Presidential Election 2019: A crucial election where traditional voter bases would be challenged | Sunday Observer

Presidential Election 2019: A crucial election where traditional voter bases would be challenged

An NPP election office in Minneriya
An NPP election office in Minneriya

In a web article published by Nuwan I. Senaratne, (a computer scientist by profession), has noted interesting observations based on bellwether electorates in Sri Lanka in terms of the Presidential polls. Followings are some extracts from his original article;

“Sri Lanka did indeed have eight “bellwether” polling divisions: Moratuwa and Ratmalana (Colombo Electoral District), Ja-Ela and Katana (Gampaha Electoral District), Mawathagama (Kurunegala Electoral District), Medirigiriya, Minneriya and Polonnaruwa (Polonnaruwa Electoral District). Whichever candidate won these polling divisions, went on to win the presidency”.

For each of the 160 polling divisions in Sri Lanka, I looked at the absolute error between the percentage of votes a winning candidate won island-wide, and the percentage of votes that winning candidates won in these polling division.

The polling division with the lowest error was Moratuwa. The percentage of votes a winning candidate received island-wide differed by an average of only 1.2% in Moratuwa.

“Observent readers would have noticed that all three polling divisions in the Polonnaruwa electoral district were bellwethers. Hence, the Polonnaruwa electoral district as a whole is itself a bellwether”.

Pix: Sudam Gunasinghe and Shan Rambukwella


Moratuwa

Known as the city of furniture, with a voter base of 115,219 as per the last presidential election, Moratuwa’s problems are many, out of which the downfall of the furniture industry looms large. “Business had not picked up since the Sinhala and Hindu new-year” complain the shop owners as well as carpenters, whilst giving many reasons for the fall. It is the consequence of the downward trend in business and the economy since the April bomb attack, as well as the boom in furniture made out of alternative materials, they say. Another reason is the rising cost of wood, and labour. With many experienced hands in the trade leaving the country for greener pastures abroad, and the fact that the youth are not getting into the furniture business, also affected the trade.

Though a main city on the coast with the main artery running through its centre, the city could be developed more, say residents. Though many private modern buildings had come up, the city’s public infrastructure had stayed the same, they lamented. Deserted as early as 8.00 pm, with busses plying inland stopping their services and no proper street lighting, the town’s main bus stand becomes a haven for nefarious activities. Uncollected garbage lying on public places and the city’s drainage system not being cleaned had resulted in many being affected by dengue and other vector/mosquito borne diseases, residents complain. Since the city’s marshes had been filled and built without proper environmental considerations and drainage, some areas get flooded “even if it drizzles for half an hour,” they say.

Moratuwa springs from a strong leftist background. It was a stronghold of the leftwing Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), and swinging between the LSSP and the rightwing United National Party (UNP), before it turned fully green in 1977 and stayed a UNP bastion till Parliamentary elections in 1994, when they turned to the left again, voting for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party candidate.Since then, it had largely been a constituency with an SLFP base, voting for People’s Alliance, United People’s Freedom Alliance and the like and the 2019 presidential election “would be crucial” said residents; as both the traditional UNP and SLFP factions are disappointed with the governments which ran the country in the past 10 years, it would be “an election where traditional voter bases will be challenged.”

For P. Sudath, (49) a Moratuwa resident from birth says - “the problems will remain whoever wins. The only question is whether we elect someone who would push the country into total destruction or not.” He wants to see a candidate who would personally obey the law of the land and will treat all residents equally regardless of racial or religious differences. “It is true that the majority of us are Sinhala Buddhist, but this is not an excuse to tread down on minorities” . The (winning) candidate should also be able to build up the economy taking the country forward, and make it free from corruption and terror. “I know that the future president will have a humongous task. If we could live freely with the country being developed, that’s all I want,” says Sudath. Who does he have in mind, who would be able to do that? Though he likes the policies of National People’s Power Movement’s (NPPM) candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s policies better, he is vacillating between NPPM and the New Democratic Front (NDF) candidate Sajith Premadasa.

For Geetha (54) from Lunawa Moratuwa, a mother of three young men, the main concern is to ‘save the country from the Tamils and the Muslims’. The only person who would be able to do that is the Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) candidate Gotabaya Rajapakse, she said. She would vote for SLPP also in support of her cousin sister who had contested the last local government elections from SLPP and had won. “We are a strong SLFP family, but voted SLPP last time,” she explains. What would her other concerns be? “I want to live in a country where we don’t have to spend much on food,” said Geetha. She would want to see infrastructure such as roads developed and young people getting permanent jobs. She thinks that the SLPP will win the elections this time, most of her neighbours support the party “but there are a few supporting the UNP as well.”

S.D. Thilanka (42) has been resident in Moratuwa for the past 15 years. His wife too is a Moratuwa resident. Thilanka would vote for a candidate who would give priority to “protecting Buddhism and the Buddhist identity of the country.” He has to be a strong candidate who would be able to be in command in order to get the work done. Further, he needs to serve the country and feel the pulse of the common people. “I think it will be a tie, between Gotabaya and Sajith may be around 40-45 percent votes each. Anura will take the rest,” he said.

Vasantha (54) a carpenter by profession, is fed up of politics. As the current plight of the country is the consequence of all the governments which were in power, he will give his protest vote to an alternative party. “All parties especially in the recent past, after the “one man show executive presidency” was established, have robbed the country, and dragged it down to the bottom of the pit,” he said. What are his expectations from the next president? Whoever comes to power, the economic situation will be the biggest challenge he says. The system needs to be changed, and the people need to be empowered with both individual and social responsibility.

The start is changing the education system. Therefore, the president should muster strong political will to look at the country’s education system, from the Montessori level to university level, teaching all three languages from kindergarten to grade five, and civics as well as household financial management need to be introduced into the curriculum. “It is time to re-think about competitive exams.”

Clara De Silva, (70) identified herself as coming from a “strong UNP family.” She hadn’t voted for any other party up to now, however, this time she had been thinking of alternative parties. “What is the use of sticking to the party when corruption increases by the day and neither the cabinet nor the parliament could control a president going against the country’s own constitution? What did the Prime Minister and the party do thereafter? Is it in the interest of the common people or in their own interest?” she questioned. As for the presidential hopefuls De Silva sees the NDF candidate as the best option. She had studied the manifestos of all three main candidates and regards the NPPM’s the best.

“They have the energy and they can do something if they come to power. It is a pity that our people are used to only vote for green or blue- the alternating thieves!” she lamented. While the NDF manifesto could be welcomed by the poor, the SLPP manifesto is “as empty as the coffers they had left for the present government,” she said.


Polonnaruwa

In the 12th century when Sri Lanka was at the peak of its economic prosperity, Polonnaruwa was the capital of the island. Centuries later, it produced a Head of State with the victory of the common candidate Maithripala Sirisena in 2015. That January he recorded 62.86% of votes from Polonnaruwa against his main rival Mahinda Rajapaksa. (In 2018 Local government elections SLPP and SLFP received 35% and 33% votes respectively while UNP received only 26% of votes). Even though Polonnaruwa took a thousand years to produce their next ruler, the district itself had been a key indicator of the political wind of the country since the introduction of Executive Presidency.

The Sunday Observer team travelled into all three electorates in Polonnaruwa last week to meet people and see their readiness to cast their votes next Saturday to determine a leader to suceed ‘their own man’ from Polonnaruwa.

This undoubtedly is a massive farming community (mainly paddy cultivators). While both main candidates Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa are currently canvassing to provide free-fertilizer how would that attract the massive farming community in Polonnaruwa would be interesting. Not surprisingly,

M.K. Jayatissa the President of the Progressive Farmers Federation condemned the eagerness of candidates to destroy sustainable agriculture through using chemical fertilizer.

“They think we do not understand what happened. Upto now no one is brave enough to directly say that chemical fertilizer is the main reason for Chronic Kidney Diseases. Therefore the farmers are not ready to accept these poisons” he said.

Jayatissa thinks Gotabaya Rajapaksa of SLPP has a good lead in the Presidential race due to the disappointment of the people with the present government and the Sinhala nationalism in the border villages of the Polonnaruwa district where residents suffered a lot during ‘the LTTE time’.

“But we now see a huge shift of that situation- within last week. Now we see people gathering around Sajith” he said.

As per his understanding people are now tallying both main candidates based on their backgrounds and their promises. Especially Gotabaya Rajapaksa being fielded as a candidate from a particular family is a crucial factor for the people, Jayatissa says.

“People nowadays are against the selection of family members - not even to the Board of a funeral society ” he commented.

In the backdrop where Micro Financing is a key reason for the upsurge of poverty in Polonnaruwa district, Premadasa emerging as a leader who will address poverty has also widened his chances of winning the hearts of the people of Polonnaruwa. Farmers who work with Jayatissa, tell him that they have a hope that Sajith will also follow the footsteps of his father (R Premadsa), and do whatever he can, to uplift the poor.

Premajayantha Herath a UNP councilor at the Medirigiriya Pradeshiya Sabha is positive about the victory of the New Democratic Front candidate as he brought more energy to the UNP.

As a ground level politician who was campaigning against the ‘tide’ in February last year, now he sees a major change in his village, after many political incidents.

“With the split of SLFP many of those traditional SLFP voters have joined the UNP. If this trend continues, Medirigiriya will be won by Sajith Premadsa” Herath opined.

As Herath explained, UNP organisers in Medirigirya have already covered each and every house in the area by their traditional canvassing while focusing more on identified SLPP members.

Almost all front-runners of the Presidential election had ensured their presence in the area with party election officers in close proximity.

Kaduruwela Bus Stand was a quite busy with a rally organized by the Frontline Socialist Party, last Thursday. Its Presidential candidate, Duminda Nagamuwa addressed Polonnaruwa people on a stage with traditional leftist decorations.

“Ordinary people in this country have once again forgotten their day to day issues, and are now involved in solving issues for the ‘Royal Families’ of our country! ” Nagamuwa yelled.

The audience at the rally was very small although the people who were getting about their daily business, were listening to Nagamuwa from a distance.

“Some of the candidates are promising to disseminate many things. Even the entire Indian GDP would not be enough to fulfill their promises ” he criticized.

Jayani, a twenty- four-year-old young woman is the Co-Secretary of the youth organization of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna in the Medirigiriya electorate. The Sunday Observer team met her while she was attending a pocket meeting near the Bisobandaragama Primary School.

‘Create a future for the youth where political assistance is not needed to get a job fit for one’s capabilities’ is the purpose of Prabuddhika’s political journey. “I personally experience that difference through SLPP politics. I want that difference to be given to other youth as well. We should not have to go after anybody, to get jobs. All of us deserve a good job, based on our capabilities” she explained.

Use of technology is another key attraction for her to engage in SLPP politics. In the Mobile App named ‘V Can’ they use in canvassing, they have the ability of restoring all information about voters into a centralised system. Also the Nelum Mawath office of SLPP can track the specific areas that teams had covered each day, through the App.

“We at least do five rounds of house visits in our electorate. We see a difference in people’s ideas when we visit for the second or third time” she said.

However, during the pocket meeting where Jayani was attending a person introduced himself as the coordinating secretary to the Polonnaruwa district organiser of SLPP, Parliamentarian Roshan Ranasinghe, was spreading hatred among the 25-30 people gathered there. He was clearly frightening the villagers with stories about the killing plans of Sinhalese men and older women, by the Muslims.

Jayani also claimed that the victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Novermber 16 is the only way to avoid another bomb blast from Muslim extremists.

President of the Polonnaruwa District Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Agriculture H.D.D. Gunasekara is in the furniture business for years, thinks that people in the district have hopes based on the work done during the time of Ranasinghe Premadasa.

“There was a lot done during the Premadasa era. Also, the public administration was top notch in the Premedasa government. So the people believe that Sajith can get the work done from public servants and uplift the country” Gunasekara said.

Anura Kumara Dissanayake the Presidential hopeful of National People’s Power is also seen many corners in Polonnaruwa. NPP organisers has established party election offices in many areas hinting the competition among the three main candidates. J. Wickramarathne. Dorahathara in Minneriya is a hardcore JVP supporter who also has hosted for a JVP election office in his house.

“We are receiving good responses from village men. Our election symbol, the compass has already touched their hearts” Wickremarathne said.

Competing with NDF and SLPP candidates NPP also visits houses and organises small pocket meetings to educate the general public about ‘the destruction that occurred in the country for 70 years’.

Samudika Chandrasiri is a well-known businessmen in Polonnaruwa and a graduate of Peradeniya University. He had a lot to share about the rapid changes in Polonnaruwa district in recent years. Especially he highlighted the question mark among many residents in Polonnaruwa about the money spent on Polonnaruwa’s development.

“Twenty Seven Billion rupees” he stressed.

Under the current regime Rs 27 billion has been allocated for the development projects in Polonnaruwa which has turned out to be white elephants. “If things were good for Polonnaruwa, our lives would have been much easier, our business activities should have been much easier. But no such thing has happened” he bemoaned.

The biggest issue Chandrasiri had was the poor recognition received by the businessmen especially from public servants. “The country needs a leader who can do such changes. A recognition for the people who actually work, not for the people who think they know everything”

He also ridiculed some people who advocate for the need of a dictatorship whereas the entire world is rejecting authoritarian rule. While people rejected dictators through the world, from Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt and Gaddafi in Libya, we Sri Lankans are trying to bring a dictator into power instead, he said. 

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