Decoding Election Results
Posted on August 10th, 2020

By N. Sathiya Moorthy Courtesy Ceylon Today

Elections-2020 will be remembered for very many reasons. The COVID-19 pandemic of course and the two-thirds majority that the SLPP obtained even under the inscrutable proportional representation (PR) system, for the first time ever since its introduction as far back as the 1978 Constitution.

Arguments are since being put forth that had it not been for the UNP split, the SLPP would not have done as creditably. Even this section does not claim that the Opposition combine would have won, even if not as handsomely. 

Inaccurate and mischievous

Sections of the foreign Media and ‘international commentators’ especially go on to attribute the Rajapaksa & Rajapaksa victory to the increasing sense of ‘Sinhala-Buddhist Nationalism’, more after last year’s Easter Sunday serial-blasts, attributed to self-styled, home-grown ‘Islamists’. It’s again inaccurate, if not mischievous.

The sweeping SLPP victory is not inversely proportionate to either. Instead, it is directly proportional to the continued unpopularity of the Opposition, which could not hold itself together, even in the face of deep crisis in the aftermath of resounding defeat in the presidential poll last year.

Such a defeat came after the even more callous way they handled the Nation through the previous five years of Yahapalana regime, what they themselves entered into the Constitution through the ill-conceived 19-A as a ‘ Government of National Unity’ (GNU). There was neither governance, nor unity and none in the dis-united  Government had any time for the Nation. Coming as it is after such a disastrous five years, for the UNP rebel to split the party in times of internal crisis and National recovery was the least that the Nation would have expected and wanted – least of all, three-generations of UNP loyalists. 

Figure of speech

Figures don’t lie. Leave aside the percentages, which changes with the real numbers, but even real numbers tell a different story. To begin with, the voter turn-out, at 71 per cent this time, is at least five per cent lower than the usual 75-plus per cent on earlier occasions. 

A specious argument is being put forth that most of the absentee voters belonged to the UNP, and were upset with Sajith Premadasa walking out and forming his SJB. Together, the parent and the breakaway parties put off the traditional UNP voters. 

It is more than likely that the inherent fear of COVID-19 encouraged older people to stay at home – or, were discouraged thus by younger family members, like a son or a daughter, or sons and daughters, or sons-in-law and daughters-in-law. They definitely stayed at home, and across the country, in many cases. 

Yet, in a country where older people have been casting their vote under the complicated PR system since the beginning and without much difficulty, to conclude that they are less intelligent and that the UNP’s ‘elite voters’ alone care for their lives and health is absurd. They belonged to every political party and group and their staying away may have added to the lower turn-out, but adding to disillusioned UNP supporters. 

Going by published accounts, the SLPP polled 6,853,693 votes (59.09 per cent) against the runner-up SJB with 2,771,984 (23.9 per cent). Add UNP’s 240,436 votes (2.15 per cent), and then again, there was no way an undivided UNP would have made it. 

Equally true

The argument that in select electorates and electoral districts, it would have made a difference may not also hold water. In terms of the vote-share difference between the SLPP and an undivided UNP is still huge in every electoral district; that whatever additions may have accrued would have only been in terms of the number of ‘National List’ MPs, say around five more – but definitely at the expense of the SLPP’s National List. 

Whatever is true of the SLPP vote-share, the traditional UNP voter has enough of it, he wanted a re-oriented party that will not reflect the ideology and practices of the traditional SLFP rival and its offshoot in the SLPP. When Sajith and SJB came, they grabbed it. 

If the SJB did not make it still, the polling figures tell the true story of the pre-split UNP’s voter-base. Together the two parties polled a total of 7,094,128 votes (23.9+2.15 = 26.05 per cent). There is no comparison with the SLPP’s 59.09 per cent.

It all becomes curiouser when compared to last year’s Presidential Election. Gotabaya Rajapaksa polled 6,924,255 votes (52.25 per cent). Sajith Premadasa as the undivided UNP candidate polled 5,564,239 votes (41.99 per cent). Back of the envelope calculations at the time showed that Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil allies may have contributed a minimum of 12 per cent vote-share to Premadasa. 

Deducting it, the UNP vote-share at the time would have come to 30 per cent. It is also what the UNP got in the Nation-wide local Government polls in February 2018. This time round, the TNA contested alone, so did the SLMC and ACMC in a couple of constituencies. That should explain the combined vote of SJB and UNP getting stuck at 26-plus per cent. 

It is another matter that the total SLT votes for the unified UNP candidate in the presidential poll was more than the TNA’s current vote-share of 327,168 (2.82 per cent).  You take away say around 3-4 per cent of the Muslim and Upcountry Tamil votes in the SJB poll this time, and you now know the real strength – or, weakness? – of the UNP political family. 

Interestingly, all this was for different figures of total votes polled between the Presidential and Parliamentary Polls. It was 3,387,951 (83.72 per cent) for the former. In the Parliamentary Polls, at the recorded 71 per cent, the real numbers should work out to 11-million-plus votes (rough, unofficial).

Granting that the average of five per cent voters who stayed away this time compared to earlier parliamentary polls were all UNP voters, no explanation has ever been sought and answered why the turnout in Presidential Polls has invariably been more than 80 per cent all along. It defies logic.

Discerning voter

Compared to Presidential Elections, the Parliamentary Poll candidates from every political party and group will be campaigning with a host of their national-level leaders, and go all the way down to the grassroots-level. Consider the Provincial Council Elections, and the poll percentage has invariably been around or above 70 per cent. In the normal course, it should have been even more than that for the Parliamentary and Presidential Polls. 

There can only be one valid argument or reason. That the Sri Lankan voter is discerning. For him, he who rules him, as President matters the most. The rest of them all, including Ministers, MPs and PC administrators all could wait – or, they better wait. 

Twin evaluations

In turn, this implies that the Presidential Poll comprises twin evaluations. One to assess the performance of the incumbent. The other is to evaluate the hopes and promises inspired by the rival, even when he is not in power to give any real hope or make any actionable promises.

Yet, if the Sri Lankan voter makes it as much a point as possible to vote in Presidential Polls in large numbers, it also means that they identify that much more and even more personally and politically with the candidate they vote for – or, vote against, likewise. There is again a discernible message for the political leaderships and the presidential candidates – particularly the one elected.

The message is even more so for the international community, in the contemporary Sri Lankan context. The message is that their President-elect is doing what they have endorsed him to do, and/or expect him to deliver. So, for ‘outsiders’ to attribute the victory of a presidential candidate to the soundness of Sri Lankan democracy, dating back to the Donoughmore days in 1931, and blaming an incumbent for decisions taken in respect of the popular mandate is just not on.

One, the elected President cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hound. Two, the international community or the local civil society and other critics of a President in the country too cannot expect him or her, hunt with the hare and run with the hound. 

NOTA vote

Against this, in the Parliamentary Poll and also the local Government  Elections, the voter is weighing the capacity and capability of the rival candidates standing at his door-step. It could well mean that he is dissatisfied with all, to a greater degree in the case of the latter and relatively lesser degree for the former. 

The option in such circumstances for the voter is to stay away, or boycott the poll. A clearer picture can emerge, if as in neighbouring India, there is way for the unhappy voter to mark ‘None of the above’, or NOTA. In such a case, even the disgruntled voter will have a voice, and his silence will sound loud and clear, possibly even more. 

Pre-poll, Ranil Wickremesinghe said that this would be the last Election under the PR system. Talks about reforming the poll system has been on for years now. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena’s name became popular in the country as heading the committee that was looking into the matter for long. 

There are good elements in the system, so reforming should look into ways to retain the name. For instance the ’Lst system’ combined with the ‘Preference Vote’ system has ensured that the number of members per party does not change between two Elections. It has also avoided the uncertainties attending on by- Elections, caused by the death or resignation of a candidate.

But if parties and politician are serious about it all, they should be seriously looking at an anti-defection law, to end horse-trading. At least for the next five years, no party or leader, especially those in this Government, have to worry about their numbers, two-thirds or not. Again, India in the immediate neighbourhood has an anti-defection law in force for a few decades now. The flaws in the scheme have also been exposed over the years. Sri Lanka can study and take off from there.  

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@sathiyamoorthy.com

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