The changing ritual of prediction
Those used to be the days in Sri Lanka, when elections
were easy to predict. Two thirds majorities were easy to predict; steamroller
majorities were easy to predict. They followed a pattern.
Then came the Jayewardene constitution, and as Mervyn de Silva the journalist
said, "even Howard Wriggins wouldn't have predicted election malpractices
after that.'' It's difficult to predict the margin of error that results
from rigging of polls.
This is an election in which President Kumaratunga, if she was in her
proper senses, would vote for the UNP. After all, half the President's
men are in that party now. But the problem is, even her vote might be robbed.
This is basically an election in which the survival factor is pitted
against the security factor. There is a collective gut feeling that the
UNP needs to return to power, for families — indeed the entire country
— to survive economically. As opposed to this, there is the uneasy underlying
perception that the UNP means encroachment, encroachment upon territory
by the LTTE, and erosion of personal security due to a UNP-LTTE Tamil party
Then there is the rigging factor. No EU or election monitoring expert
could predict how efficiently the rigging has been planned. But this time,
the PA is certainly acting with a greater sense of desperation. But this
is also counterbalanced by a sense of self-preservation.
The chances of losing in spite of rigging this time are more severe
for the PA activist. If the PA loses, the active election thug or goonda
could face unpleasant retaliation from the UNP, and the chance of that
happening this time is a little more real than in the abstract.
Theoretically, the UNP-led UNF combine should secure at least 115 seats.
Most of these would come from the urban rather than the rural districts;
but the survival factor counts in the rural districts as well, where there
is a prevalent idea that rural upward mobility is hampered by the stagflation
brought on by the PA administration.
The 115 with the help of other electoral alliances should enable the
UNP to form a government, despite the fondest hopes of Chandrika Kumaratunga.
But, her choices will necessarily be limited. How many times can she dissolve
The JVP has received a kidney punch in the form of its leader Somawansa
Amarasinghe's Kalutara speech. Luck has been going the UNP's way.
If the UNP does form a government, the next question would be how long
it will last under a Kumaratunga presidency. Or alternately, how long will
the President last?
Who will call the shots under a government of cohabitation? Though it
is the prime minister who is said to be the peon under a JR constitution,
the President can in reality be reduced to peon status too. If the UNP
gets a handsome majority, for all intents and purposes, her hands could
be tied. To save face, she may be forced to resign.
That's the most probable course of events, if the elections are not
rigged. Then, there is the question of what may happen between now and
election day. On election eve, important figures in this country are prone
to lose their eyes. Governments may come and governments may go, but sympathy
goes on forever.
As things stand, it is difficult for the PA to salvage this election
in the last few days. Its campaign has been muted; it has not been able
to deal effectively with perceptions. The perception is that the PA is
losing. Anura Bandaranaike is in the party.
But, this battle is also an electoral intangible. It hasn't happened
before; no party with an incumbent President has lost a general election
except during the Wijetunga presidency, which was of course a different
story altogether due to the fact that Wijetunga was already at the fag
end of his term.
The Sri Lankan electorate tends to rely heavily on perceptions prevailing
on elections day. After the PA formed a government in 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga
won the presidential election in a landslide.
The perception was heavily in favour of the UNP the day parliament was
dissolved a few months ago, and no doubt the PA has been able to make inroads
into this unfavourable perception by attacking the UNP on several fronts
— chief of which was the so-called LTTE connection.
The UNP could have done a better, more aggressive job of dealing with
these attacks, but neither has the UNP committed any major gaffe in this
campaign. Therefore the swing away from the UNP since the day parliament
was dissolved will not probably make a major dent in terms of outcome.
The UNP can and should win; but, by how much is more than an academic question.