As the presidential election campaign draws to a close, both sides have been claiming imminent victory. The common opposition candidate has been saying that there is a massive surge of public opinion against the government which in his view is greater than the political upheavals of 1970 and 1977. However, in actual fact, the only heat at this election is in the media with reports of crossovers from one side to another taking place on a daily basis. No political party can rely on crossovers to boost their votes. Up to the point of writing this column, none of the Sinhala politicians who crossed over from the government to the opposition had any certainty of getting elected to parliament the next time if they contested on the UPFA ticket except for Maithripala Sirisena and perhaps Hirunika Premachandra.
In the larger scheme of things, none of the other Sinhala crossovers matter as the voting public in their respective districts know what their chances would have been of getting into the next parliament, provincial council or local government institution as the case may be. Even in Sirisena’s and Hirunika’s case, it is highly doubtful as to whether they will be able to take any votes out of the SLFP with them. Every other Sinhala crossover can be written off with derision. The minority party leaders however are a different story because voters do tend to shift along with them. The opposition for its part has laid much store by the fact that the Tamil National Alliance, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and Rishard Baithiudeen’s All Ceylon Makkal Congress have joined the opposition. What can plainly be seen is that the opposition is not hopeful of being able to carry the majority of the Sinhalese vote with them. Their hopes are centered on winning by getting a significant proportion of the Sinhala vote and the vast majority of the minority vote.
In this regard, we have to bear in mind that no minority political party can offer more votes than it gets. Much store has been placed by the opposition on the Tamil voters of the Northern Province. But how many votes can the Tamil National Alliance actually command? In judging what the strength of the TNA is, one has to take an election where the voter turnout was high – as close to a normal Sri Lankan turnout as possible. In that respect, the elections held while the LTTE was still around are not really indicative of what the TNA can command in the north. Even at the 2001 parliamentary election the voter turnout in the Jaffna district was just 31% and 46% in the Vanni district. Obviously, that is not good enough a turnout to judge the actual strength of a political party. The 2004 parliamentary election was much better in that respect with the voter turnout being 47% in the Jaffna district and 66% in the Vanni district.
The voter turnout in the eastern province at the 2004 parliamentary election was even better than in the southern districts with 83.5% in the Batticaloa district, 81% in the Ampara district and a whopping 85.5% in the Trincomalee district. So the 2004 parliamentary election is just about the best benchmark we have to judge the strength of the TNA. The 2004 parliamentary election marks a highpoint in the TNA’s fortunes. They got 257,320 votes in the Jaffna district, 90,835 votes in the Vanni district and a cumulative total of 285,499 votes in the Eastern province. That gave the TNA a total of 633,654 votes in the north and east of Sri Lanka. That was the highest point the TNA ever reached. They would never again get that many votes at any election.
The next major election that came along was the 2010 presidential election where the TNA threw its weight behind the common opposition candidate General Sarath Fonseka. Since this was a national election which was not being contested by any Tamil candidate, the voter turnout went down to 25% in the Jaffna district and 40% in the Vanni district. What this shows is that even if the TNA tells people to vote for a presidential candidate, enthusiasm among the Tamil voting public will not be high if the candidate is not a Tamil. General Fonseka got a total of 184,244 votes from the Northern Province which represented over 65% of the votes cast.
The voter turnout was far better in the Eastern Province and Fonseka got a total 386,823 votes in the East which worked out to an average of 57.6% of the votes cast. But Fonseka’s vote in the east was a mix of Tamil, Muslim and a proportion of Sinhala votes and therefore cannot be used to judge the strength of the TNA. But if one takes the Tamil majority district of Batticaloa, it can clearly be seen that even with the Tamil and Muslim vote combined, Fonseka got significantly less (146,057) at the 2010 presidential election than the TNA got on its own (161,011) at the parliamentary election of 2004. What this shows is that the Tamil voters even in the east will not go to the polling booth at a presidential election in the same numbers as they would at a parliamentary or provincial election which is being contested by Tamils.
TNA’s sacrifice for Fonseka
A point to note is what happened to the TNA at the parliamentary election which followed the presidential election of 2010. Given the ethnic nature of northern politics, it was quite in order for the voter turnout to go down at a presidential election as the TNA had not fielded a candidate. But at a parliamentary election which was being contested by the entire high command of the TNA, the voter turnout should have gone up and given the fact that the 2010 parliamentary election was being held in a situation of complete peace whereas the 2004 parliamentary election was held with the LTTE still around, the TNA’s votes should have gone up significantly. But what happened was exactly the opposite. The TNA’s votes in the Jaffna district went down from 257,320 at the parliamentary election of 2004 to just 65,119 at the parliamentary election of 2010. Many readers would think this is a misprint. It is not. The TNA’s Jaffna district votes at the 2010 parliamentary election fell to a quarter of what it was in 2004!
In fact, at the parliamentary election of 2010, the TNA’s votes fell precipitously in all districts in the north and east. In the Vanni district, the TNA got 90,835 votes in 2004 and only 41,673 votes in 2010. In the East, the decline between the two parliamentary elections was from 161,011 to 66,235 in the Batticaloa district, from 68,955 to 33,268 in the Trincomalee district, and from 55,533 to 26,895 in the Ampara district. What was the reason for such a precipitous, across the board decline in the TNA vote between the two parliamentary elections? We have pointed out in this column that the UNP lost its power base in the Badulla district by fielding Sarath Fonseka as the common candidate at the presidential elections in 2010. From the time the proportional representation system came into being in 1989, the UNP had always had five parliamentarians elected from the Badulla district in contrast to the SLFP’s three. This changed in 2010 after the UNP abdicated and made SF the common candidate. The UNP has not recovered its old base in the Badulla district to this date.
While the UNP may have lost its best district due to abdicating in favour of an outsider, it is difficult to believe that the TNA’s decline between the parliamentary elections of 2004 and 2010 is due to their support for Sarath Fonseka. Every Tamil voter knows that the TNA was not fielding a candidate at that presidential election and the only thing the TNA could do was to support a candidate who would further their cause. In that respect, supporting Fonseka to oust Mahinda Rajapaksa made good sense and the Tamil voters in the north and east would have understood the strategy. Then why the unprecedented decline? That could be due to the Tamil voters of the north and east being disappointed in the TNA’s false promises that turn out to be damp squibs in the end. After the electoral debacle of April 2010, the TNA managed to recover only at the Eastern and Northern provincial council elections held in 2012 and 2013 respectively.
Both these elections were held in a backdrop where Jayalalitha Jayaram had come into power in Tamil Nadu and was whipping up Tamil nationalism. She was pressurizing the Indian central government to take action against Sri Lanka in the UN. The USA had started getting resolutions passed in the UN Human Rights Council against Sri Lanka, and Channel 4 was producing one documentary after another making allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka. This support coming from overseas revived the TNA and they were able to recover some of the lost ground at the Eastern and Northern PC elections. However, even with the Jayalalitha, UNHRC and Channel 4 factors working in their favour, the TNA was still not able to recover to their 2004 level. At the Eastern PC election held in 2012, there was a voter turnout of 65.6% and the TNA got 104,682 votes in the Batticaloa district, 44, 396 in the Trincomalee district, and 44,749 in the Ampara district (Total= 193,827).
Readers will note that though this result was much better than what the TNA got at the parliamentary election of 2010, it is still far below the highpoint of 285,499 votes reached in the East at the 2004 parliamentary election. Much the same phenomenon was to be seen at the Northern PC election held in 2013. Once again the election was held in an emotionally charged atmosphere with Jayalalitha virtually dictating Indian policy on Sri Lanka, the Americans passing resolutions against Sri Lanka and Channel 4 putting out their documentary on the alleged execution of Prabhakaran’s younger son. Yet the TNA got only 213,907 votes in the Jaffna district which was significantly below the 257,320 they got in 2004. In the Vanni however, the TNA managed to make significant improvements in their showing and they got 139,688 votes as against the 90,835 they got in 2004.
Because of the improved showing in the Vanni district, the TNA was able to record its highest ever performance by getting 353,595 votes in the Northern province at the Northern PC election whereas they had got a little less than that (348,155) at the parliamentary election of 2004. So the PC election of 2013 represents the highest point that the TNA ever reached. Since the TNA is now supporting a common candidate again, what proportion of these votes will go to Maithripala Sirisena? One thing that is obvious is that the TNA cannot deliver to Sirisena more than what it gets. Going by the proportion of votes that Sarath Fonseka got in the north in 2010, perhaps the common candidate could expect to get about half of the TNA’s vote. That raises the question as to what the TNA’s vote base is like today. There is good reason to believe that today the TNA will not be able to muster the same number of votes that they got at the Eastern and Northern PC elections in 2012 and 2013.
Tamil nationalism is now at a low point with Jayalaitha out of the picture, the Indian central government being independent of Tamil Nadu, the UNHRC resolutions against Sri Lanka having produced nothing tangible and the Channel 4 documentary project having fizzled out. Moreover, it is unlikely that the northern and eastern Tamil voter would be enthusiastic about a common candidate seeing what happened to Sarath Fonseka earlier. Besides, the voters of the North are also probably fed up of being given false hopes by the TNA. A significant point to note is that there are a much larger proportion of apathetic voters in the north than in any other part of the country. Even at the emotionally charged Northern PC election which was held as we said earlier with Jayalalitha’s rising power, the UNHRC resolutions and the Channel 4 documentaries in the background, only 67% of the Northern Province voter went to the polling booth. Compare that with the 76% that voted at the Uva PC election. What this shows is that even when things reach fever pitch in the north, there is still a full one third of the voting public who couldn’t care less which way things go. Getting such an electorate to vote for a common candidate like Sirisena will not be an easy task.
The Muslim vote
The Muslim voters however will not need much convincing to get them to vote against this government. Thanks to the inability of the government to rein in at an early stage the activities of the Bodu Bala Sena and other such organizations of mad monks, many Muslim probably feel that their survival is at stake if this government gets another term in office. To make matters worse, all the mad monks have declared in favour of Mahinda Rajapaksa at this election so that will be an added factor alienating the Muslim vote. Muslims who would otherwise have been dormant may now be motivated to vote against the government as what happened at the Uva PC election. Only about one third of the Muslim population lives in the Eastern province the other two thirds being scattered in small pockets throughout the island. So many of these votes will go to swell the vote bank of the opposition candidate.
In normal circumstances, such a phenomenon would have had a significant impact on a political party, but the UPFA has learnt to do without the Muslim vote thanks to the opportunistic behaviour of the Muslim politicians. At the 2004 parliamentary election, the SL Muslim Congress supported the UNP and when the UPFA won, they went on their bended knees to Chandrika Kumaratunga. At the presidential election of 2005 once again the SLMC supported Ranil Wickremesinghe and when the latter lost they ended up with Mahinda Rajapksa. When the UNP tried to topple the Rajapaksa government at the budget vote in 2007, the SLMC once again double crossed the UPFA and crossed the floor. When that attempt at a parliamentary coup failed, the SLMC joined Rajapaksa again. When the presidential election of 2010 came around, the SLMC supported Sarath Fonseka and when he was defeated, they joined the UPFA government yet again.
Now at the 2015 presidential elections, we once again see the SLMC and its offshoot the ACMC supporting the common opposition candidate. Nobody in the UPFA ever counts the votes of the SLMC and its offshoots in assessing the possibility of winning. The Muslim vote is always among the first to be discounted in such assessments. Thus the UPFA has been ‘inoculated’ against the effects of losing the Muslim vote due to the actions of the Muslim politicians themselves. While the UPFA is quite used to doing without the better part of the Muslim vote, that does not mean that every single Muslim vote will go against the UPFA. Some Muslim leaders have opted to remain with the UPFA and there will be a certain proportion of Muslim votes that do come to the UPFA. Both the SLMC and the ACMC has experienced splits of varying degrees after joining the common opposition with some of their members opting to remain with the government.
Among some Muslims there is also the acute awareness that the Muslim community is painting itself into a corner with the kind of opportunistic behaviour displayed by both the SLMC and the ACMC. The SLMC in particular has done the dirty to the UNP as well and they are not trusted by the UNP either. The prevailing philosophy among the Muslim political parties appears to be that they don’t want to be trusted, they only want to be wanted. Be that as it may, even when the Muslim vote shifts to the other side en masse that is not a game changing matter for the UPFA. What are the numbers that we are speaking of? As in the case of the Tamil parties, the Muslim parties cannot deliver to common candidate Sirisena anything more than what they themselves get.
At the parliamentary election of 2004, the SLMC contesting on its own got a total of 184,881 votes in the Eastern province as a whole. Rishard Baithiudeen contesting on behalf of the SLMC on the UNP ticket in the Vanni got a further 15,981 votes and was elected to parliament. In the Jaffna district, the SLMC got less than 2000 votes. If we assume that all the votes that Baithiudeen got in the Vanni are Muslim votes that indicates that the Muslim vote was roughly about 200,000 in the entire North and East in 2004. At the 2010 parliamentary elections, the SLMC, which had supported Fonseka and was still out on its rear end, contested on the UNP ticket and the highest scoring Muslim candidates in the Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara districts got a cumulative total of just over 80,000 preference votes. Which we assume was the SLMC’s support base in the East at that moment.
By that time Rishard Baithiudeen had left the SLMC and formed the ACMC and he contested in the Vanni district on the UPFA ticket and he got 27,461 votes which we will assume were all Muslim votes. When looking at the decline in votes suffered by both the TNA and the SLMC in the wake of the Fonseka debacle in January 2010, it appears that electoral debacles affect not only the two main parties but the minority parties as well. Like the TNA, the SLMC also managed to recover some of its lost ground at the Eastern provincial council election held in 2012 where they got a total of 132,917 votes in the east. In addition to that there were three ACMC candidates who contested on the UPFA ticket in the east, the highest scorer of whom got 21,277 preference votes. So on the total strength of the SLMC and the ACMC in the east stood roughly at 154, 194 at the last count.
Unlike the Tamils, the Muslims would have more motivation to vote against this government and one may assume that most if not all of this will go to the common candidate and in addition to the Muslim votes from the east, one may assume that at least as many votes would go to the common opposition candidate from the Muslims living in other parts of the island. But most such votes would have been cast against the UPFA anyway and the special disenchantment of the Muslim community with organizations like the BBS would add only a marginal number of votes to the anti-Mahinda vote. Had the Muslims been genuine supporters of the UPFA and an integral part of the alliance and they had defected due to the activities of Buddhist extremist organizations, then it would have been a different story altogether. As of now, the defection of the SLMC and the ACMC from the UPFA only means that the government will not be getting votes that they would not have got anyway!
To make a long story short, the opposition may be barking up the wrong tree by expecting Tamil and Muslim votes to see them through to victory. If the UPFA becomes dependent on northern, eastern or even up-country Tamil votes, that will change the entire character of the government. This is of course not to say that the government will not woo the minority vote. They certainly will, but whatever they get from the minorities will go to swell the majority of the UPFA – not to determine victory or defeat. At the 2010 presidential election, General Fonseka won all the districts in the northern and eastern provinces, all the Colombo city electorates plus the Dehiwala electorate, the Mahanuwara electorate and the Nuwara Eliya district. There is no reason to believe that Sirisena will get anything more than what Fonseka got.
As we said earlier, the bottom line is that the Sinhala politicians who have crossed over mean nothing or nearly nothing in terms of causing a shift of votes between political parties. As for the TNA, SLMC and ACMC, just seeing this line up of minority political parties with dubious agendas all supporting the common opposition candidate would be enough to send the vast majority of the Sinhala voters in the opposite direction.