President Mahinda Rajapaksa did not have to call for a presidential election in January 2015. He could have waited for two more years. Or he could have waited until after the visit of the Pope that is sure to be popular with Catholics. He could have waited for March when the Maha harvest is in [...]

Sunday Times 2

Rajapaksa Vs. Sirisena: The battle lines in perspective


President Mahinda Rajapaksa did not have to call for a presidential election in January 2015. He could have waited for two more years. Or he could have waited until after the visit of the Pope that is sure to be popular with Catholics. He could have waited for March when the Maha harvest is in and the rural folk in particular feel prosperous, and the people look forward to the Sinhala and Tamil New Year. He could have waited until September when his 2015 budget salary hikes and other goodies would have kicked in. A postponement would also have deflated the plans and excitement of the opposition and given them time to recommence infighting that they were temporarily putting aside to fight Rajapaksa under a common front. But Rajapaksa did none of the above and called for an election in early January. Why?


Maithripala Sirisena is seen carrying the Relics Casket at the President’s House to mark President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s birthday on November 18

This writer can only guess as to the reasons for his decision. May be he is worried that the high profile visit of the Pope may damage his image among Buddhists. His belief in astrology may have had something to do with it. Perhaps he fears that the numbers that the Treasury Secretary gave him for the 2015 budget to give salary hikes, grants and subsidies are not real and that the government won’t have revenue to fulfil the commitments. For whatever reason, he took the decision to give the nation a chance to reelect him to the powerful executive presidency that he obviously intends to preserve.


The opposition wanted an election as early as possible, especially after it faired quite well in the Uva Provincial Council election last September. However, the different opposition parties and groups have had their own agendas that were not always in harmony with each other. The JVP considers the election to be illegal because, the Supreme Court decision notwithstanding, the party believes that Rajapaksa has no legitimacy to contest a third time. The JHU wants the executive presidency abolished and two members of the party resigned from the portfolios that they held but the party remains in the governing UPFA coalition. Minor parties such as the Lanka Sama Samaaja Party and the Communist Party are split on the issue of supporting Rajapaksa. Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha’s National Movement for Social Justice achieved something remarkable by making the abolition of the executive presidency a significant issue in the forthcoming poll. The UNP wants to oust Rajapaksa and regain power but they could not agree on a suitable candidate that is also acceptable to the smaller parties in the south and the minority populations in the north and east. The UNP has settled for Maithripala Sirisena who quit the Rajapaksa Cabinet on Friday.

It appears that the former president Chandrika Kumaratunga played a decisive role in the choosing of Sirisena as the Common Opposition Candidate. She publicly declared a few moths ago that her main poltical mission was to resurrect the old SLFP. In effect she has succeeded in taking the first major step in her mission by making the Secretary of the SLFP the candidate to oppose Rajapaksa who was her former party colleague and cabinet minister under her.


Presidential elections are, by their vary nature, not so much a battle between two poltical parties as much as a battle between two individuals supported by their respective poltical bases and other support groups. The nomination of Maithripala Sirisena has introduced an unpredictable element in to the presidential battle. First consider parliament. The depletion of the UPFA ranks will be a serious blow to Rajapaksa. At a minimum it will make it harder for Rajapaksa to conduct his campaign for reelection. But there is potential for crossover in large numbers to cause far more damage. For example, an emboldened opposition could bring a motion of no confidence in the government. In the worst-case scenario they could even initiate an impeachment motion against the president not so much to oust him but for the propaganda value that such a motion would bring.

Second, the opposition’s attempt to undermine Rajapaksa may spread to the provincial councils and even to local government authorities. For example, the Uva PC’s governing the UPFA has 19 members and the opposition 15. The crossover of a mere three would topple the administration. In the Western PC, the UPFA has 56, the UNP 28, Fonseka’s DP 9, the JVP 6 and three minor parties another five. A change of administration needs less than 10 to cross over.


In democracies strong poltical party machines are essential for successful poltical campaigns. The UPFA is more a coalition with a symbol to fight elections than a substantive poltical party. It is the SLFP that is the core party of the UPFA. If the SLFP segment of the UPFA is depleted, Rajapaksa will find it that much harder to campaign. Rajapaksa has built a more personal poltical base around him and his other family members and supporters in government that lacks an institutional core. He has come to rely on state machinery for his politics and electoral campaigns. It is likely that he would largely rely on the state machinery including the military to help in the logistics and financing of the campaign. This, however, is nothing new to Mr. Rajapaksa. He did so in 2010 using state resource for campaigning by blurring the distinction between his duties and action as president and his needs as candidate.

Rajapaksa’s challenger Maithripala Sirisena may also not have much help from his old party. After he declared his candidacy, he has lost whatever power he had as Secretary of the SLFP over the party machine. In any event under Rajapaksa there is not much that remains of the old SLFP party machine at the village level. Sirisena won’t have much help from the UNP machine because that too has greatly weakened in the last two decades. It is also not clear how enthusiastic traditional UNP activists would be to support Sirisena.

Sirisena is likely to get more support from the JVP that probably has the best party machine at the grassroots level in Sri Lanka.


As noted above presidential elections are largely battles between individuals. Rajapaksa and Sirisena, supported by the respective party bases, will fight for the vote of those who either belong to other parties or remain unaffiliated, the so-called floating vote.

One challenge that Sirisena has is that he is not that well known in the country, in general and in the minority communities in particular. For example, he is not a person who has taken prominent public positions on the ethnic conflict, or the threat that Muslims have faced in some parts of the country from militant Buddhist groups. Neither has he taken positions on major national issues ranging from development strategies, corruption and good governance or foreign policy. If he is a candidate running for president for a tenure of six years these will be huge drawbacks. However, he is running to abolish the office. Thus his personal opinions may not matter very much. Indeed he may actually be the best candidate for that reason because he is less controversial and could get the support of disparate opposition groups. Of course if he says something significant on the campaign trail the media is likely to pick it up. If he says something that has the potential to alienate voters Mahinda Rajapaksa is sure to make capital out of it. However, if he limits himself to innocuous statements, the voters will have to decide whether they wish to vote for Sirisena who says he will abolish the executive presidency and give voters another chance soon under a reformed system of government to choose a new government. Alternatively, voters will have to decide to vote for Rajapaksa who wants to retain the executive presidency and implement his policies that the voters are very familiar with.

The contrast could not be sharper between the two candidates. Rajapaksa is over defined. Sirisena is under-defined. Rajapaksa has two options. One is to paint his rival as a puppet of the “real” leaders and identify Ranil Wickremesinghe in particular for attack as the man behind the throne. But the downside of such a strategy is voters would be baffled as to why a non-candidate is the subject of attack. Sirisena who was a senior minister under Rajapaksa is in a position to criticise the latter on a variety of issues that he is aware of. Both campaigns will aim at two distinct audiences. One would be the base vote and the other the floating vote.


Of about 14.5 million registered voters, around 11 million are likely to vote in January. Of this number around 3.1m will belong to the ethnic and religious minorities. Rajapaksa is not popular among the Sri Lankan Tamils (1.6m voters) and the Muslims (1.3).

Northern Tamils believe that that Rajapaksa has not been fair by them after the war ended. In recent elections SL Tamil turnout (60%) in the north and east has been below that of other communities (75% to 80%). Allowing for the lower turnout, Sirisena, who has the support of the UNP, is likely to poll around 735,000 votes to Rajapaksa’s 235,000. Unless something totally unexpected happens Sirisena’s share could even be higher.

There are 1.3 million Muslim voters. About 1m are likely to vote. The available evidence suggests that the Muslim community holds the Rajapaksa administration largely responsible for the anti-Muslim incidents in the last two years that shook the confidence of the community. It is very likely that Sirisena would win at least 70 (700,000) of the Muslim vote.

It is more difficult to predict the plantation Tamil vote of 450,000 that will account for about 4% of the total vote. The same is true for the Sinhalese Catholic/Christian vote of around 540,000. We assume that from these two groups each candidate will get 50% or about 500,000 votes each.

Based on the above analysis Sirisena should poll around 1.9 million or a little more, perhaps 2.0 million votes and Rajapaksa around 1.2 million at most.


The battle will be for the 7.9m Sinhalese-Buddhist voters who will go to the polls. To win the election a candidate must get about 5.51m votes. Assuming that Rajapaksa secures 1.2m minority votes, he needs 4.31 (54.5%) of the Sinhalese-Buddhist vote. Sirisena needs only 3.61m (45.7%) of the Sinhalese-Buddhist vote to win. It could be less if Sirisena does a little better with the minorities. For example, if he polls 2.0m minority votes he only needs 44.4% of the Sinhalese-Buddhist vote.

Given the disruptive impact of crossovers from the government and Chandrika Kumaratunga’s intervention to lure SLFP votes it is hard to calculate Sinhalese-Buddhist base vote that Rajapaksa can be sure of. However, we have some good data from recent elections to estimate the Sinhalese-Buddhist base vote of the UNP and smaller opposition parties.

Last September, the UNP polled 31.9%, the JVP 6.6% and the Democratic Party 1.2% in Monaragala District that is 94.5% Sinhalese-Buddhist. The opposition share was almost 40% of the total vote. Even if we conservatively estimate and assume that the non-Sinhalese-Buddhist vote in the District was 5.5% of the total vote and that the opposition polled all of it, the latter would have 34.5% of the Sinhalese-Buddhist vote. Thus it is fairly safe to assume that in the most rural of areas Sinhalese-Buddhist base vote of the united opposition is around 33%.

In the more urban areas the Sinhelase-Buddhist base vote for the combined opposition is higher. For example, in vote rich predominantly Buddhist Maharagama, Homagama, Kesbewa, Kotte and Kaduwela electorates that together have about 700,000 voters (compared to 323,000 in the entire district of Monaragala), the opposition polled an average of about 44% in the PC election earlier this year. This is tantalisingly close to the share of the Sinhalese-Buddhist vote that Sirisena must win to defeat Rajapaksa.

But the prospects for Sirisena look even better when the UPFA/SLFP breakup and crossover to the opposition are factored in. The PC polls in Uva and the Western Province were held when the UPFA/SLFP including the JHU held together. The JHU is now gone. By Friday six UPFA MPs have rallied around Sirisena. If many more follow President Rajapaksa’s electoral prospects significantly diminish. Even a five percentage point drop in the UPFA Sinhalese-Buddhist vote will seriously jeopardise his chances of victory and a 10 percentage point drop would be an unmitigated disaster.

(The writer is a Professor of economics and close political watcher)

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.