The announcement on Friday evening by UPFA General Secretary Susil Premajayanth to the effect that President Maithripala Sirisena has agreed to grant nominations to former president Mahinda Rajapaksa was greeted with anguish and fury by the yahapalana types. Much of the anger may stem from the suspicion that had been rankling in the minds of some following the secret meeting held between Sirisena and Rajapaksa just before Parliament was dissolved. In any event, after Rajapaksa announced from Medamulana on July 1 that he would be contesting the forthcoming election, President Sirisena was faced with two choices. He could either field Mahinda and ensure that the UPFA puts up a good showing or he could force MR to contest separately and risk falling to a poor third.
Some weeks ago, President Sirisena tried his best to prevent the Mahinda group from having a separate May Day but he failed. To make things worse, he went ahead with his own May Day rally in Hyde Park which was a complete fiasco as described in this column at the time. If the SLFP/UPFA contested the parliamentary election without Mahinda, the result may have resembled the May Day outcome. As last week drew to an end, Sirisena may have seen signs of which way things would go if he did not allow MR to contest on the UPFA ticket. By Thursday, individuals who had been seen as middle of the roaders were openly declaring themselves for Mahinda.
One example was Chandima Weerakkody the former deputy speaker of parliament. Though he attended some of the bring-Mahinda-back rallies, his rhetoric was that of uniting CBK, Mahinda and Maithri and contesting the election together. He in fact spoke out against those who said that they will even follow MR out of the SLFP. But last Thursday, Weerakkody took a different stand and he said that they will make every effort towards maintaining unity but if that is not possible, he will opt to go with Mahinda.
Another seeming middle of the roader was Duminda Silva who was generally maintaining a low profile without openly identifying with Mahinda. So far as this writer can recall, he was not seen at any of the bring Mahinda back rallies. Furthermore, it was largely Duminda Silva who saved President Sirisena’s self respect last May Day. Duminda brought with him a large crowd which occupied the space available inside the Hyde Park grounds and remained at the meeting without disappearing. The crowds brought by other organizers simply walked off without even looking at the stage. Even with Duminda’s crowd in the grounds, the Hyde Park meeting was a fiasco, but without Duminda the speakers would have been addressing an empty playground.
Having saved Sirisena’s self respect in that manner, this writer expected Duminda to take Sirisena’s side and contest with the SLFP rump – Hirunika Premachandra notwithstanding. The latter would have been on the stage on May Day and we do not have any record of her objecting to Duminda’s people being the most visible presence at Sirisena’s rally; so one assumes that there would have been no real objection to Duminda being on Sirisena’s list in the Colombo district. Duminda works exclusively with the urban underclass in Colombo much like V.A.Sugathadasa, R.Premadasa, Weerasinghe Mallimarachchi, Vincent Perera and M.H,Mohamed of the old UNP and if he contested the Colombo district on behalf of Sirisena’s SLFP rump, he would have stood a good chance of not only winning, but also dragging one or two others up with him. But by Thursday even Duminda was telling a meeting in Dehiwala that Mahinda should be made prime minister. Earlier he had also attended the Medamulana meeting where Mahinda announced his entry into the fray. These probably were signs that Sirisena could not possibly ignore.
In an article early last week, the pro-UNP website Lanka e News described the conundrum now faced by Sirisena as a case of him losing out whichever way the cookie crumbles. If he gives nominations to Mahinda, he will be reviled by the forces that made him president. If he does not give nominations to MR, the latter will contest separately and become a challenge to Sirisena. The article averred that either way Sirisena is finished and that he brought this upon himself by taking over the SLFP. The article further stated that Sirisena had gone to the Speaker’s residence to meet Mahinda and take over the SLFP in January this year, without informing anybody and that both CBK and Ranil had not known about this meeting until they were informed of it by a web journalist.
This agreement reached to field Mahinda as a candidate may still fall through for many reasons. The most contentious issue will be preparing the UPFA nomination lists. This writer was advocating a clean break and a new beginning as that would have made things less complicated. But by the mere act of giving Mahinda nominations to contest on the UPFA ticket, there will be a clean break of sorts, because the only people who will have the chance of getting enough preference votes to get elected on the UPFA ticket will be pro-Mahinda candidates. That is the reason why many Sirisena loyalists in the SLFP took the news of UPFA nominations for Mahinda so badly. Most of those who accepted ministerial portfolios in the UNP government are now staring defeat in the face. Only the strongest pro-Sirisena candidates who have a lot of IOUs to call in from the voters will be able to survive on the UPFA ticket (and there aren’t many of those).
With Mahinda contesting on the UPFA ticket, the anti-government and anti-yahapalana types will gravitate towards the UPFA. If the pro-Sirisena group in the SLFP and UPFA try to contest through the UPFA with Mahinda on board, they will most probably sink without even a chance to fight back. But if they contest separately, there is a good chance of being able to put up a fight. It’s important to understand how the electoral system actually works to decide on the best strategy to stand a chance of being elected.
How the electoral system actually works
There are 160 electorates (or polling divisions as they are now called) in the country and all political parties appoint electoral organizers to head these electorates like the Colombo Central electorate, the Wellawaya electorate and so on. This is a carry forward from the old first past the post system that was in existence before 1977. The number of MPs that each district is entitled to is still calculated using this number as a reference point. The total number of registered voters in the country is divided by 160 to arrive at the ‘qualifying number’. The number of registered voters in each district is divided by this qualifying number to arrive at the number of MPs that each district will be entitled to return. For example, the number of registered voters in 2014 was 15,044,490. This divided by 160 yields 93,000 as the ‘qualifying number’. In the same year the number of registered voters in the Moneragala district was 339,797. This divided by the qualifying number yields the result of 3.6. (Only the whole number is taken and the fraction ignored.) So on this basis the Moneragala district is entitled to three MPs.
In addition to the 160 seats that are divided up among the various districts in this manner, there are a further 36 seats that are allocated as a fixed number of four seats for each province. These four extra slots are divided up among the various districts as laid down in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. According to the Constitution, of the four seats that the Uva province is entitled to, three have been allocated to the Badulla district and one to the Moneragala district. So we see that the Moneragala district is entitled to a total of four MPs. Thus we have 196 (160+36) parliamentarians elected from the various districts. The remaining 29 of the total of 225 seats are national list MPs allocated to the various political parties according to the proportion of votes they get nationwide.
After the ballots are cast and counted, the number of MPs each political party is entitled to in the various districts is decided upon in three rounds. In the first round, the party that gets the highest number of votes in that district is allocated the bonus seat. (The dividing up of seats starts with this bonus seat.) In the next round, all parties that have polled less than 5% of the votes in that district are disqualified from the race. These disqualified votes are deducted from the total valid votes polled in that district to arrive at the ‘relevant number’ of votes. This relevant number is divided by the number of MPs to be elected for that district reduced by one to arrive at the ‘resulting number’. The total number of votes polled by each political party is then divided by this resulting number to arrive at the number of seats that each political party is entitled to return. (Once again the process starts from the party that got the highest number of votes in each district and works its way downwards.)
If we take the Moneragala district as an example, the total votes polled by parties that got more than 5% of the total was 158,544 at the 2010 parliamentary election. (The UPFA got 120,634, the UNP 28,892 and the DNA 9,018 votes.) When this is divided by the number of MPs to be returned for that district reduced by one, the resulting number that we get is 52,848. When you divide the total votes polled by the UPFA at the 2010 parliamentary election by this number it works out to 2. This plus the bonus seat that the UPFA is entitled to as the party that came first in the district, makes up the three seats allocated to the UPFA. There is one more seat to be allocated. We see that the party that has got the next highest number of seats the UNP has got only 28,892 votes which is far less than the ‘resulting number’ of 39,636 votes for that district. This means that the process has to go on to the next phase of determining the largest number of unrepresented votes held by the various contestants. On that basis we see that the UPFA has 14,938 votes remaining after thir votes are divided by the resulting number and the UNP has 28,892 votes that have not got representation – so the UNP gets the last available seat.
The DNA (JVP+SF) got 5.56% of the vote in the Moneragala district at that election but did not qualify for a seat. It should be noted that getting more than 5% of the vote only means that you are in the running to qualify for a seat but there is absolutely no guarantee that you will get a seat even if you get more than 5% of the votes in a particular district. What takes precedence in the third round is the “largest block of unrepresented votes”. This can be illustrated by taking as an example, the Matara district which is entitled to return eight MPs. At the last parliamentary election, only three parties got more than 5% of the vote in the Matara district. Thus the ‘relevant number’ of votes for that district was 325,516. This divided by the number of MPs to be elected for that district reduced by one, yields a ‘resultant number’ of 46,502 votes. At that election, the UPFA got 213,937 votes, the UNP 91,114 and the DNA 20,465 votes. If one divides the number of votes polled by each party by the applicable ‘resultant number’, that works out to four seats for the UPFA and one for the UNP. In the first instance, the UPFA would already have got the bonus seat for the party that got the highest number of votes. So that works out to five seats for the UPFA and one for the UNP.
By this stage there are still two more seats in the district that have to be allocated. This allocation is decided entirely on the largest block of unrepresented votes held by the various parties. Going by the above figures, the largest block of unrepresented votes is held by the UNP which after winning one MP still has a block of 44,612 votes which are unrepresented (91,114 – 46,502). So they get one of the two remaining seats. The next largest block of unrepresented votes is held by the UPFA which has 27,929 unrepresented votes. (46,502 X 4 *186,008-213,937*27,929) So the UPFA qualifies for the remaining seat. The bonus seat is not taken into account when calculating the block of unrepresented votes. The DNA got 6.25% of the vote in the Matara district but did not qualify for a seat because the absolute number of votes they got (20,465) was less than the number of unrepresented votes that the UPFA had remaining.
Given the way the system works, it is vital that anybody who expects to win should aim to get the highest number of votes and come first in the district so as to start off with the bonus seat. The yahapalana group is starting off at this election with the disadvantage of fragmentation. Huge chunks of yahapalana votes have gone their separate way with the TNA and JVP contesting separately. With MR being given nominations through the UPFA, there is a strong possibility of the pro-Sirisena group in the SLFP fielding a separate list. In a four cornered fight between the UNP, the Mahinda group dominated UPFA, the Maithripala group and the JVP, the yahapalana vote that brought Sirisena into power will be divided between the UNP, the Sirisena group and the JVP, whereas the anti-government vote represented by Mahinda would remain in one solid block.
It will be bad enough for the yahapalana group to see the JVP going its own way but that is unavoidable and a matter that the yahapalana platform will have to learn to live with. What they can do however is to try to keep the rest of the pro-yahapalana and pro-government vote in one piece without allowing further division. In that respect, the idea being mooted by some quarters to revive the Swan symbol to prevent further division of the yahapalana vote may be the only option left. The Swan symbol belongs to a protégé of Ravi Karunanayake and arguably as much in the control of the UNP as the elephant symbol. Therefore using the Swan to prevent fragmentation of the yahapalana vote makes good sense. As we go to press, the websites are full of the news that the pro-Sirisena group in the SLFP, the JHU and the various NGOs that supported the yahapalana platform are planning to field a separate list.
There are some popular politicians (at least ten of them) in the pro-Sirisena group who may be able to take a significant chunk of votes away from the UPFA if they contest separately. But the votes that such individuals get will be pro-yahapalana and pro-government votes. At a parliamentary election, the polarisation takes place between anti-government and pro-government voters. Even if a certain proportion of the pro-Sirisena, pro-yahapalana, pro-government vote leaves the UPFA, there may be an even larger number of voters who are disgruntled with the government gravitating towards the UPFA. At the very least the inflows and outflows will cancel each other out. In any event, if the pro-Sirisena group contests separately, that will fragment the yahapalana vote between the UNP, JVP and the Sirisena group and will result in a virtual walkover for Mahinda in almost all the districts outside the North and East.
It should be borne in mind that even with the entire joint opposition contesting against Mahinda at the presidential election the latter won ten out of the sixteen districts outside the North and East. Of the 16 districts outside the North and East, Mahinda lost only the Puttalam, Colombo, Gampaha, Badulla and Kandy and Nuwara Eliya districts. Merely by removing the JVP component from the yahapalana vote, Mahinda comes out on top in the Gampaha, Puttalam and Badulla districts. With the CWC contesting in the Nuwara Eliya district that too will almost certainly fall to the UPFA which will leave the UNP only with the Colombo and Kandy districts. In such a bleak situation, for the Sirisena group to field a separate list to divide the yahapalana vote even further will be tantamount to political suicide. With Fonseka also now expressing his willingness to join in a coalition to head off the challenge from MR, the most feasible thing for the UNP, the Sirisena faction, the Fonseka loyalists, the JHU and others to do would be to contest the general election together under the Swan symbol whereby they will all increase their fighting chances.
But getting the UNP, the Sirisena group and SF together under one umbrella will give rise to other problems which will need to be sorted out. In the Matara district for instance, if the UNP and the Sirisena camp contest together under the Swan symbol, they will both be better off than contesting separately and against one another. But if a popular Sirisena loyalist like Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene contests on the Swan symbol that is going to have a negative impact on existing UNP heavyweights in the district like Mangala Samaraweera, Sagala Ratnayake and even Buddhika Pathirana. A whole host of other UPFA figures like Sanath Jayasuriya and Hemal Gunasekera also asking for nominations under the Swan symbol will destabilise the UNP’s heavyweights even further. If the plan to contest together under the Swan symbol falls through, it will be because of such practical issues.