa should be kept out and Ranil Wickremesinghe brought into power as the Prime Minister. At the 2010 presidential elections, they promoted the idea of fielding a common candidate to defeat the Rajapaksa government. This succeeded in 2015.

The JVP has tried everything they possibly can in the past quarter of a century and now they are trying the only remaining option  – to give up the red and radicalism and to try and become at least the third force in politics like the Liberal-Democratic Party in Britain. The JVP has been making the moves necessary for this transition – no red, no radicalism and a stated willingness to accept the rights of gays and lesbians.

It’s unlikely that the JVP would be inclined to help another party to capture power in the future because they would have to share the blame for bringing that other party into power. That would have already happened to the JVP with the yahapalana fiasco except for the fact that they have got this opportunity to harvest some of the floating vote by posing as the cleaner option within the yahapalana camp. In normal circumstances, the constant fielding of outsiders as their candidates leads to a dissolution of the party. The JVP is fortunate that the yahapalana government was such a failure. If they had been even moderately successful, the above mentioned process would have taken place in reverse and the main partners in the government the UNP and the SLFP would have eaten into the JVP base.

But because the main yahapalana partners were so unsuccessful, the JVP has now got an opportunity to eat into the vote banks of the SLFP and the UNP. The JVP’s experience with forming partnerships with larger entities for a common cause has not been good. In 2010 when the JVP supported Sarath Fonseka’s bid for the presidency along with the UNP and the TNA, a large segment of the JVP’s activist cadre with Premakumar Gunaratnam at their head broke away to form the Frontline Socialist Party. Simultaneously, the JVP lost control over the Inter University Students Federation which they have never regained.

So there is a need for the JVP to reassert their own identity. Upstarts like like Nagananda Kodituwakku were stepping into the void left by the JVP which was collaborating with parties like the UNP, the TNA and the Muslim political parties. The announcement of Anura Kumara Dissanayake as the JVP candidate and the rally at Galle Face to announce that candidacy was clearly an attempt to claw back lost ground.

‘Also rans’ in trouble with JVP’s entry

In fact the proliferation of presidential hopefuls at the 2019 presidential elections was because the JVP was not in the scene. The moment the JVP announced their candidacy we saw that it acted as as dampener on the enthusiasm of some of the potential ‘also ran’ candidates. The JVP is appealing to the same constituency as Nagananda Kodituwaku, Rohan Pallewatte and other would be Presidents. Uvindu Kurukulasuriya the editor of the Colombo Telegraph website once announced (we fervently believe, only tongue in cheek) that he will be voting for Madhu Roxz a youthful Youtube crack pot celebrity wearing what looks like a leg warmer on one arm who had early on announced that he will be running for president. Madhu Roxz is now nowhere to be seen.

Many such candidates will opt out now that the JVP is in the ring. Nagananda Kodituwakku who is the longest standing ‘also ran’ in the race due to his involvement in public interest litigation. Disturbing questions are now being asked about Nagananda’s candidacy as well. Last week youtuber Darshana Handungoda charged that Nagananda had not yet relinquished his British citizenship and had not yet made public the Constitution that he promised the people. Handungoda ominously stated that Nagananda had been engaged in fund raising activities even though he has not up to now relinquished his British citizenship and he expressed the fervent hope that this would not turn out to be a scam.

This is a moment when the potential also rans are facing a reality check. Even though it is speculated in some quarters that the JVP may at the last moment do what they did in 1994 and stand down in favour of a candidate who pledges to abolish the executive presidency, it is unlikely that they would do that this time. They need to reassert their separate identity while at the same time reinventing themselves to appeal to a wider vote base. Now that Anura Kumara Dissanayake has come forward as the candidate the JVP will have no option but to put their best foot forward and to gather as much votes as possible – all of it coming out of the yahapalana vote bank.

If the JVP had not supported the common candidate in 2015 albeit indirectly, Maithripala would have lost to Mahinda Rajapaksa. It can clearly be seen that the UNP (both factions) are still wooing only the minorities with increased appearances in the north. The Tamil and Muslim votes are crucial no doubt, but so are the JVP votes. Even if the UNP gets all the Tamil and Muslim votes in the country, they will not be able to win unless they are able to get the JVP votes as well. In 1982, when Hector Kobbekaduwa was made the SLFP presidential candidate, he made an attempt to get Dr Colvin R. De Silva to stand down but failed. Given how important the JVP vote is, its surprising that the UNP has not yet approached the JVP and requested them to stand down.

At the moment perhaps the UNP is preoccupied with their internal battles. But once they decide on a candidate, that candidate will have to go to the JVP’s Pelawatte headquarters with the same enthusiasm that they go to the north today. The JVP’s entry into the contest skews things for the yahapalana camp to such an extent that one has to pose the question as to why the UNP is fighting one another for the presidential candidacy at all. They will be better off talking to the JVP and asking them who their preferred candidate is and then making their choice accordingly. That’s how important the JVP vote is for the yahapalana camp.

For the first time in the history of presidential elections in this country, a discussion has ensued about the second and third preferences that voters can cast. This discussion is being fuelled mainly by the yahapalana side which hopes that though the yahapalana vote may not remain together at this election the way it stuck together at the 2010 and 2015 presidential election, still the yahapalana partners would have enough in common with one another particularly the need to keep the Rajapaksas out of power at all costs, to come to an arrangement whereby all pro-yahapalana types cast the second and third preferences for one another.

For example, if the JVP is contesting separately this time, the yahapalana types hope that the JVP voters’ second preference would be cast for the UNP candidate so as to ensure that even if the JVP candidate does not win, that it would help keep Gotabaya Rajapaksa out. One problem in this anticipated second preference is that the JVP cannot ask its voters to cast their second preference to the UNP candidate or indeed any other candidate. They can’t even make a general statement like telling the voting public to vote for any candidate other than Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The moment they do that, they will be acknowledging that there are other alternatives to which the people can vote other than the JVP. Asking your voters to cast a second or third preference for some other political entity is a sure fire way of losing votes to that named entity.  

The second and third preferences

The more radical offshoot of the JVP the Frontline Socialist Party is also fielding a candidate at the Presidential elections. The JVP can’t afford to ask their voters to cast their second preferences even to the FSP who were their comrades until a few years ago because that would immediately result in a gravitation of JVP voters towards the FSP. In such circumstances, how can one expect the UNP candidate to be able to harvest the JVP’s second and third preferences? It can be argued that since the JVP has worked together with the UNP at two presidential elections in 2010 and 2015, that the JVP voters will of their own accord without any need to be told to do so, cast their second and third preferences to their erstwhile UNP partners.

That is not an improbable scenario. After all Anura Kumara Dissanayake was in the National Executive Council, the Anti-Corruption Committee set up by the UNP Cabinet in the immediate aftermath of the January 2015 change of government. AKD was also the head of the Rapid Response Sub-Committee of this Anti Corruption Committee. By appearing on the same stage as the UNP, the leaders of the JVP have given their rank and file the impression that the UNP is a friendly force. So there is a distinct possibility that some of the JVP constituency will of their own accord cast their second preference to the UNP candidate. This in the medium to long term will be a sure fire way for the JVP to lose its base to the UNP. In fact, if the JVP is to maintain its identity and keep its vote base together, they will have to actively discourage the casting of second and third preferences.

The actual fact is that no political party or individual contesting a presidential election can afford to ask their voters to cast their second or third preferences to any other party or individual because that would be a case of committing suicide in stages. In 1982, at the first presidential election, we don’t recall ever hearing Dr Colvin R. De Silva telling his voters to cast their second or third preferences for Vasudeva Nanayakkara or for Hector Kobbekaduwa because they were colleagues who had served in the same government together and were potential allies in the future as well.

A presidential election is a headlong battle to win votes for oneself. Recommending or endorsing anyone else as a candidate suitable to receive second or third preferences will result in a flight of original votes to that endorsed candidate. If someone is deemed suitable to receive a second preference as a potential alternative, it will be only a matter of time until that organization starts hemorrhaging supporters to alternative entities. Presidential elections are not the only elections around. There are parliamentary, provincial council and local government elections. If a voter sees a good candidate at the parliamentary, PC or LG level in a party to whom he cast his second preference at a presidential election, that voter will switch his allegiances to that good candidate.

Encouraging or indeed even tolerating a second or third preference vote at a presidential election will be a sure fire way of turning the party vote into a semi-floating vote in the medium to long term. This is not a situation that will be relished by any political party – least of all the JVP. If some members of the JVP have now come to the conclusion that the UNP candidate is worthy of their second or third preference, then it will be only a matter of time until they become UNP like Nandana Gunatillke, the JVP’s presidential candidate of 1999 who is now a UNP local government representative!

So the JVP, UNP and SLPP and indeed all political parties and even individual candidates will all have to actively discourage the casting of second and third preferences at the presidential elections if they value their identity.

One Response to “Presidential race: the Anura Kumara Dissanayake factor”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    AKD doesn’t divide the UNP vote. He divides the SLPP vote. Although JVP supported Sirisena in 2015, most grassroots level JVPers voted for Mahinda. But when JVP contests alone, they would vote for the JVP as a protest vote.

    Nandana Gunathilaka was in the UPFA under Mahinda too!

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