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Entrenched party loyalties may determine Lankan poll results

Despite the controversy, results may just reflect Sri Lanka's timeworn political arithmetic, writes PK Balachanddran in Colombo Diary.

india Updated: Mar 17, 2004 19:10 IST

If one goes by campaign rhetoric, the electoral battle in Sri Lanka is between those who have gained from the two-year long peace process and are hence "feeling good", and those who feel that they have been by-passed and hence "not feeling good". But interestingly, these feelings run along party lines. And party loyalties are entrenched! Ultimately, therefore, despite all the heat and dust of controversy, the results may just reflect the country's timeworn political arithmetic.

The United National Front (UNF), headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, hopes that those who "feel good" will vote it back to power, and the Freedom Alliance (FA), headed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, hopes that those who "don't feel good" will vote for it and catapult it to power. Both are dreaming of huge swings in their favour.

But both know that such feelings tend to run largely along party lines. A UNF person "feels good" or "hopeful" even if he has not himself gained anything tangible from the peace process. Likewise, a FA person will be critical of the UNF even if he has gained tangibly from the peace process.

Professor ST Hettige, a Colombo University sociologist, who has conducted many election surveys in the past, feels that there may not be any "serious shift" in the voting behaviour to give a clear verdict in favour of one party or the other. "Any shift may be marginal," he told Hindustan Times.

"The UNF says that the FA will push the country towards war, violence and economic ruin.This will not click.The UNF is trying to demonise the radical JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna), but the JVP has been apologetic about its violent and intolerant behaviour in the past.That has struck a sympathetic chord among the people. Atleast it is not a major negative factor."

"Likewise, the people will not believe FA's propaganda that the UNF was selling off the assets of the country or compromising its sovereignty by giving too much to the LTTE," Professor Hettige said.

He did not think that a Sinhala-Buddhist radical party, which has put up 266 monks would make a dent. "Our people don't waste their vote on fringe groups which cannot win," he said. The widespread condemnation of the monks' bid to contest elections has also blunted a growing antagonism between the Sinhala- Buddhists and Sinhala Christians, which may have affected the voting pattern to some extent. Christians are 6.8 per cent of the total population.

Campaign issues

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is saying that the people should vote the UNF back to power because it had injected the "feel good" factor in Sri Lanka something which had eluded the war-torn country for decades. "As we broke free from the shackles of war, peace soon followed. It became a part of everyday life. The nation began to stir with possibilities of prosperity. Untangling things one at a time, we moved forward. Hope was rekindled. The work had just begun when you were robbed of a bright future," he told the people in a press campaign recently.

The UNF dubs the premature dissolution of parliament by President Kumaratunga as an act of "robbery" motivated by greed for power. "The robber must be taught a lesson," is the war cry. Wickremesinghe also said that the choice before the people is stark - War or Peace. If the UNF was voted out of power and the FA was in, war would ensue, he warned.

But Kumaratunga's Freedom Alliance (FA) trashes the UNF's claims. According to the FA, there is little doubt that the masses, "don't feel good" at all. The "peace dividend" trumpeted day in and day out by the UNF, is but a mirage for most Sri Lankans, it says.

"What have the people got in these two years?" asks FA spokesman Lakshman Kadirgamar." A few cronies have prospered but the vast majority of the people are groaning with suffering. The horrendous cost of living has gone out of control. The young face unemployment and hopelessness. Unbridled corruption has reached staggering proportions. The people are clamouring for the elusive peace dividend," he points out.

Kadirgamar says that the choice before the people is not "peace or war" because the constituents of the FA, including the militant JVP, have pledged to continue the peace process, respect the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the rebel LTTE, and continue to employ Norway as the peace facilitator.

By presenting the contest as between peace and war, the Prime Minister was in fact "holding out a threat of war " and "war mongering", Kadirgamar charged.

Professor Hettige too says that the issue is not War or Peace. "The main issue in the 2001 election was peace or war. But in the 2004 election, the main issue will be to whom the peace dividend has gone, and to whom it did not go. No party, including the JVP, is saying that we will go to war. People have taken peace for granted. What they want now are the dividends of peace," he said.

"The economic boom after the commencement of the peace process favoured the upper middle and upper classes.They have been having a field day! The rest of the population welcome the peace process but they have had no tangible ecomomic gains.The vast majority of Sri Lankans have serious economic difficulties. The trickle down effect which right wing governments believe in, does not take occur easily. The vast majority of the poor tend to get disillusioned. In Sri Lanka,the public services have worsened. For example, the people feel that the railways are being dismantled," Professor Hettige said.

"The UNF behaved as badly vis-a vis the opposition as it had done in the past. After the last elections, workers of the defeated SLFP party were attacked. This drove the SLFP workers into the arms of the JVP for sheer self-protection. UNF leaders appointed their kith and kin to government jobs. Nothing changed despite the clean reputation of those at the very top like the Prime Minister and some of his ministers like Karu Jayasuriya and Milinda Moragoda," Professor Hettige said.

Past behavior and electoral system are factors

However, as Prof Hettige and Kadirgamar will agree, election results in terms of the number of seats got, hinge not only on issues, but on other factors too. Principally, these factors include entrenched party loyalties and adherence to party commands, which result in people voting for their party and its allies, without question, and the electoral system.

Most analysts look at the performance of the various parties in the immediate past, to predict the outcome of the coming elections. In the Sri Lankan case, it is the December 2001 parliamentary elections which give the clue.

In 2001, among the main formations, the UNF got 45.62 per cent, the Peoples' Alliance (PA) 37.19 per cent and the JVP 9.10 per cent.

The UNF (minus the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress or SLMC) got 109 seats, the PA 77, and the JVP 16 in the House of 225. Five members of the SLMC joined the government set up by the UNF and beefed up its strength to 114.

However, the political situation in 2004 is not the same as it was in 2001. In the run up to the April 2, 2004 elections, the PA and the JVP came together to form the FA. And if the 2001 voting pattern is repeated, FA should get 46.29 per cent, while the UNF will have to be content with 45.62 per cent.

Sri Lanka has the Proportional Representation System (PRS) and not the First Past the Post (FPS), prevalent in India. Under the PRS, many parties, even the small ones, get representation. In the Sri Lankan system, a party will win seats in parliament according to the percentage of votes it polls in each electoral district it contests and the percentage of votes it gets nation-wide.

In other words there are "district" seats and "national" seats.

In addition,there are "bonus" seats. A party which gets the most number of votes in a district gets an additional "bonus" seat.

Going by the December 2001 election results, FA should get the highest number of votes in 10 of the 22 districts 58.64 per cent in Hambantota, 55.86 per cent in Matara, 55.41 per cent in Monaragala, 54.53 per cent in Gampaha, 54.39 per cent in Galle, 52.7 per cent in Anuradhapura, 51.83 per cent in Kalutara, 51.04 per cent in Ratnapura, 51.04 per cent in Polannaruwa, 50.32 per cent in Kurunegala.

This gives it 10 bonus seats, which the UNF got in 2001.

Since the UNF's margin of victory was very narrow in five other districts, namely, Puttalam, Badulla and Matale, it could lose three more bonus seats. In the final analysis, the UNF may be left with only three bonus seats, namely, from Nuwara Eliya, Colombo and Kandy, which are its pocket boroughs.

In the 2001 elections, the UNF scored the highest in 17 of the 22 electoral districts and got 17 bonus seats. As per the nation-wide distribution of votes, the UNF got 13 "National List" seats, the PA got 11 and JVP 3.

This means that in the 2004 elections, while the FA's tally of bonus seats may go up from one to 10, the UNF's may come down from 17 to six or even three.

The Muslim and Sinhala minorities in the Tamil-dominated North Eastern Province (NEP) have got alienated from the UNF in the last two years, because that party had not protected them against the marauding LTTE. The UNF could, therefore, lose the bonus seat for Trincomalee district, as Trincomalee is a mixed district in the NEP with an equal number of Tamils,Muslims and Sinhalas.

But to offset this, the UNF has gained the support of the minorities, especially the Indian Origin Tamils, Sri Lankan Tamils living outside the North East, and businessmen, big and small.These groups see the FA either as a Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist party, or as an anti-private sector party.

On balance and on the face of it, the going seems to be better for the FA than the UNF. No wonder then, FA's leaders are dreaming of 120 to 130 seats and a clear majority in the House of 225.

But a seasoned pundit like Victor Ivan, the editor of the political paper "Ravaya", doubts if the verdict will be so clear, given the narrow gap between the two parties in terms of the percentage of votes they tend to get, and the intricacies of the Sri Lankan electoral system. He predicts a hung parliament with only one vote dividing the two camps!

Prof Hettige is also cautious. "As of now, the two sides are equally strong. However, a dramatic development in March, like a significant defection from one side to the other, can change the situation radically as it happened before the 2001 elections," he said.

First Published: Mar 10, 2004 19:40 IST