The results sheet of the 2014 Uva Provincial Council polls will indicate that the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won and that the opposition United National Party (UNP) came second but in reality, there were only losers in this election.
It was President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s and the ruling party’s intention to record a rollicking victory in Uva and then carry that momentum in to presidential and general elections called ahead of schedule. Instead, the UPFA was delivered a rude shock by the voters and only just managed to record victory.
What would surprise those in power is not that its share of the vote was reduced; that is only to be expected after over ten years in power. The magnitude of the decline is such that the popular concept that the UPFA would be immune from defeat – at least for the next few years-has now been shattered.
This slide is across the board and is seen even in the mostly Sinhalese Moneragala district. In the multi-ethnic Badulla district it is more pronounced. This only confirms what was already suspected: the UPFA’s vulnerability lies in its lack of support from the Muslim and Tamil communities.
One reason for conducting the Uva election was to determine the timing of the national elections. A convincing win for the UPFA was to be the stepping stone for early polls. Early elections are still on the cards but now a different reason now: any delay will only add to the UPFA’s decline.
If there was any doubt as to which elections – presidential or general – would be held first, Uva has clinched that issue. A general election first would be disastrous for the UPFA. President Rajapaksa would again have to use his charm to carry the party to victory at presidential polls.
The President is still the frontrunner in this election where, it was announced last week, his rival from the UNP would be Ranil Wickremesinghe. However, the results in Uva mean that that President is no longer invincible as was once thought. That is because of the nature of the contest.
All presidential elections until now have been decided on the first count where the winner has obtained more than 50 percent of the vote. The narrowest margin was in 2005 when President Rajapaksa obtained 50.29% of the vote against Wickremesinghe. A similar tussle may ensue in 2015.
The President is likely to lose a lion’s share of the vote in the North and East and even most of the Muslim and Tamil vote in the rest of the country. He will still probably win, but the results in Uva suggest that this is no longer certain and if the poll goes to a second count, it is uncharted territory.
For the UNP, it was an eventful week. Even though it lost the election, its turnaround has surprised its own rank and file. The mood in the party is upbeat. It now appears united; Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa appear to have closed ranks.
The swell in its vote in Uva has given the party hope because it exceeded expectations but it must realize that there is a vast gap between what it recorded in Uva and translating that into an electoral success on a national scale. And, the UNP has very little time to do so.
Uva has galvanized the party into action. That is why the UNP rushed through changes to the party hierarchy this week. Whether this is sufficient to generate the kind of momentum seen in the J.R. Jayewardene-Premadasa era is left to be seen. A tide of that magnitude is needed to win.
The UNP will also do well to note that, because presidential polls are held first, its outcome will impact on general elections that follow. This should be factored in when the party is projecting its general election prospects but the proportional representation system will give it some advantage.
Arguably though, the biggest loser at Uva was the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Under its new leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the party was expected to perform well but its energetic campaigning and the crowds at its rallies did not translate into votes at the final count.
With the UNP finally getting its act together, the JVP stands to lose even more votes at future polls and if it is to stem the tide, its new leadership will have to take a long and hard look at the leftist policies it still pursues, for that drives a considerable segment of the electorate away from the party.
All political parties will now begin their scramble towards finish line and it is very likely that both presidential and general elections will be held within the first few months of next year. It may bring election fatigue, but that is a necessary evil in a vibrant democracy.
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