‘Sam’ Samarasinghe aka “SWR deA” in USA in Island, 29 July 2020, where the title is “The Nation’s Choice”
In the August 5th parliamentary election, the voter has three choices. The first is to give the SLPP a two-thirds majority as the leadership of that party is urging the voter to do. The second is to give the SLPP a working majority in parliament – 113 seats or more – but not a two-thirds majority. The third is to deny the SLPP 113 seats. This third possibility can lead to one of two outcomes. One outcome is for the SLPP to form a coalition government with one or more of the other parties. The other is for the opposition parties to form a coalition and govern with
Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president. This last option is in effect a “national” government. Its “national” flavour will be enhanced if minorities and at least some of the SLPP members also become a part of the government.
Forecasting election results is a hazardous occupation. This is especially true for August 5th. Public opinion polls that the main political parties usually conduct may give some idea of which way the people would vote. The November 2019 presidential poll is only an imperfect predictor of the August 5th poll. A presidential poll elects one individual to the presidency. A
parliamentary poll elects 196 members in 22 electoral districts (plus 29 from the national lists).
The rules and dynamics of the two elections are not the same. Moreover, in the last eight months the political and economic environment has changed significantly. The reported drop in the postal vote, if accurate, is a hint of new factors in play. The Covid-19 pandemic has introduced a new factor that can discourage people from going to the polls. The rest of this analysis is subject to all of the above qualifications.
2015 and 2019 Polls
Table 1 is a summary of the 2015 and 2019 presidential election polls. The following features are noteworthy.
2015 and 2019 Presidential elections: Performance of Mahinda Rajapaksa & Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Total valid vote
|Mahinda Rajapaksa ‘000||Percent
of total vote
|Gotabaya Rajapaksa ‘000||Percent of total
|Swing (increase) in % points from
Source: Elections Commission of Sri Lanka, www.elections.gov.lk
First, in 2015 Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the presidency polling 47.6% of the national vote against Maithripala Sirisena’s 51.3% . But Rajapaksa won 50.5% of the vote in the “South”, i.e. outside the north and east. In 2019 Gotabaya Rajapaksa did even better securing 56.7% of the vote in the South, a swing of 6.2 percentage points.
Second, the last column shows the Sinhala-Buddhist percentage in each of the electoral districts in the South. Those percentages closely correlate with the share of the district vote that both Mahinda Rajapaksa won in 2015 and Gotabaya Rajapaksa won in 2019. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s policies after May 2009 had to cater to this base. For example, after he took office in December 2005, he promised political reform by way of “13th Amendment Plus” to expand devolution. After the war ended Western countries pressed the government to enact such reform. He not only ignored such pressure but enacted the 18th amendment to the Constitution that increased the powers of the executive presidency. In his second term he focused on infrastructure development and economic development in the country, including the north and east, as the best way to achieve national unity and peace.
Third, the election results after 2009 clearly show that the Tamil and Muslim minorities now trust the main opposition parties in the south – UNP and SJB – to deliver on what they believe is a fair deal for the minorities. In 2010, General Sarath Fonseka, who was the military leader in the last phase of the war, won all five electoral districts in the north and east and Nuwara Eliya district in the central highlands where the Plantation Tamils are about half of the voters. In 2015 Maithripala Sirisena won all those six districts and so did Sajith Premadasa in 2019.
Fourth, the UNP/SJB has more support in districts such as Colombo, Kandy and Gampaha that are more urban, economically more prosperous and have a larger “middle class” vote. Some of the same districts such as Colombo and Kandy also have relatively more minority voters. However, even those districts showed a substantial swing to Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November 2019. In Colombo it was 7 percentage points, Gampaha 10, Kandy 6, and Kalutara 6.
What is likely to happen on August 5
There is no credible evidence that a swing of about 6 percentage points or more would take place on August 5 against the SLPP. Thus, it is likely that THE SLPP will win the greatest number of seats in parliament. If the election results of 2019 November in terms of vote share (not the absolute number of votes) is repeated with the SLPP getting about 57%, that party will win over 120 seats but not the two-thirds that it wants. The UNP/SJB shares are hard to predict but it is likely that the SJB will attract a much greater share of the opposition vote than the UNP.
The fate of the JVP is hard to predict. The election law requires that a party or list must poll a minimum of 5.0% of the total valid poll in the district to be considered for a seat. In the 2015 August election the party won four seats, one in each of the districts, Colombo (JVP share 6.7%), Gampaha (7.2%) Kalutara (5.5%), and Hambantota (10.0%). They also secured two national list seats. in 2018 November Anura Kumara Dissanayaka did not poll the minimum required share of 5.0% in any of the electoral districts in the country. If that is repeated next week the JVP will not win a single seat. Since the dynamic for the parliamentary election is different, the party has to hope for a better outcome next week.
There is a widespread belief in the country that the poll next week would be comparatively low. Usually parliamentary elections have a lower poll than presidential polls. For example, in 2010 the presidential poll turnout was 74.5% and the parliamentary poll turnout 61.0%. In 2015 the corresponding percentages were 81.5% and 77.7%.In parliamentary polls the rejection rate is also higher. In the same two elections the rejection rates were 0.8% and 4.3%. This is mainly because the preference vote can confuse some voters and mark the ballot wrongly.
As noted earlier if the postal vote is lower than usual, it is a hint that the poll may be lower than usual on August 5th. Covid-19 will discourage some people from voting. The notion that “all politicians are the same” meaning that all candidates irrespective of party are in it for their private gain and not for public service is a notion that is often articulated by voters. This may also keep away some from the poll.Winners and losers
If all the major parties “lose” voters proportionately, mathematically, it will not make any difference to the result even if only a few hundred people vote in the entire country. The election law does not specify a minimum required poll in absolute terms to make the election valid. What matters in each district is the share that each party gets from the total valid poll.
This is very likely to be what is called a “base vote” election. That means diehard party loyalists will vote. Voters who are not particularly partisan may not bother to vote. In such a situation, the ability of the local party machines and individual candidates to get their loyal supporters plus at least some of the “floating” voters to the poll could be decisive.
Whether one likes it or not the country needs a government. In a democracy the ordinary person is privileged to have a say in who would govern the country. That preference is expressed by voting. Next week’s vote will have an impact on almost every major challenge that the country is currently facing.
In politics and governance, the composition of the next parliament will have a bearing on the future of democracy and rule of law. The 19th amendment to the constitution demonstrated that our politicians are capable of strengthening democratic institutions to create a more just and law-abiding society. Doing away with it will have serious repercussions for governance.
In social welfare the policies of the next government will decide access to, among other things, healthcare, education and housing. Sri Lanka’s outstanding achievements in human development – improved education, healthcare, longevity, better public transport etc. – over the past 70 years showed that our system of governance has had its strengths. But major problems lie head. For example, the healthcare system is finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the growing elderly population with chronic diseases. Private hospitals are not an adequate solution to the problem because it favors the rich, leaves the poor behind and makes the middle-class struggle to pay massive hospital bills. Unfortunately, there are no simple solutions to such problem. The next government has to find viable solutions.
The relative success of THE 1978 economic reforms demonstrated the potential that the country’s economy has to move forward and exploit opportunities that the global economy provides in exports, tourism and so on. But the 1978 economic reforms have run out of steam. Sri Lanka’s per capita GDP in 2019 was $4,020. We are now stuck in what economists call the “middle income trap” which means our inability move from low value-added industry to high value-added industry. Sri Lanka’s earnings from exports of goods and services in 2019 were 23% of GDP compared to, say, Thailand’s 60% that has a GDP per capita of $7,260. Our exports have to move beyond garments and a few other commodities to products and services that will earn more income and provide better jobs. In 2018 Sri Lanka collected 11.9% of GDP as tax revenue compared to about 15% around 2000. The public cannot expect the government do much more than what it does now unless there is significant tax reform and the rich pay their fair share of taxes. The data that is available suggests that the gap between the rich and poor and the richer districts and the poorer districts is widening. This is only a small sample of the economic problems that need urgent attention.
What the above shows is that Sri Lanka needs a government that puts nation before party and self. Next week the people will have another opportunity to vote for a government. Ideally it should be a government that is capable of uniting the country and making it move forward. Not voting is not an option for the responsible citizen.