The election, we are told, was approved by presidential astrologers. As we all know now, they failed their political client miserably. What they could not predict, or did not wish to tell their client, was that the political fortunes of the people of this country were to change dramatically, and for the better. On January [...]

Sunday Times 2

Post-election reflections: Calling the ethnicists’ bluff


The election, we are told, was approved by presidential astrologers. As we all know now, they failed their political client miserably. What they could not predict, or did not wish to tell their client, was that the political fortunes of the people of this country were to change dramatically, and for the better.

Voters line up at a polling booth in Jaffna: Common candidate Sirisena’s victory is representative of all the people in Sri Lanka

On January 8, an unprecedented 82 per cent of voters turned up to vote, and the vast majority voted for change. The result announced on January 9 provided Sri Lankans with a dramatic opening to regain democracy and political dignity. The vote was for political decency and a shared democratic future, things that we mistakenly thought would be ours when the war ended. The vote was against many things — authoritarianism, corruption and lawlessness. The vote also tells us that many rejected the ugliness of racist politics and politics of fear.

Now we have a President who tells us that he is not a king, but is an elected representative who is the primary servant of the people. He sees simplicity as a virtue. He tells the Cabinet of Ministers that if they misbehave they will be taken to task without fear or favour. He says that his credo is compassion. That is too good to be true. Most often these days, I have to pinch myself to make sure this is not wishful dreaming. I am sure that most of my fellow citizens walk with a spring in their step. The future appears to be ripe with democratic possibilities and the promise of dignified coexistence. But, of course, the challenges are many. A lot depends on how we, the citizens, steer the course of change.

What is most remarkable about the election of President Sirisena is that he obtained the enthusiastic vote of virtually all ethnic and religious communities in the country. In a diverse polity, that is the strongest indicator of the legitimacy of election to public office. In fact, when the Executive Presidency was introduced to Sri Lanka in 1978, one of the justifications for it was that the presidency would be a uniting factor as the votes of the majority and minority communities are essential to win elections conducted at an all island level. Aside from the ethnic diversity that is reflected in the victory of President Sirisena, the joint opposition that he represented is perhaps the broadest political coalition that has come forward for an election representing diverse political ideologies and interests — in fact, a vivid rainbow coalition. That makes President Sirisena’s victory a uniquely representative, hence a uniquely legitimate, one.

But that is not how some see it. The major criticism levelled against the election of President Sirisena by his opponents is that he won because of minority votes. We are told that that is something negative (almost a stigma) and that the Sinhalese have to be concerned about that. The assumption behind that criticism is that most Sinhalese voted for President Rajapaksa and that, therefore, his defeat is not a real defeat. The extension of that logic is that President Sirisena did not get adequate Sinhala votes and that, therefore, his election is not really legitimate. To these critics, the idea of legitimacy of election is not based on whether the election of a president reflects support of all the communities in the country, as would normally be the case. That is an irrelevant factor to them. What they wish to see is the majority community determining who the victor is so that the electoral importance of minority communities is marginalised. The world view of such critics is that minorities should know their proper place in society; at best, they should play a marginal role in national affairs. Their view is that political life in the country must be determined by the majority community as of right. That the political marginalisation of the minorities is detrimental to national wellbeing and political stability of the country is cynically brushed aside.

Given the shrill and alarmist nature of this criticism, some politicians in the victorious camp are scrambling to establish that President Sirisena did indeed get a large portion of votes from the Sinhalese, and that indeed his election to the presidency is therefore legitimate. They are not quick to portray his victory as a wholesome one which was won with the support of all communities and that, therefore, it is good for the future stability of the country. That cannot be said of the election victory of President Rajapaksa in 2010. It is also widely believed that he won the presidency in 2005 because of the LTTE’s boycott of the presidential election. By failing to articulate that viewpoint, unfortunately those in the Maithri Camp are buying into the hollow divisive politics of their opponents.

Of course, there is nothing in the election law which says that a particular percentage of Sinhalese or other communities should be obtained to become a victor at a presidential election. It would be quite extraordinary if the law stipulated such a requirement. However, from a practical point of view, it is not possible to win a national election without the votes of a sizeable proportion of the majority community, which consists of nearly 75 per cent of the population (counting Sinhalese of all religious persuasions). I do not think that one should get into the numbers game to see exactly how many Sinhalese voted for each candidate. It may not be possible to get the exact numbers, and even if one could, that does not make any difference to the election. The spirit of democracy is kept alive not by the one who wins on the basis of majoritarianism, but by the one who has a political vision that appeals to a broad array of communities and political interests. It is the latter type of candidate who can better ensure future stability through national cohesion.

A perusal of the voting pattern in 2015 compared with the 2010 presidential election shows that the claim of the critics is extremely mischievousP and insincere (for the purpose of comparison I used the supplement on the 2010 and 2015 presidential election results issued by the Sunday Times of January 11, 2015). The 2015 vote clearly shows that not only did the percentage of votes in predominantly minority areas increase for the opposition candidate (i.e. Common Candidate), but also the percentage of votes in all the predominantly Sinhala electoral districts increased in his favour, including in those won by President Rajapaksa. In the polling division of Beliatta, President Rajapakse’s own home base, the Common Candidate saw an increase of +3.7% of votes when compared with the percentage obtained by the opposition candidate (General Fonseka) in 2010.

On the other hand, the percentage of votes polled in 2015 by President Rajapaksa saw a decline in all electoral districts including in the ones that he won when compared with the result of 2010. In some electoral districts that he won, there is a considerable decline in the percentage of votes when compared with 2010 (Anuradhapura-East -12.73, Ratnapura – 20.75, Kegalle -9.98, Kalutara -10.41, Matale – 8.33 ). At the 2015 election the percentage of votes received by President Rajapaksa in all polling divisions (except only Kaduwela) saw a considerable decline. In his own home base Beliatta, for example, the percentage of votes received by President Rajapakse in 2015 saw a decline of -3.28 % when compared with the 2010 result.

In the final analysis, President Rajapaksa’s electoral popularity in 2015 saw an overall decline in both majority and minority electoral districts when compared with the 2010 poll, whereas the percentage of votes for the opposition candidate saw an overall increase in all electoral districts, including in the ones that he lost (e.g. +8.38 in Matara and + 8.54 in Galle). Also, all urban polling divisions such as Matara, Galle and Kurunegala were won by the opposition candidate although the electoral districts to which they belong were won by President Rajapaksa. So, one could argue that the opposition candidate did very well in urban areas and gained ground in rural areas too. It could be said then that the victory of President Sirisena is so much more representative of diverse groups in the country. In comparison President Rajapaksa’s electoral appeal seems to be restricted to the rural/semi-rural Sinhala voter base, and that too with a declining share of votes.

Therefore, we, as voters, must study the patterns of voting and come to our own conclusion about whose election is more representative and legitimate than be blindly guided by the shrill claims of desperate politicians. We must also educate our fellow citizens as divisive politics and politics of fear (‘Tigers will come back again’, ‘bombs will go off’, ‘minorities are ruling the country’) are sure to raise their ugly heads again in the lead up to the general election.

It does appear, however, that the election campaign launched by the former President’s team in the run-up to the 2015 election to drive fear of war and terrorism into the public psyche was mostly unsuccessful. Five years after the ending of the war, constant rhetoric on the spectre of the rise of the LTTE and suicide bombs and foreign conspiracies against the motherland unless President Rajapaksa is elected was too hackneyed to generate sufficient votes for victory. That could not set off the unpopularity generated by the rising tide of authoritarianism and opulence of the rulers and the economic difficulties suffered by the average voter. In fact, one could say there is now “patriotism fatigue”. Voters are wiser, and have realised that the rhetoric on the motherland and patriotism are but screens to divert attention from bad governance. Voters also increasingly realise that authoritarianism and hostility toward minorities is what could bring about violence and future political instability than the converse.
Nonetheless, ethno-nationalism is a resilient creature that can be cleverly manipulated by politicians hungry for votes. We, the citizens, have to constantly better inform ourselves, see through the cheap nationalistic rhetoric and exercise constant vigilance to safeguard our fragile democracy.

(The writer is Head of the Department of Law, University of Peradeniya)

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