“His (Mahinda Rajapaksa’s) chief interest will be to strike a deal on the corruption
investigations against himself and his family” – Manik de Silva (CNN – 19 August)1
By Tisaranee Gunasekara
The UPFA fought two consecutive elections in an imaginary country and lost them both. In that imaginary country the minority vote was of less value and weight; and the absolute majority of Sinhala-Buddhists yearned to live under the patriotic-yoke of the Rajapaksas.
The defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa on 8 January should have functioned as a reality check for the UPFA. It had the opposite effect. The political analyses and electoral calculations of the Rajapaksa faction of the UPFA became more surreal with each passing day.
Rajapaksa’s acolytes claimed he was defeated because Sinhala voters were deceived and mislead by traitors and international conspirators. They maintained that Sinhala voters were weeping hysterically about what they, in their ignorance, did to their war-winning hero. They opined that millions of misled Sinhala voters were yearning to right the wrong they did and vote Rajapaksa back to power.
They ignored the real achievements of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration and insisted Sinhala-Buddhist voters cared nothing for such real life issues as inflation and cost of living. They proclaimed the UPFA would win the Parliamentary election with a mammoth majority if it contests under Rajapaksa’s leadership. Some in-house electoral analysts even argued that a UPFA led by Rajapaksa will succeed in obtaining 7.2 million votes.
The myth of a Mahinda Wind (Mahinda Sulanga) was thus created and propagated. This ‘Wind’ will wipe out the defeat of 8 January and return the country back to its rightful owners, Rajapaksa loyalists declared.
It was on the basis of these politico-statistical delusions the ‘Let’s Arise with Mahinda’ campaign was born. Starting with the well-organised and well-funded meeting of Nugegoda, this opera of ignorance wended its loud and frenzied way from district to district.
Rajapaksa ran a parallel campaign, touring temples island-wide and being greeted by adoring crowds. All that made exciting news. It also served to hide an important fact: though a majority of Lankans had issues with the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government they did not want a return to Rajapaksa rule.
The UPFA fought the Parliamentary election on the basis of surreal political weather-forecasts and faith-based calculations. That was why Rajapaksa claimed that come 18 August he will have 117 seats in Parliament. That was why his acolytes threatened to surround Temple Trees and make their hero the prime minister.
Rajapaksa and his acolytes forgot a cardinal fact: free and fair elections are decided by real numbers and not by choreographed theatrics.
So on 18 August, the UPFA collapsed into a crushing defeat with Mahinda, again.
The anatomy of a defeat
At the Parliamentary election, not only did Rajapaksa fail to add a single new vote to the UPFA’s 8 January tally, he also failed to retain 19% of the votes he got at the presidential election.
Under Rajapaksa aegis the UPFA’s electoral base eroded by a massive 1.1 million votes, in just seven months, one week and two days.
At the presidential election of 8 January the UPFA got 5.8 million votes. At the 17 August Parliamentary election, the UPFA could score only 4.7 million votes.
At the presidential election, the UPFA obtained 47.58% of the national vote; at the Parliamentary election its national average went down to 42.38%. That’s a rate of decrease as high as 10.9% in just seven months,
Rajapaksa failed to add one extra vote to the UPFA not just nationally but also in the district he himself contested.
The UPFA received 556,868 votes in Kurunegala in January; this went down to 474,124 votes in August, a decrease of 82,744 votes in just seven months. This amounts to 7.5% of the UPFA’s national vote-loss and a 7.9% rate of decrease.
So much for Rajapaksa electoral magic!
The responsibility for the UPFA’s humiliating defeat falls on Mahinda Rajapaksa who sacrificed the party for his personal gain, those UPFA leaders who used him to regain their Parliamentary seats and the SLFP seniors who succumbed to pressure like nine-pins, displaying a distressing want of intelligence and courage.
Rajapaksa cannot be blamed for his greed or his ignorance. UPFA leaders like Wimal Weerawansa and Dinesh Gunawardana cannot be blamed for wanting to use the Rajapaksa myth to further their own persona-electoral nests.
Given the microscopic scale of their parties, the only way they could gain a Parliamentary seat was by piggybacking on the SLFP. And only a SLFP in thrall to Mahinda Rajapaksa would have permitted itself to be used so crassly. Wimal Weerawansa and co. acted in a manner conducive to their own self-interests when they insisted on the UPFA re-accepting Mahinda Rajapaksa as its leader. They cannot be expected to act in any other way.
The real fault was with the SLFP and its senior leaders. They should have had the sense to realise political realities and electoral trends. They should have understood that the time of Mahinda Rajapaksa had come and gone. They should have accepted Sirisena’s leadership and helped him take the SLFP along a path more attuned to the nature of the Lankan electorate. Doing so was in their own self-interest. But they did the opposite. They were too bereft of sense to understand reality and too devoid of guts to act accordingly.
President Sirisena on several occasions informed the SLFP he could lead the party to victory. He did have a fair chance of making the SLFP the single largest party in the new Parliament and therefore the dominant partner in any coalition government. Had Rajapaksa gone into real retirement post-9 January, instead of promoting a debilitating factionalism within the SLFP, the party could have retained most of the votes it got at presidential election. Sirisena’s leadership would have enabled it to gain a segment of the minority vote. Had Rajapaksa not contested, a larger segment of the anti-Rajapaksa vote in the south would have gone to the JVP.
That was the opportunity the SLFP lost when its leaders turned their back on reality and succumbed to the Rajapaksa myth/whip.
The SLFP seniors allowed themselves to be cowed by Mahinda Rajapaksa and his screaming hordes. The Parliamentary election was turned into the second-phase of the presidential election. Both nationally and within the UPFA/SLFP, pro-Mahinda vs. anti-Mahinda division became the main line of demarcation.
Within the SLFP, the Rajapaksa faction carried out a well-planned campaign against fellow SLFP candidates seen as insufficiently loyal to Mahinda Rajapaksa, using everything from open appeals to dirty tricks. Faced with the prospect of a Rajapaksa-return, many non-UNPers (some of whom may have voted for the JVP or even abstained) rallied round the UNP.
The end result was a second and a far more comprehensive defeat for Rajapaksa, the SLFP and the UPFA, just eight months after the first one.
The UPFA contesting under Rajapaksa suffered significant vote-losses in 20 out of 22 districts. Even in the Kurunegala District where Rajapaksa himself contested, the UPFA’s total vote and average vote both decreased. Despite Rajapaksa’s personal leadership, the UPFA was unable to hobble over the 50% line in the Kurunegala District. The combined vote of the UNP and the JVP was higher than the UPFA vote.
The lesson is obvious. The Lankan electorate, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim, has rejected Rajapaksa, again. Rajapaksa is dead politico-electorally.
Fortunately, that reality seemed to have dawned on Rajapaksa. That was why he turned up at the Presidential Secretariat to witness the birth of the ‘National Government’ and Ranil Wickremesinghe’s swearing in. He was obviously motivated by the need to save himself and his family from trouble. Whether this is a mere ruse or whether Rajapaksa has finally escaped from the echo-chamber and gained some sense and sensibility remains to be seen. If Rajapaksa’s escape is real and sustainable, it will be better for him and for the country.
Addressing an election rally for his brother in Kuliyapitiya, Gotabaya Rajapaksa drew a terrifying picture of the menaces confronting a post-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka. He claimed that the situation in the north had regressed to what it was in the decade of 1980s. He proclaimed that the TNA was trying to achieve what the LTTE could not – Eelam. In a website identified with Wimal Weerawansa the story was carried with a caption which embodied the main electoral theme of the Rajapaksa-led UPFA, ‘People, this is the last bus to a unitary Sri Lanka’ii.
That racist fear-mongering failed not just nationally but also in the very electorate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa made his incendiary – and mendacious – speech. At the presidential election the UPFA won the Kuliyapitiya electorate with 50.61% of the vote. This time the UPFA’s vote went down to 45.19% and it lost Kuliyapitiya to the UNP.
Though exact figures are not available, the absolute majority of postal voters are Sinhalese. As on 8 January, on 17 August, the UPFA was defeated in postal votes. Even in his own Kurunegala district, Rajapaksa failed to win the postal vote. That is perhaps the clearest demonstration of the failure of the ‘Terrify, Divide and Win’ strategy adopted by the Rajapaksa camp.
The Rajapaksa power-project was premised on Sri Lanka being an exceptional state, forever menaced by internal and external enemies, permanently in need of a ruler enjoying absolute sovereignty unhampered by law and unmitigated by notions of human rights or individual/civic freedoms. This idea was a main theme in the UPFA campaign.
From Mahinda Rajapaksa downwards, most UPFA leaders invoked Eelamist, Jihadist, Indian and Western spectres and argued that only Rajapaksa power can keep the country and people safe. To paraphrase Victor Klemperer, the Rajapaksas tried to make the electorate fanatical and win every election through the votes of the resulting fanatics.
The Southern electorate not only rejected Mahinda Rajapaksa for a second time. It also resoundingly defeated the Bodu Jana Peramuna, the hasty electoral-avatar of the infamous BBS and Bhikku Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara.
The rejection of extreme solutions was evident in the north as well, where the moderate TNA won a huge and convincing victory. In his election analysisiii, Ahilan Kadirgarmar points to humiliating defeat suffered by the extremist Tamil National Peoples’ Front (TNPF). The TNPF failed to win a single seat and scored even less votes than Mahinda Rajapaksa’ UPFA in Jaffna!
The economy needs revitalisation, but the cost of doing so must not fall primarily on those at the bottom end of the income totem pole. Austerity is self-defeating economically and opens the door wide to racism and every other form of extremism politically.
The ethnic problem requires a just resolution and the living conditions in the north-east need urgent improvement. Democracy must be further strengthened and basic rights of all people assured, both in law and in practice. Judicial independence and the rule of law need further bolstering. Corruption and waste must cease to be normal. Justice must be done in a seeming manner.
And the SLFP must be turned into an electable party again, by removing it from the extremist quagmire and removing extremists from its upper and middle ranks.
In the south and in the north ordinary voters had done their duty. They resisted the deadly appeal of ethno-religious racism, refused to succumb to mindless fear and voted with responsibility and maturity. In the north and in the south they voted for a Lankan, rather than a Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, future.
Now it is the turn of the politicians.
On Saturday, President Sirisena visited Sampur and handed land deeds to 234 war-displaced families. Accompanied by R. Sampanthan, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim politicians from major parties and Chandrika Bandaranaike, Sirisena visited families living in temporary shelters in the sixth year of peace and listened to their grievancesiv.
Perhaps ordinary hopes of ordinary people won’t be totally betrayed.