UNP & SLPP must not take South and SLFP for granted | Sunday Observer

UNP & SLPP must not take South and SLFP for granted

Sri Lankans may detest their politicians but they love their elections, as we can see from the hype surrounding the upcoming presidential elections. Everyone gets in on the act: hangers-on, analysts, NGOs and even astrologers. They follow the contest with the same passion that they follow the fortunes of the national cricket team: ending mostly on the losing side but being avid spectators nevertheless.

And what could be more interesting than a national election? It is, of course, an election that is held before a national election. Historically, some such elections - such as the Dedigama by-election in 1973 or the Southern provincial council election in 1994 - have been a harbinger of things to come. That is why the entire country watched with interest when voters in the Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha went to the polls last week.

There were no upsets there, such as when Sri Lanka beat England, the eventual winners of the recent World Cup. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) swept the board, winning all 17 seventeen wards and polling fifty-six percent of the vote. The United National Party came second with twenty-four per cent of the vote and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) a distant third with thirteen per cent of the vote.

The SLPP has been quick to gloat about its victory. They are entitled to that, especially when they have polled a convincing percentage of the vote. Its propagandists are busy saying this is what will happen at the presidential election as well. The UNP has rubbished these claims, saying that Elpitiya is to the SLPP what Colombo Central is to the UNP!

It is understandable for the UNP to say that Elpitiya is to the SLPP what Colombo Central is to the UNP from campaign platforms. It has to save its blushes. However, if it really believes in this argument, that is a recipe for disaster.

For many years, the UNP’s argument for aligning with political parties representing minority community interests is its reasoning that presidential elections cannot be won without the endorsement of these communities.

That theory has its merits and was shown to be accurate at the last presidential election where President Maithripala Sirisena had convincing support from the minority communities which his rival Mahinda Rajapaksa did not enjoy. As a result, Rajapaksa lost the election despite winning the majority of electoral divisions in the South of the country.

However, that hypothesis is subject to a qualifier: for minority communities to be the deciding factor, the division of votes in the South of the country should not be too skewed in favour of one candidate. If it is, that will override the impact of any votes from the minority communities simply because the majority community, Sinhalese, constitute approximately three fourths of the country’s population.

That is precisely what happened at the 2010 presidential election. Mahinda Rajapaksa emerged a clear victor despite all the districts in the North and East as well as Nuwara Eliya voting for his rival, Sarath Fonseka.

Then the critical question for the UNP is what the distribution of votes in the South of the country is. If it is Elpitiya-like everywhere in the South, the goose is cooked for the ‘swan’ symbol. If the UNP can win some urban areas and narrow the gap in SLPP strongholds in the deep South, then there will be a close contest.

However, amidst the hullabaloo surrounding the SLPP victory at Elpitiya, it seems to be forgetting - or even misinterpreting - a key factor: the SLFP. The SLFP polled almost thirteen per cent of the vote, about the same percentage it recorded when the rest of the country had elections to local councils in February 2018.

The SLPP is bragging that, come the presidential election, these votes will also accrue to the SLPP and it will win with almost seventy per cent of the vote because SLPP is a party which broke away from the SLFP.

Would that happen, really? That is wishful thinking indeed. It is important to note that the Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha went to the polls on October 11. That was after the SLFP and the SLPP had signed an agreement to cooperate with each other for the presidential election and the formally endorsed SLPP presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

This was given much publicity at SLPP campaign rallies in Elpitiya. Given the Sri Lankan voter’s fascination with all the hyperbole surrounding the Elpitiya election and the nearly eighty per cent voter turnout, it must be assumed that most voters were aware of this ‘marriage of convenience’ between the SLPP and the SLFP.

Despite this, thirteen per cent of voters, probably knowing that they are voting for a losing cause, opted not to vote for the SLPP and still voted for the SLFP. To construe that as an automatic vote for the SLPP at the presidential election would be a fatal mistake. Rather, it should be interpreted as a protest vote against the SLPP.

If that is indeed the case, while some percentage of that will indeed accrue to the SLPP, it must also be assumed that at least a sizeable proportion of that thirteen per cent will go to parties other than the SLPP - and therein lies the danger for that party.

Sri Lankan presidential contests are usually close contests. There are exceptions such as when Chandrika Kumaratunga won in 1994 after seventeen years of UNP rule and when Mahinda Rajapaksa won in 2010 in the aftermath of the Eelam war victory. There is no such foregone conclusion at this election and some are even predicting that there may be a second count for the first time in the history of the country’s presidential elections.

Therefore, the verdict at Elpitiya needs to be interpreted with caution. There is an obvious lesson in it for the UNP - that it has to get its act together in the South - but there is a more important lesson for the SLPP - that voters of the SLFP should not be taken for granted.