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    Sweeping victory Featured

    November 21, 2019



    Finally, the verdict of the people at the eighth presidential election has been delivered: Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has been elected the seventh Executive President of Sri Lanka.All predictions were that the contest between Rajapaksa and his main rival, Sajith Premadasa, contesting from the National Democratic Front (NDF) was expected to be a close one. In the end, it was not. Rajapaksa won convincingly, winning 52 per cent of the popular vote and a majority of over 1.3 million votes.

    Support for Rajapaksa was consistent throughout the country except in the North and East and in the Nuwara Eliya district. That was always expected to be the case. What was surprising was the scale of the support he received in the South of the country where votes in many electoral divisions were over the sixty percent mark.

    Key appointments

    Rajapaksa took oaths as President at a solemn ceremony at the Ruwanweliseya in Anuradhapura on Monday and assumed duties as President at the Presidential Secretariat on Tuesday. He has already made some key appointments, including P. B. Jayasundera (Secretary to the President), Kamal Gunaratne (Defence Secretary), Ravinatha Aryasinha (Foreign Secretary) and S. R. Attygalle (Treasury Secretary).

    The magnitude of his victory may have surprised even Rajapaksa himself and strategists in the SLPP. There was a perception that while Rajapaksa had the advantage early in the campaign when the NDF and its main constituent party, the United National Party (UNP) was yet to name its candidate, the advent of Sajith Premadasa had led to a narrowing of that gap and a ‘swing’ towards Premadasa.

    The election results have convincingly demonstrated that this was not the case. In what was easily the most peaceful presidential election conducted in the country, Rajapaksa swept the board- except in the North and East and in the Nuwara Eliya district. Even districts such as Badulla, Kandy and Colombo- traditional strongholds of the UNP- fell to the SLPP.

    The three districts in the Southern Province, Galle, Matara and Hambantota- the ‘deep South’ of the country, delivered the best results for Rajapaksa, delivering 64 per cent, 67 per cent and 66 percent of the vote respectively.

    Ironically, in Hambantota, which was nursed by Premadasa, he polled only 26 per cent of the vote. Moneragala district also polled 65 per cent for Rajapaksa.

    Elsewhere, in district won by Rajapaksa, the percentage of votes were all in the high 50s except in the traditional UNP strongholds, indicating a massive swing for the SLPP candidate, a former Defence Secretary and brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa but contesting an election for the first time.

    In the traditional UNP vote bases won by Rajapaksa- the districts of Colombo, Kandy, Badulla and Puttalam- the contest was closer with the majority in Badulla being less than 25,000 votes. Polonnaruwa district, the home base of former President Maithripala Sirisena also voted for Rajapaksa, albeit with 53 per cent of the vote.

    In what many have noted to be a disturbing trend, the North and East voted overwhelmingly for Premadasa. That was expected, but what was not expected was the scale of his victory in these districts.

    Premadasa polled over 80 per cent of the vote in the Jaffna and Vanni districts and over 70 per cent in the Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts and over 60 per cent in Digamadulla.

    New President

    This is cause for concern for the new President as it indicates a deeply polarised vote. Perhaps some division along ethnic lines was always expected in this election, given the SLPP’s hard-line nationalist stance during the campaign but its magnitude has been an eye-opener.

    The SLPP campaigned on a platform based on Rajapaksa’s proven credentials of successfully prosecuting the Eelam war to a finish. As such, they based their campaign on promising a ‘safe’ Sri Lanka which resonated with the electorate, especially in the aftermath of the April 21 Easter attacks. The election results indicate that stance.

    However, in doing so, they often resorted to rhetoric bordering on the invective, directed at minority communities and proclaimed a pre-eminence for the majority community basing their slogans on ‘saving the nation and the Sinhala race’.

    Again, this is a theme which appears to have resonated in the North and East, with similar consequences- a very poor percentage of votes for Rajapaksa in those regions.

    What next? Undoubtedly, both the UNP and the SLPP must be conducting their own analyses of the election results. The SLPP can take great satisfaction from the fact that a party launched only three years ago has now emerged to effectively be the ruling party of the country.

    However, it should take serious note of the message from the North and East of the nation. Relying on rhetoric to win votes in the South may be acceptable during an election but now, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has to govern the entire country as its Executive President. As such, he should act in such a manner that the North and East do not feel marginalised- in fact, he should woo these regions more ardently.

    Rajapaksa, as the person who supervised the Eelam war in its final stages, knows well the trauma and travails of warfare. He would not wish for another rebellion in the North and East, certainly not under his watch. Given the message he has received from these provinces, he would do well to focus on why he fared so poorly there- when there was a rousing mandate elsewhere in the country- and attempt to remedy them.

    For the UNP, there will be much soul searching. It cannot say that it was not forewarned. The last national elections, the 2018 February local government elections, were disastrous for the party where it polled only 29 per cent of the vote. In that sense, its 42 per centage at this election could even be considered creditable.

    However, that overall percentage is not what it really means. It has been boosted by very high percentages in the North and East which ironically, will not accrue to the UNP at a general election as most of those votes will be cast for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

    Therefore, in real terms the vote of the UNP will be what it polled in most southern districts- around the 35 per cent mark in most districts, slightly lower in the Deep South and slightly higher in the UNP’s traditional vote bases.

    The question will then be asked as to whether the ‘Premadasa phenomenon’ was a myth. Was there no ‘swing’ towards Premadasa in the campaign? It is likely that there was and that, had the candidate not been Premadasa, the party’s performance would have not been worthy of its status as the second major party in the country.

    The UNP will now have to take a long, hard decision about its political strategy. A general election is looming. There is already pressure from the public suggesting that it should agree for Parliament to ratify a general election in accordance with the mandate Rajapaksa received at Saturday’s poll.

    If the UNP agrees to that, the ‘domino’ effect of the presidential election could cost it dearly. The next general election will be held on the proportional representation (PR) system, so the UNP will be able to still win a fair share of seats in Parliament but is also likely to concede a working majority to the SLPP.

    UNP leadership

    There will also be the serious question of the party leadership. Soon after the presidential election results were announced, Premadasa announced that he was stepping down as deputy leader of the UNP. Several other ministers- including Mangala Samaraweera, Kabir Hashim, Malik Samarawickrema, Harin Fernando and Patali Champika Ranawaka- have resigned from their portfolios. They are all Premadasa loyalists who agitated within the UNP for his candidacy.

    There is speculation that this is a precursor to a move to let Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe lead the party at the next general election, which the UNP is extremely unlikely to win. In the event of another debacle by the party at the poll, the push to replace Wickremesinghe would be virtually irresistible.

    Among those disappointed at the poll would undoubtedly be the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). In a climate where there was general dissatisfaction over major political parties, it would have been reasonable to expect voters to navigate towards the JVP.

    That didn’t eventuate. The JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake polled only three per cent of the vote and just over 400,000 votes, well short of the half a million votes usually attributed to the JVP. The party will need to seriously review its policies and philosophy and assess why it is not striking a chord even with voters disillusioned with the major parties.

    As Sri Lanka moves towards the next phase of its political determination, it can heave a collective sigh of relief that the eighth presidential election was concluded without virtually any major incident- apart from a bus being shot at- a sign that it is finally maturing as a democracy.

    Last modified on Thursday, 21 November 2019 14:19

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