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Deciding Factors in The Presidential Race

by Pradeep Peiris

In the past few weeks newspapers were rife with speculations of a possible presidential or parliamentary election that was ‘coming soon’. Confirming most of these speculations, President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced the presidential elections and sent directives to the Election Commissioner to do the needful in this regard. Ending the long speculation of the common candidate, the UNF and the JVP also announced that they will field General Sarath Fonseka as their common candidate in the upcoming presidential election. Political analysts are already busy with their predictions on the outcomes of the most awaited hustings.

Political Analysts and regular newspaper columnist who unconditionally supported the Rajapaksa regime and General Fonseka during the war are now finding themselves in total discomfiture, as on the one hand, they want to seal their allegiance to President Rajapaksa by predicting his potential victory while also being careful not to deny General Fonseka’s ability to be a formidable challenge to that. I guess, this precarious stance can only be appreciated given the obvious prevailing conditions.

As the incumbent, President Rajapaksa has access to public resources and will be able to mobilse the government apparatus for his electoral advantage as all the previous presidents did in the past. In addition, the spectacular victory against the LTTE that ended 30 years of war in the country would definitely make President Rajapaksa a more popular presidential candidate than what he was in November 2005. His personal charisma, Sinhala Buddhist outlook and his links to the South has made him more popular than any party leader in the country. Therefore, as many political analysts pointed out, few months ago, his victory at a presidential election was a highly predictable and an overwhelming one. The opposition’s finding of a potential checkmate in General Fonseka has made making predictions of elections results no longer easy.

Of course, understandably the government is irritable over General Fonseka’s political debut as he has the potential to eat into Rajapaksa’s nationalist vote bank. This prompted the government and its allies to further criticise the opposition of being severely weak as they could not find a candidate from their own parties to contest. That is true! So what? What would determine the election result which is highly unpredictable at the moment? Is it the party, personality or something else that plays the central role in the presidential election?

If one looks at the presidential elections around the world we have evidence to argue that in some cases the party and in others, the personality was instrumental in bringing about electoral victories. In the US presidential election of 2009, probably the world’s most celebrated election victory, Barak Obama used his party machinery to the maximum while exploiting his charisma and his unique social condition elegantly, to draw support across the party lines.

If we re-examine the 2005 presidential election in Sri Lanka, I believe that Rajapksa deserved full credit for his marginal victory over the UNP candidate, because he did not enjoy the full benefit of the party machinery that he belonged to at a time when he had bitter relationship with the former President Kumaratunga, who was also the leader of the SLFP. However, he managed to rope in Sinhala nationalist and anti-UNP parties to elevate himself to strong presidential candidate. During the 2005 election campaign, Rajapksa formed his own new alliances with the JVP who was at loggerhead with his party, to support his election campaign.

Like in many democracies that practise presidential system, in Sri Lanka’s presidential election also, the main candidates drew electoral support beyond their party bases by using cleavages based politics in addition to the support he/she received from his/her party bases. At the 2005 election, the JVP decided to support Rajapaksa despite pulling out of the SLFP led government barely a year before. The JHU, who voted against the UPFA in parliament defeating the UPFA speaker candidate DEW Gunasekara, nevertheless, extended their support for Rajapaksa at the election. This shows that presidential candidates, especially the front runners, are not necessarily prisoners of political parties. These candidates can and would walk across parties using their multifarious skills and strengths while capitalising on the party allegiance of voters toward his/her party. Hence, I believe even the upcoming presidential election could turn out to be a battle between two individuals with an advantageous potential of ‘the war hero’ walking into Rajapksa’s Sinhala nationalist voter base while also enjoying the support of the bases of the UNP and the JVP.

However, unlike in the previous elections, in the forthcoming election President Rajapaksa will be able to fully mobilise not only his party machinery but also his position as the executive president to get himself re-elected for the second term. On the contrary, his opposition contender, General Fonseka, will resort to mobilising the party machineries of UNF and JVP who recognise him as their common candidate. Hence, this time round, candidates will use not only their own popularity but also party machineries to achieve their goals.

What worked in 2005?

What worked for Rajapaksa at the 2005 presidential election? According to the pre-election poll reports (Social Indicator-CPA, 2005), people placed their confidence in the capacity of the UNP candidate, Ranil Wickremasinghe on the issues such as handling the peace process, reducing the cost of living, and Tsunami reconstruction. Masses felt that Rajapaksa is more capable in terms of preserving law and order, protecting Sri Lankan culture, safeguarding the country and protecting their religion. However, the Sinhala community placed greater trust in Rajapksa than in Wickremasinghe on all the issues including the handling of the peace process. On the contrary, the ethnic minority communities, Tamils, Muslims and Estate Tamils placed overwhelming trust in Wickremasinge on all the issues put forward to them. So, it was evident that Rajapksa was a strong preference of the Sinhala community due to his Sinhala nationalist appeal as was shown by the poll results. Hence, despite the overwhelming support of the minorities, Wickremasinghe lost the election simply due to his inability to convince majority of the Sinhala community of the country.

What would work in 2010?

First of all, a remarkable difference in the political context then and now are well recognisd by the author. The war and the LTTE, that bred the Sinhala nationalism in the South is no longer present and as a result has diminished the strength of the ethnic cleavages in mobilising electoral support in the present political context. However, although, there are attempts to revive the Sinhala Buddhist ultra nationalism (with Anti-Conversion Bills, etc) that is fast losing its currency, I do not believe that Sinhala nationalism would be a decisive factor at this election. Not only because there is no visible threat to the Sinhala Buddhists that parties can capitalise on, but even if one manages to find such a threat during the election campaign, both candidates are equally capable of tapping into such a nationalist voter base. Then there was widespread anger and disappointment over the UNF peace process and the violence of the LTTE that President Rajapaksa greatly benefited from. At present, President Rajapaksa and General Fonseka are sharing the same share of credit for destroying the LTTE and achieving what Sinhala national preferred as the best solution to the country’s ethnic conflict. More importantly, the LTTE is not there anymore to impose forced election boycott that helped Rajapaksa immensely to achieve his marginal victory over the UNP candidate, Wickremasinghe. Even if the LTTE’s so-called transnational government wanted to enforce election boycott this time, their capacity to make it an effective imposition on Tamils in Sri Lanka is highly doubtful. Therefore, famous campaign issues such as, rampant corruption, establishing democracy, fighting against dictatorship, criticism towards dynastical politics, unemployment, waste of government resources and cost of living, etc would once again gain credence in mobilising voters for or against a candidate.

People decide their party support on the basis of various factors. In a utopian world, voters are adequately informed on party and party policy and they make a rational choice in selecting their party or candidate by maximising the benefits for them. However, in reality, people hardly know much about the parties and their policies, so, they use some ideological position to distinguish them from others (us vs them). As it was shown in the pre-election poll, once they chose their electoral choice, people considered their candidate as educated, honest, experienced and gifted with good leadership skills, although sometimes quite contrary to the reality.

Hence, the million dollar question is what would be that decisive factor that people would use to decide their presidential candidate. Obviously, in the previous election they were ‘ethnicity’ and ‘national security’. If it is competition between socialist and liberal camps we could assume that ‘class factor’ would play a crucial role. However, ironically, in this election the left and the right seem to have found common grounds against the incumbent.


So, how does one rally voters around each candidate in this presidential election? On one hand, General Fonseka, who claimed that this country belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists seems to beckon minority voters, especially Tamils as the presidential candidate. On the other hand, President Rajapaksa, who entertained ultra-Sinhala Nationalist over four years, now claims he is expecting a mandate of the people of the North and East. So, in this context, candidates would not be able to approach neither a rational voter nor an ideology based voter to receive their support.

Thus, I can imagine only two possible scenarios. A worse case scenario would be a highly violent election that would lead to widespread election malpractices allowing certain elements to rob the vote particularly in the recently liberated North and East. The best case scenario would be that the two candidates and their parties begin a rigorous bargaining process with other smaller parties and also possibly with local representatives of the rival political camp pitching in. Especially as most parties are affected by internal defections, there is a great potential for candidates to approach certain sections of their rival parties in forging alliances. In addition, since minority parties too have shown interest in joining alliances, this option would be further tempting to the main candidates. The candidate who forms the largest alliances would be in an advantageous position to win the upcoming presidential election. So let’s wait and see how fascinating partnerships would emerge in days to come.



Yes as the writer says it will be a fascinating encounter. As the major devisive factors have been removed the election will be a straight fight between two candidates of equal standing based on policies and ability to deliver. It is hoped that the elections commissioner will ensure a level playing field where the public can judge each candidate on his merits and elect a person of their choice.

Posted by: SriLankan | November 29, 2009 09:12 AM

The president has taken advantage of a provision in the
constitution that allows him to call for presidential
election after completion of four years in office.He has full two more years to go for election but the real
trouble by then will be his performance on the development front in the post war clean Srilanka.
The general election is anyway just a few millimetres
away from the presidential one,why not finish that first and take on yourself then.It's due and yours is
not.Juggling is clear.He doesn't believe in general
election win.If he really believes that he can lead the
party to win,parliament would have come first.He doesn't trust the people either.In two years he will be judged on his other achievements,not war drum drum.
So,two years wait is a risky business.Enough damage has
already been done to other political parties,by the
heavy use of executive machinery and nothing more left
to be done for another two years.They can not find
resources for development, more wait more uncertain
tomorrow and the only saviour will start to stink.So
better now.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 29, 2009 02:53 PM

Peace is not the absence of war.

The two major political parties, the UNP and SLFP,for the past 50 years; both before LTTE and after the de facto state, tried to bring peace. But together, they have miserably ended up with a brutal and bloody genocidal war.

Buddhist prelates, forming less than 0.5 percent of the population, confined only to temples, were dragged into politics by SLFP in 1956. UNP shamelessly followed suit. Greed for power and money were the motives and not the welfare of the country.

UNP and SLFP equally have now become under dogs of Buddhist prelates, who are blatantly ignorant of the legitimacy of Tamil rights and freedoms according to the UN charter yet making "big mouth" statements on them.

They all, together corrupted both politics and Buddhism and are incapable of bringing peace.

Both UNP and SLFP have now become so blindfolded that they have candidates for the presidential election, who have committed war crimes and are likely to be tried in the War Crimes Court in the Hague. Political madness is being exhibited.

It is evident that peace can never be achieved by the present "tried political parties". Remorsefulness is lacking and time is running out for peace.

The young and different "generation" of Sinhalese, having grown in a bloody war, brought upon them by the older folks, value peace. They need to rise up boldly now and take a firm stand for peace or perish.

What is required is a genuine peace revolution at grass root level, based on love and care for the affected Tamils and respect their dignity freedoms and rights

If the young fail to do it, it will be another missed opportunity, chaos will rule for ever and peace will be a distant dream.

Posted by: Justin | November 30, 2009 06:01 AM

It will be close contest as all Political Pundits predict the minority groups will play a key role in electing the winner.SF has to come up with a clear Manifesto,the most important issue being the C.O.L.The euphoria of the War will be over by next year and both sides will not win marginal seats on this issue.SF will cut into Mahinda Rajapakses strongholds particularly on the coastal belt.The JVP ran very effective campaigns in the last two Elections but how they will now godoor to door canavssing for votes promising more Jobs with an Open Market Economy ?will they still talk about Nationalisation and State Control-this is SFs only vulnerable area in his campaign-A Marxist party supporting an Ultra Right Wing party.In 1977 the UNP swept into power on three important issues shortages,corruption,unemployment.SF needs a clever Campaign Director to higlight the failures,such as the Southern Expressway,the extravance of the Jumbo Cabinet paid for by the Tax payer who is struggling to have two meals a day,it longer is three to many .
RW still has too many skeletons in his Cupboard but he needs his numbers, this fact along with the voters distrust of the JVP could be the only factors that will prevent SF winning.The media portrays MR a peoples man,a good orator-so was Churchill.

Posted by: MAX KANDANARACHCHI | December 3, 2009 06:43 PM

The important factor that is turning the tide faster and faster against MR is the lies and deceptions to which people have become immuned over the years. Added to this comes the misuse public property and resources. Plundering has become more and more visible. The cheekiness of the Ministers and their lack of accountability is record breaking. People, even the strong supporters are beginning to distance themselves from MR & Co.

Posted by: Kingsley | December 25, 2009 06:37 AM

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