Sanja De Silva Jayatilleka
I am sorry, but I just don’t get it. I thought what we had was a local government election, specifically for the purpose of deciding which parties assumed control of those local, grassroots, area-based institutions depending on the number members elected.
The electoral results shown on the map of Sri Lanka by the media indicating the administrative areas gained (which is what it was all about), was awash in deep maroon, the designated colour of the new SLPP covering most of its territory, pushing other colours representing other older parties to the margins and a couple of small blobs in the centre. It was quickly described as a ‘landslide’.
How that victory could be interpreted as anything but phenomenal and unprecedented is unclear since the new party’s intention was to capture power at the local government level and they exceeded their expectations in the very first election they faced gaining over 71% of the LG institutions. I’d say that was an impressive performance that left the ruling UNP scrambling for percentages that hypothetically and pathetically made them appear winners in a whole different context, but only if time had stood still since 2015. But much water and Bond Scam dollars had flowed under that half-built bridge in the last 3 years.
From the time the results of the resounding victory for the Pohottuwa symbol started to trickle in, a drop at a time until well past the promised hour when there was an unstoppable flood, it seemed like the newly formed party, too new to have state power of any sort, had crushed the long established parties in government to a humiliating defeat.
The Pohottuwa campaign worked like a dream. It was specifically tailored to securing as many of the LG authorities as they could, and they seemed to have employed a number of election-winning tactics to achieve this. They had experienced politicians handling the strategy and tactics, one of which was that they should urge the public to not confine themselves to local issues in making their decision but to have their say through their ballot on the government’s performance on national issues as well, in comparison to the progress achieved by the previous administration, not least in terms of the cost of living and infrastructure development. Mahinda Rajapaksa supported it fully and got on their platforms, while his picture was ubiquitous at all their meetings as the inspiration for their movement.
To a public starved of timely elections which had been postponed several times on the flimsiest of excuses for 3 years while the citizens struggled with issues that cried out for protest, this was too good a chance to miss. The Pohottuwa just raked it in.
The voting public was not unaware that their vote would bring a Pohottuwa administration into their local government institutions while the National Government was in the hands of the two major parties in the island. There were even some unseemly announcements by those in government that they may not be given the required funds to run those institutions, if people voted for the new party. Nevertheless, the voters chose to wield their ballot for the SLPP.
By the time the Elections Commissioner got around to generously giving us citizens the final results of our vote for which we waited, and waited, for a good couple of days, the new ‘Pohottuwa’ party had won 239 seats as opposed to 41 by the UNP and 10 by the SLFP.
That’s when some politicians and intellectuals, disappointed at what they termed the ‘unexpected’ victory, began to say that on February 10, the day of the local government elections, Mahinda Rajapaksa lost or would have lost an election.
He hadn’t exactly contested. But that was irrelevant to their calculations. He had contested 3 years ago, at a Presidential Election, and lost. It seemed that the percentage polled at that election should be compared with the percentage polled at this one, and utilized to declare that MR had lost an election.
More specifically, the logic was that had MR in fact contested a Presidential election, or the JO a general election, going by the local government election results of Feb 10th, he would have lost the elections to the combined votes of the UNP, SLFP, and JVP obtained at these local government elections, though they hadn’t got a large enough percentage individually to compare to his.
The argument seemed to be that they could be added together, since 3 years ago they had contested as a coalition, despite the bitter differences that had emerged in the three years they worked together as the Unity Government, and the public display of that disunity as they attacked each other savagely during the campaign. It assumed that we could all pretend that the rainbow coalition was still as wondrous as when it was first conceived and could come (back) together in a greater cause. This week has proved that was manifestly not the case.
I would venture to say that had former President contested a Presidential election, which he cannot constitutionally, he and his strategists would have run quite a different kind of campaign altogether. They would have focused on the percentage polled, rather than what was needed to win control of local level administrations.
In the upcoming Provincial Council elections, they would doubtless run a campaign that is different to the one they ran this time, focusing on winning control of those institutions, not the percentage polled.
If they were to run at a general election, they would do it even more differently, ensuring that as many of their members were elected to parliament as possible from as many areas as possible, to have the numbers to form a government or negotiate from strength in forming a coalition government.
At a mother of all polls, a referendum, going by their outreach at the LG polls, they appear eminently capable of strategizing a massive and widespread campaign, utilizing the many grassroots and civil society organizations that they have successfully created, plus social media activism, and the enormous public support they have got as a symbol of new hope and change, and focus on the percentage polled, as they should.
The legitimacy that the senior partner of this government, the UNP, claims, based on the total votes of the rainbow coalition, (even though they didn’t run as a coalition this time nor are they likely to come together anytime soon, given their mutual acrimony), sounds a hollow attempt to belittle the phenomenal success of an upstart party that shocked them into making this leap in logic, if only to explain their abysmal performance despite all that state power bestows on them. It’s easier I guess than making an honest evaluation of their failure, and taking the people’s emphatic verdict seriously enough to attempt it.
One would think that given their supposed certainty that the Pohottuwa phenomenon could be easily defeated by re-forming the rainbow, they would readily agree to the call for general elections by the SLPP. This would give them a chance to prove their assumption. And yet they won’t hear of it.
The few politicians’ and sundry commentators’ assertions that the party that won this one, just lost, and the party that lost had won, just doesn’t make sense to me. To me, it looks like the Pohottuwa backed by MR won the LG elections handsomely, and going by the mood in the country, are likely to sweep all others in the offing.