The Sunday TimesNews/Comment

13th April 1997



Local polls: is PA's show impressive?

By D.N.R. Samaranayake, Economist

The recently concluded local government elections have been analyzed and interpreted by several analysts and all seem to believe that the results indicate an endorsement of the performance of People's Alliance (PA) administration over the last two and half years. This certainly is true if the local government election results are considered in isolation, that is, without making comparisons between these results and the results of the past elections or without using these results to make generalizations about the outcomes of future elections. If that is the case, the PA has done extremely well, capturing 194 local bodies out of 238. This figure includes 7 Municipal Councils, 20 Urban Councils, and 167 Pradeshiya Sabhas. The United National Party (UNP) was able to capture only 43 Councils which included 5 Municipal Councils, 11 Urban Councils and 27 local bodies. These figures clearly demonstrate the PA's overwhelming success at the local government elections.

However, since election results reflect the voting behaviours of the population, they provide useful information to measure changes of the voting behaviours over a given period and, further, to use such information to make broad conclusions about the future directions of voting trends. The purpose of this analysis is to briefly examine the latest election results in relation to past election results and to identify trends in very broad terms including their implications on future elections. As will be demonstrated below, the picture that emerges from this analysis is not very favourable for the PA.

PA's National Average

Before we take up this task, there is another issue that needs to be clarified, that is about the PA's national average.

According to final figures, the PA received 3,418,205 votes which includes the 90,272 votes received by the independent group in Colombo Municipality. This figure accounted for 48.97 percent of the total votes polled. The UNP's share was 2,879,759 and it accounted for 41.25 percent of the total votes polled.

A senior minister has claimed that the PA's share of votes was over 51 percent. In arriving at this figure he has included the votes of the two independent groups which contested Colombo Municipality and Angunakolapelessa Pradeshiya Sabhas.

This claim cannot be justified, however. The votes received by the independent group in Colombo Municipality has been already included in the final figure for the PA. If it is included again it is simply double counting. The inclusion of the votes of the Angunakolapelessa results in PA's share increasing to 50.4 percent.

The correct procedure is to exclude both from the PA's final figure. The reason is that they did not contest under PA. Unless we are certain that each and every person voted for these two groups would have voted for the PA if they contested under PA, then we can regard the votes received by these two groups as votes received by the PA. However, nobody can say with certainty that this would be the case. It is, therefore, erroneous to include the votes of the two independent groups as part of PA. If we exclude both independent groups, the PA's share is 47.6 percent. In any case, the national average is important in a presidential election or a national referendum. It has no significance to other elections.

Appropriate Comparison

The last local government elections were held in 1991. We cannot, however, make a comparison between the 1997 election and the 1991 elections because the political climate was quite different in 1991. Therefore, the factors that influenced the 1991 elections would have been quite different to the factors that would have influenced the 1991 elections. Further, only three parties - UNP, SLFP and SLMP, contested the 1991 election. There was no PA in 1991.

More importantly, under the leadership of Premadasa, the UNP remained very strong while the SLFP was fragmented and weak. There were also widespread claims of irregularities of the manner in which the 1991 elections was conducted.

Although the results of the general election and the Presidential election held in 1994 are not directly comparable with the 1997 results, they still provide the most relevant information under the following two assumptions. First, although the just completed election was for the selection of members for local bodies, it reflected a mini general election. Prominent personalities of both parties actively carried out an intensive campaign in almost all districts. The only difference between these two elections was that the candidates of the two parties at the 1997 local elections were not national figures. Most of them were unknown even to the local community before the election. The 1997 election can, therefore, be seen as a contest between the two main parties. Second, the 1994 presidential election was dominated by Mrs. Chandrika Kumaratunga because, first, she had already formed the government, and, second, she was seen by many as a much stronger candidate than the candidate fielded by the UNP. As a result, she drew a lot of support particularly from the non-committed voters. It is important, therefore, to examine whether she still receives the same support from non-committed voters. Although she was not a candidate in 1997 local elections, her participation in election activities clearly demonstrated her determination to achieve good results for the PA.

Table I provides a breakdown of the difference of the votes received by these two parties in 1997 election in relation to the 1994 general and presidential elections.

The figures in the first column indicate that of the total of 17 districts PA received less votes in 10 districts in 1997 compared with the 1994 general election. The total reduction amounted to 268,496. It gained in 7 districts which amounted to 51,266. The net loss is 217,230. The largest decline was reported in Colombo, followed by Gampaha, Matara, Galle and Kalutara. Significant increases for the PA were reported in Kandy and Puttalam.

The UNP fared poorly at the local elections receiving less votes in all districts with the exception of the minor gain in the Moneragala district. The largest reduction was recorded in Gampaha district followed by Kurunegala, Ratnapura and Kandy. The total reduction of the UNP amounted to 417,000.

1/ Negative figures indicate that the votes received by the PA or the UNP in a particular district is less in 1997 local government elections than that received in 1994. Positive figures indicate an increase.

These two parties together registered a reduction of more than 600,000 at the 1997 local government elections compared with the 1994 general election. This combined reduction was largely due to lower voter turnout at the 1997 elections. If the 1994 percentages were maintained at all the districts, an addition of more than 400,000 would have been polled at the 1997 election. We cannot, however, say who will receive those votes. Another source of this reduction was the gains recorded by minor parties. In comparison with the 1994 general election, these parties gained about 150,000 votes.

PA performed extremely well at the 1994 presidential election. The comparison of the 1997 results with the 1994 presidential election results is perhaps the most important in order to assess how the non- committed voters feel about the performance of the PA since it assumed office in 1994.

This comparison is shown in column 3. What is fairly obvious is that there has been a significant downward trend in the case of the PA in all districts. The largest reduction was reported in Colombo, followed by Gampaha, Nuwara Eliya, Kalutara and Kurunegala. The UNP on the other hand, has gained in all districts with the exception of the Ratnapura district.

Table 2 has been prepared to show the magnitude of the reduction of the votes polled by the PA and it's implication for the PA on future elections. Figures in column 1 show the difference of the votes polled between the 1994 presidential and the 1997 local government elections by the PA in percentage terms. Figures in column 2 show the same difference for the UNP. The third column shows the swing required to change from the party currently holding the majority to the opposition in percentage terms as well as in terms of the number of votes (shown within brackets). If 2.4 percent of those who voted for the PA in Colombo, for example, voted for the UNP instead, the UNP would have had the majority in Colombo district. At the 1997 local government elections, the UNP held the majority in Nuwara Eliya and Badulla. The PA holds the majority in other 15 districts. The last column shows the additional votes that would have been polled if the 1994 voter turnout at the presidential election had been maintained at the recent local government election.

1/ The percentages shown in this column represent the swing needed (in percentage terms) to change from the party currently holding the majority to the opposition. At the 1997 local government elections, UNP received the majority in Nuwara Eliya and Badulla. In all other districts, PA had the majority. Within brackets show the number of votes required to achieve this percentage.

2/ Figures in this column show the additional votes that would have polled if the 1994 presidential election percentages were maintained.

A careful analysis of these figures show that the PA is in danger of losing a number of districts in a forthcoming election. These include Colombo, Kalutara, Kandy, Hambantota, Kurunegala, Moneragala and Kegalle. In all these districts, the swing required to change from PA to the UNP is less than that occurred at the 1997 local government elections. A shift to the UNP in these districts remains a strong possibility particularly in the context of a high voter turnout similar to the 1994 presidential election.

If the PA was able to reduce the swing against it by 4.5 percent in Nuwara Eliya and by 3.8 percent in Badulla, it would have had the majority in the two districts. In other words, the swing against the PA government was greater in these two districts. It is therefore, important for the PA to take the local government election results very seriously as they do not suggest a trend in favour of the PA government.

Broad Conclusions

This comparison of the election results lead to a few broad conclusions.

First, both the UNP and PA account for a committed support of about 25 to 30 percent each of the voting population. Another about 15 percent is accounted for by all other parties.

Second, it is not the committed supporters who will determine the outcome of an election. It is the non-committed voters who will be instrumental in either changing in or keeping a party in power.

Third, people have a short memory. As a result voting decisions of the non-committed are based on the performance of the party in power. The UNP's victory in 1977 and the PA's victory in 1994 clearly explain that the government in power is totally responsible in bringing the opposition into power in an election. In other words, the performance of the party in power is the important factor particularly for the uncommitted. If people voted on the basis of what happened in the past, the PA would not have won in 1994 and the UNP will never win an election in the future. As the people have already defeated the UNP in both the general and the presidential elections, there is simply no point of reminding them about what went on during the UNP regime. What people are interested is in the performance of the party in power.

Fourth, as the society becomes more mature and the people begin to better understand their role in the society, they pay much greater attention to policies of the parties rather than to politicians. This clearly demonstrated in the downward trend of the votes polled by PA in all districts in the 1997 local government elections.

Fifth, neither the PA nor the UNP used this election to educate the people about the benefit or cost of the package to the society and in particular, to the majority Sinhalese. It is, therefore, very unlikely that the results reflect their decisions, that is, for or against, about the devolution package.

Finally, the results clearly demonstrate that a third force is yet to emerge. This is explained by the fact that the uncommitted voters switch their preference between the two main parties at elections due to the lack of a third force of their choice. Although the JVP has won a number of seats in local bodies, it received less votes at the last election than it received when Mr. Rohana Wijeweera contested for presidency. Furthermore, if the voter turnout is high, JVP would not have received the same number of seats that it received in local polls.

Social cost of election under PR

The PR system has been in operation for more than 15 years. It is now timely to review the system and to make necessary changes to eliminate certain shortcomings of the system.

One such shortcoming is the high social cost of elections under PR system. As the PR system is based on administrative regions, candidates who are contesting these elections will have to carry out their campaign throughout administrative regions. This has a considerable cost to the society as the society ultimately pays the entire cost of the election campaigns carried out by all parties through high taxes, increased charges and levies by local bodies and higher prices. The cleaning up operation now underway in Colombo and suburbs is a good example how the society finances the cost of such operations from the resources made available to them by the people in these areas. In addition, the current PR system is very inconvenient to the people as well since candidates from all parties are approaching them for their votes. It is, therefore, time to review the PR system to order to keep what is good and to eliminate what is not relevant to our society.

Rejected votes

Another issue that has highlighted in the latest election is the problem of rejected votes. The latest figures suggest that it has increased by more than two-fold between the 1994 general election and the 1997 local government election and by several folds between the 1994 presidential election and the 1997 local government election.

The increase between the presidential election and the local government election suggests that the PR system is too complicated for some people to understand and to make their choice correctly at the polls. At the presidential election there were only a few candidates and as a result, the voting was quite straightforward. However, when there are a large number of candidates representing all political parties in a single district and when they have to select the candidates according to their preference, the PR system is much more complicated to some of the voters.

When the comparison of rejected votes is carried out between the 1994 general election and the 1997 local government election, another aspect can be observed. Since the complexity of the PR system of these two elections can be regarded as similar, the increase in 1997 local government elections suggest that people are purposely destroying their votes, possibly due to the lack of a party of their choice.

To some extent, therefore, the large number of rejected votes indicates the lack of confidence of the people about the political parties. During the local government elections, a comment that was often heard was that "all the parties are the same and why bother to vote?" If the increasing trend of rejected votes indicates the voter dissatisfaction, it is the responsibility of the political parties to address that issue by correcting the problems that lead to voter dissatisfaction.

The issue of rejected votes is an interesting research study for a student in political science.


Comparison of 1997 Local Government Election Results with 1994 General and Presidential Election 1/

		District		General		Presidential  			Election		Election


Colombo	74390	32767	162996	63592
Gampaha	35307	66808	76931	20215
Kalutara	30618	23576	54550	19073
Kandy	17020	 48251	35407	18054
Matale	6091	 22395	12678	  4438
Nuwara Eliya	9381	 43923	61890	14627
Galle	30722	15428	 38158	14558
Matara	35572	   8979	36152	14821
Hambantota	27712	   3427	28577	14220
Kurunegala	17556	 55872	54038	  9935
Puttalam	10010	 22869	  5180	  9591
Anuradhapura	3027	 24377	  1655	10359
Polonnaruwa	3563	 16126	10032	    753
Badulla	10285	 21386	46549	21134
Moneragala	2808	     215 	17858	14455
Ratnapura	2989	 48744	20649	  5918
Kegalle                	2231	 32305	29693	  6544


Percentage difference of the votes received by PA and UNP between the 1994 Presidential Election and 1997 Local Government Election

District	PA	UNP	Swing	Additional
																																									Required1/Votes 2/

Colombo	20.2	6.24	2.4 (21235)	73389
Gampaha	9.4	2.15	9.6 (82456)	36279
Kalutara	11.6	3.8	4.5 (21706)	32890
Kandy	 5.4	4.0	2.8 (15533)	29199
Matale	5.6	2.7	7.9 (15506)	10860
Nuwara Eliya	17.8	8.6	4.5 (12235)	17632
Galle	9.2	2.4	6.3 (29706)	16614
Matara	10.7	4.0	8.2 (29116)	15200
Hambantota	16.8	3.0	2.9 (6772)	11201
Kurunegala	 7.3	2.1	5.4 (36337)	53346
Puttalam	4.6	1.9	10.1 (27906)	3489
Anuradhapura	 5.8	3.0	10.4 (29115)	19924
Polonnaruwa	 5.9	1.4	6.2 (9184)	14382
Badulla	12.6	8.2	3.8 (12237)	21751
Moneragala 	13.0	8.3	4.0 (6195)	4908
Ratnapura	2.7	0.0	7.6 (32440)	16326
Kegalle	5.9	3.6	2.2 (15568)	23813

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