Does Elpitiya hold the key?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Rarely has the nation witnessed a by-election in the midst of an already long run-up to a national election. It has happened this time with elections (not by-elections in the strict sense of the term) being held for the Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha (PS), or local government body, in sub-urban Galle district, abutting capital Colombo.

The question is if the ‘clean sweep’ for the SLPP-JO, is indicative of a favourable start-up for party candidate Gota Rajapaksa in the presidential vote on 16 November – or, is it just a storm in the tea-cup….

The Elpitiya PS polls became necessary after an affected group from the the nation-wide local government elections in February 2018 got a favourable order from the Supreme Court. The voter-number is not big enough, nor is Elpitiya considered a ‘bell-weather’ PS, if at all there is one in the country, for the results to be seen as reflecting or influencing the voter-mood in the presidential polls just about a month later.

Yet, there are reasons for taking a closer look at Elpitiya kind of local polls than already, considering that this one occurred after the presidential polls had been notified and the EC too had finalised the list of candidates. This is because it is inevitable for ‘swing voters’ especially to read the ‘winds of change’ in the air, then decide on whom to vote. Considering that this time round, not one of the 35 candidates has been able to flag a new issue, which is different from that flagged by the others and appealing to the electorate, the undecided, swing voters are seemingly more confused than earlier occasions.

Swing votes

It is the swing voters who often decide national elections in the country. In a way, even the ‘decisive’ minority community electorate are only ‘swing voters’ of a committed kind. Else, they would not have voted in the past – and mostly so – as per the last-minute directives of their respective community/party leaderships. The latter, in turn, take their electoral decisions after a lot of external discourses with the main candidates and their parties concerned, and internal squabbles.

‘Swing votes’ matter more in this election than in the past polls of the kind, for the simple reason that none of the main contenders can claim to have the required 50-per cent vote-share already in their kitty. If for instance Gota R retains all of the Rajapaksa-centric SLPP-JO vote-share of 41 per cent from the 2018 local government polls, there is a huge question-mark about the source of the additional 10-plus per cent votes that he will have to get to pass the post and become President. There are no convincing answers to the question, though the Gota campaign is hoping that their call for ‘stability and security’ may ‘swing’ the undecided voters in their favour.

Less said about the rival candidate, Sajith Premadasa, representing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP-UNF combine, the better. The alliance is to have taken a new name without taking a new avatar, as promised long ago – and forgotten faster. Translated, it means that Sajith Premadasa needs to drag his electoral pull from the UNP’s 30 per cent vote-share in the local government polls by another 20 percentage points, in the total electorate. The TNA got only two-plus per cent of the national vote-share, and the Muslim parties in the UNP camp can only lose votes after the ‘Easter blasts’, not add more to the Sajith kitty.

The TNA’s is still a case in point as for ‘swing votes’ in Sajith’s favour are concenred, but it is even more so in the case of Muslim and Upcountry Tamil parties. The latter may be excused for taking their decisions early on in poll-fights that mainly have involved major parties from the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community. The division in this case may have occurred on urban-rural, elite-commoner, or on caste lines, but the fight has mostly been within the majority ethnicity, and the minority communities have constituted the ‘decisive’ voters, with last-minute changes, imposed by their respective leaderships.

It used to be the LTTE in its time, and the TNA since, in the case of the Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) community. However, doubts and questions remain about the ability of the TNA leadership to carry a majority, if not ‘the’ majority of SLT voters with it, this time. The argument that the TNA has lost its base, as witnessed in the 2018 local government polls in the Tamil areas, needs to be proved in a national election of the present kind, where it needs to be still proved that the Tamils may not vote en masse, as used to be the case until now – whoever be the ‘agent of change’ in Tamil electoral attitude and approach.

Unsurprising, but…

The Elpitiya results are not surprising at all, considering that the Rajapaksa-centric SLPP-JO have swept the popular mandate. In a system, where the spoils of polls are divided on two counts and at two levels, the SLPP-JO has won all 17 elected seats, with three other identifiable parties sharing the remaining 12 seats in a total of 29, but only as a proportion of their respective vote-shares. Rather, it is a mixed system of first-past-the-post cum proportionate representation (PR) schemes.

IF the SLPP thus got 17 seats, polling, 23,372 popular votes, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP got five (bonus?) seats, polling 10,113 vot6es, a huge margin there in terms of vote-share against the SLPP. The SLFP-UPFA of President Maithripala Sirisena came a poor third with 5,273 votes and three seats, while the JVP, as was to be expected, got 2,435 votes and two seats, respectively.

The Gota campaign has already started celebrating their man’s presidential poll victory, or so it seems, at least on the social media. A lone swallow does not the summer make, and a PS poll, that too in an SLFP favourite area in the past, does not speak for the nation’s mandate, which still is a month away. What if for instance, the Elpitiya polls polarises the electorate, especially the ‘minority voters’ more than already against the Rajapajksas, and they turn out in bigger numbers than expected, in the presidential polls? What if the Gota cadres take it easy, believing that they have already won the presidential polls, and that works to the favour of Sajith P, for instance?

Truth be acknowledged, Elpitiya for long has been an SLFP stronghold, with the breakaway SLPP ‘stealing’ the show from the parent party, in recent times. Yet, there can be no denying the fact tht what used to be a ‘Bandaranaike stronghold’ became a ‘Rajapksa base’ overnight, through the years of the victorious Eelam War-IV against the LTTE, and has remained so.

It is also possible that the UNP cadres from Elpitiya were busy on the PS poll-eve, at capital Colombo, where Candidate Sajith P launched his poll campaign, with a massive rally at the Galle Face Green – where the JVP rival had beaten expectations with their campaign-launch only weeks earlier. Yet, figures over the years tell a different story, at least in the Elpitiya context.

It is true that Elpitiya is an SLFP stronghold traditionally, and that of the SLPP and Mahinda Rajapaksa, brother of Candidate Gota and two-term President, who has promised to become his brother’s Prime Minister, if the other one was elected to the nation’s highest office. It is here facts and figures speaks for themselves, yes, but with a full recognition that Elpitiya is not Sri Lanka, at least as yet.

In the PS polls from 2002 to the present, the SLFP/SLPP have together or otherwise increased their vote-share from 40 per cent (2002), 46 per cent (2006), 59 per cent (2011) and 69 per cent (2019). Of course, the current figures are a total of the SLPP and SLFP votes, assuming that the SLFP’s decision to align with the Rajapaksas works on the ground — independent of the criticism of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga and the present decision of President Maithripala Sirisena to stay ‘neutral’.

What is even more noticeable is that the UNP has been losing ground in Elpitiya through the same period, from 48, 36, 31 and now 25 per cent, from 2002 to the present. The JVP, whose Anura Kumara Dissanayake is in the presidential race all the same, has had its electoral fortunes swinging in Elpitiya through the same period. It was seven per cent in 2002, up to 18 per cent in 2006, three per cent in 2011 and six per cent in 2019.

Speculative, but…

If one considered the JVP’s present six per cent vote-share in Elpitiya PS polls as close to the national average of the party in the parliamentary polls of 2015 and the local government polls of 2018, there is a lot to say in the same vein, viz the vote-share of the ‘Big Two’. The JVP polled around five per cent vote-share in the parliamentary and local government polls, though it had backed the anti-Rajapaksa ticket of Maithripala Sirisena in 2015 presidential polls.

The JVP’s vote-share also tells a different and possibly holistic story, though it may still only be speculative still. The party’s seven per cent vote-share in Elpitiya in 2002 came only a year after the UNP had won the parliamentary polls and Wickremesinghe had become Prime Minister under an assertive SLFP President in CBK. The SLFP and JVP were poll partners in Parliament, and the Elpitiya results were a reflection of the national mood, it could be surmised.

In 2006, only months after the JVP had aligned with the Rajapaksa ticket to make Mahinda the President, the party contested the local government polls on its own, and polled a high 11 per cent even though it could not win a single local government body across the country, against the more popular ‘Mahinda Chintanaya’. Elpitiya-2011 came months after incumbent Mahinda R had swept the presidential polls, post-war, and the JVP had long since parted ways with him. If the lowest three per cent in the four PS polls of the new century in Elpitiya was indicative of something, the new, six per cent vote-share in 2019 is equally indicative of something more – and opposite, too.

Does any of it, or all of it makes any sense ahead of the presidential elections, other than as stand-alone results? Yes and no at the same time. Yes, in the sense that the UNP definitely has cause to worry, and this in turn could mean that they may have to woo the TNA more than the Sajith campaign may be willing to do otherwise. For Gota, it is a sign that they are on top still in Elpitiya, but it need not automatically translate into the 10 per cent additional votes that their candidate would need to win the presidency – granting that he would retain the 40 per cent ‘Rajapaksa vote’ from the 2018 local government polls, and would also get a substantial share of the SLFP-UPFA’s 12 per cent vote-share from the same….

Figures do not lie, yes, but in this case, it could also mean that they do not tell the truth, at least as yet…. For, independent analysis would show how the SLFP-UPFA got its 12 per cent LG poll vote-share, and which way would they go, now that the party is supposed to have aligned with the Rajapaksas, against whom those votes might have been cast in 2018, just as they were anti-UNP and anti-Wickremesinghe, too.

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

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