Eurasia Group predicts Sajith in a tight race | Sunday Observer

Eurasia Group predicts Sajith in a tight race

Eurasia Group a political risk research and consulting firm issuing a prediction of the 2019 Presidential Election said that the New Democratic Front candidate Sajith Premadasa may have a chance in a tight race, dependent mainly on the high minority voter turnout.

The firm which also predicted the victory of President Maithripala Sirisena back in 2015 says that the SLPP candidate would stand a chance if “voter suppression tactics swing the election his way; he would also win if ethnic minority voter turnout is lower than expected (45% odds).”

Speaking to the Sunday Observer Akhil Bery, Analyst for South Asia said several factors were taken into consideration before arriving at a final conclusion.

According to Eurasia their premise to the report was on the fact that Sajith Premadasa can replicate the winning coalition especially because of the endorsement by the TNA and various Muslim parties.

“Second, our belief is that the SLFP/SLPP is not as united as many think, given a number of SLFP members are disenchanted with the Rajapaksas and their control of the political machinery. Third, it remains an extremely close contest and could go either way. Due to there being no opinion polling, we had to take a look at other factors, including the caste factor, in making our judgement call,” Bery said.

The full report

Premadasa still holds a narrow advantage The UNP-led New Democratic Front (NDF) candidate’s main advantage is his ability to assemble a voting coalition that likely contains most ethnic minority voters (25% of population) as well as a significant (but less than half) share of the Sinhalese population (75% of voters). This should enable him to overcome Gota’s advantage, especially with more nationalistic members of the Sinhalese ethnic majority. However, Premadasa’s advantage is slight as the numbers are finely balanced, and he cannot be very confident of victory (55% odds). Uncertainty is increased by the likelihood that none of the Presidential candidates (35 in total, though most will struggle to attract many votes) would secure more than 50% of the total votes based on first preferences marked on the ballot.

Thus, for the first time, second, and possibly third, preferences could determine the outcome of the presidential contest and these are harder to predict. Nevertheless, Premadasa has secured the backing of key ethnic minority political parties—most of who are eager to avoid a Rajapaksa returning to power given the concerns about alleged human rights abuses committed by the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime against non-Sinhalese members of the population during Sri Lanka’s long civil war.

The Tamil National Alliance officially endorsed Premadasa last week, while several Muslim parties have also backed him. Premadasa has also further burnished his pro-poor credentials—despite coming from an established family (his father was president; assassinated while in office)—on the campaign trail and focused heavily on an outreach to women voters.

Premadasa’s campaign has been better organized in the recent weeks. Conversely, Gota has stumbled in the home stretch—refusing to answer questions about his alleged role in war crimes against Tamils during the latter stages of the Sri Lankan civil war. Gota has instead deflected these questions to Mahinda to answer. Mahinda is considerably more popular than Gota, but has struggled with health issues and been less active campaigning on behalf of his brother than had been expected. Gota is also facing fresh questions about whether he has given up his US citizenship.

Sri Lanka does not permit dual nationals to run for President, and while Gota claims he renounced his US citizenship, many are questioning the authenticity of documents publicly released to prove he is now only a Sri Lankan citizen.

This debate may take some of the edge off Gota’s otherwise strong advantage with more nationalistic Sinhalese voters. Gota’s support from the military increases fears of voter suppression tactics Nevertheless, this remains a very close contest. Premadasa’s path to victory is heavily dependent on the ethnic minority turnout on November 16, as Gota is likely to sweep up more than half of the ethnic majority Sinhalese vote. The NDF’s narrow election victory in 2015 was achieved with around 80% of ethnic-minority votes. If ethnic-minority voter turnout is less than expected, Gota is likely to win the Presidency (45% odds). In addition, there are concerns that the Rajapaksa political machine will engage in voter suppression tactics in order to swing the election Gota’s way. These fears are particularly acute in the north and the east, where there is a significant military presence.

The military leadership is firmly behind Gota, and those areas are also heavily populated by potential Tamil voters. Already, there have been attempts by the military to disenfranchise Tamil voters; earlier this week, the military set up roadblocks, possibly to intimidate Tamil voters. After an uproar on social media, it appears the military has backed down for now, but the risk is clearly there. There are also concerns that Sinhalese extremists would attempt to intimidate Muslim voters to prevent them from turning out.

In some parts of Sri Lanka, Muslim voters need to go through predominantly Sinhalese towns and villages to get to polling stations, which can be problematic, especially in the tense environment following the Easter Sunday attacks earlier this year, carried out by Islamic extremists. Gota has positioned himself as the law and order candidate and is already trying to capitalize on nationalist sentiment and security concerns following the Easter bombings. Thus, another security incident in the final stage of the campaign could make a Gota victory more likely.

Election implications

The recent constitutional changes mean the executive powers of the next President would be somewhat diminished, especially outside the scope of foreign and defence policy. Economic policy making will largely be controlled by the Prime Minister, especially as that role has the power to allocate Cabinet positions, making next year’s Parliamentary elections arguably more important for the medium-term reform outlook.

The outcome of the Presidential election is important for overall political stability, and the next head of state will also have a significant sway over the military, judiciary and foreign relations, notably over how ties with China would evolve.

A Premadasa victory would ease tensions with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in the short term, as both are from the same party. However, the medium-term outlook for political stability would depend on who wins the Parliamentary elections, which are due to take place by late 2020.

Wickremesinghe has already been announced as the UNP’s candidate for the Parliamentary elections, but he would likely face stiff opposition from Mahinda. On the other hand, a Gota victory would mean heightened political tensions with Wickremesinghe in the short term. In addition, the President has the power to dissolve Parliament up to 6 months before its 5-year term ends.

That means if he wins Sunday’s presidential contest, Gota will likely dissolve Parliament early next year and advance the parliamentary poll, hoping it results in his brother Mahinda becoming Prime Minister. A Gota Presidency, especially if combined with Mahinda becoming Prime Minister, would see Sri Lanka pivot more firmly into Beijing’s orbit