Opposition in the oblivion; how and why it happened?
Posted on August 10th, 2020

By Ranga Jayasuriya Courtesy The Daily Mirror

What happened on August 5 was an epic rout of the Opposition. No time since the proportional representation system was adopted under the 1978 Constitution, had the Opposition been relegated to oblivion as it was at the parliamentary election held last week. Not even before that. Many refer to the UNP landslide in the Parliamentary election in 1977 when it won 140 seats out of 168 in the National State Assembly, the then Parliament. The SLFP won just eight. However, the first-past-the-post system at the time was responsible for creating a greater disparity between the actual votes polled by each party and the number of parliament seats they secured. To secure 5/6th of seats at the National Assembly, the UNP won only 50.9% of the popular vote, whereas the SLFP which won 29.7%, had just 8 seats!

Proportional Representation system was introduced to avoid such imperfection, though it created its own problems. JR Jayawardene should now be turning in his grave. The system he introduced is producing results with the near resemblance to its predecessor. Worse still, the UNP and its fratricidal offspring are at the receiving end.  

In electoral dynamics and voter impulses, this election has much in common with the General Election of 2010, which was held right after another disastrous presidential election, which Sarath Fonseka lost to Mahinda Rajapaksa by 1.8 million votes. Mahinda Rajapaksa-led UPFA won the subsequent Parliament election with 60% of popular votes, against the UNP’s 29%, and polling more than twice of the UNP vote tally, and securing 144 seats, six shy of the two-thirds majority.  

This time, SJB polled only 2.77 million votes or 23.9% of total votes. Less than half of popular votes Sajith obtained barely nine months ago!

This election is still worse. During the last presidential election, Sajith Premadasa polled 5.56 million votes or 42% of total votes. This time, SJB polled only 2.77 million votes or 23.9% of total votes. Less than half of popular votes Sajith Premadasa obtained barely nine months ago! 

Where did the missing 2.8 million votes go? Around 800,000 of that number went to a combination of the TNA(327,168), UNP (249,000) and SLMC (34,428), fringe Tamil nationalist parties, which ate into the TNA  vote base (around 170,000) and the rest to other small groups.   

Then where is the lion share of approximately two million missing UNP votes? One should look at the disparity between the voter turnout and number of rejected votes in the presidential election and the just-concluded parliamentary polls.  

 In the presidential election in November last year, 13.38 million (83. 72% of total votes) cast their franchise. Last week, only 12.34 million voters (75.89%) voted. One million voters who voted at the presidential election, chose to stay at home. The voter apathy is further vindicated by the number of rejected votes. There were 135,452 rejected votes at the previous presidential election. This time, there were 744,373 rejected votes (4.58% of total votes). That is 600,000 more than the presidential election. Effectively, 1.6 million voters (10% of total voters) who cast their vote in the presidential election did not either vote or spoiled their votes. These don’t indicate as just voter apathy, but of a heightened sense of resignation of the anti-government, anti-Pohottuwa voters.  

It is natural that a Parliamentary election that follows a presidential poll, tend to produce identical results, the prospect of which also generated a sense of apathy in the voters who vote for the opposition. However, the result of the presidential election itself was a foregone conclusion; Gotabaya Rajapaksa was predicted to win with a double-digit margin and Sajith Premadasa was destined to lose. Still, despite the manifest asymmetry of electability, 5.56 million voted for Mr. Premadasa. This time, nearly half of them did not vote at all or spoiled their votes.   
Whereas, the SLPP and its allies; as a whole increased their fortune. Gotabaya Rajapaksa polled 6,924,255 votes. SLPP fell short by 100,000 of that number, but with the votes polled by its coalition partners, EPDP, TMVP, SLFP and Muslim Alliance, SLPP managed to obtain 150,000 more votes than its presidential candidate did. A fraction of that increase might have come from the traditional UNP vote base, but those numbers are statistically insignificant to set against the preponderance of the likely UNP/SJB voters who abstained from voting.   
The looming voter resignation of the traditional UNP voters, in effect enlarged the SLPP vote share. In the Presidential election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa who polled 6.92 million votes claimed for 52.25% of the total vote. In the just-concluded parliamentary election, SLPP, which polled 6.85 million claimed for 59% of total votes. The disparity translates into the number of parliamentary seats. SLPP alone has secured 145, and with the help of its allies, the two-third majority in Parliament.  

If it was how it happened, why this happened? What explains the intense sense of resignation of the likely anti-government, anti-Rajapaksa voters? The answer is self-evident, and this prospect was feared and warned, including many others and by this writer. Only a dim-witted fool would have concluded that the split of the Grand Old Party, the UNP, right before the Parliament election, would have served the interests of either party, the UNP or the SJB. What happened was a classic case of mutually assured destruction. 

During the election campaign, the two parties were more at each other’s throat, than campaigning against its common rival, the SLPP. The traditional UNP voters and the independent voters who might have voted to stop the government from getting a 2/3rd, were repulsed by this ugly spectacle. The UNP was reduced to insignificance and the SJB did not fare much better. There are those who derive a sinister satisfaction by the plight of the UNP. But, the UNP did not collapse alone, with it, the liberal, multi-ethnic, pluralistic camp also crumbled. There is no likely candidate who could fill that void in the years to come. 

Before the election, I warned the looming prospect of the absolutism. It has become the reality and sadly though made possible to a great degree by the foolhardy nature of the opposition camp.  

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