Sri Lanka is four days away from it seventh presidential election and it is clear that it would be the closest and tightest presidential contest in the country’s electoral history. Both candidates, namely President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena have expressed full confidence over the victory of the presidential election and the ‘election heat’ has already reached its zenith.
Just a week away from the election, two of Sri Lanka’s prominent state universities released survey results on the possible outcome of the presidential election. One survey was conducted by the University of Colombo and the other by the University of Kelaniya. According to the two survey reports, the winner of the race will obtain a percentage of 53%. However, according to the University of Colombo, the winner will be Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena while the University of Kelaniya states that President Mahinda Rajapaksa will emerge victorious.
Colombo University survey
According to the survey done by the University of Colombo, Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena will win the presidential election with a percentage of 53%. It was supervised by Dr Lalithasiri Gunaruwan, who is a former General Manager of the Department of Railways. The survey was conducted before the Tamil National Alliance pledged support to Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena.
The assessment, according to the University of Colombo, was made by taking into consideration the Sinhalese voter base while predicting that the Muslim and Tamil votes would be equally divided between the candidates. It revealed that under these conditions Maithripala Sirisena would be ahead by 200,000 votes.
The survey also revealed that 28% of those who cast their votes for President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010 would vote for the common candidate at this election while 11% of those who voted for the incumbent were undecided as to whom to vote. The survey report further added 38% of first-time voters would vote for President Mahinda Rajapaksa and 33% for Sirisena while 13 to 15% had not decided on their choice of candidate. This result is in stark contrast to the widely held belief that Sirisena holds an edge among the members of the so called ‘Facebook Generation’.
“The present survey thus adopted a different approach to examine the trends. The 2015 vote base was divided into ‘new votes’ and ‘non-new votes’; and the share of votes polled by individual candidates were considered with regard to ‘new votes’, while the ‘shifts’ away from MR (in 2010) to MS (in 2015) and vice-versa were estimated and applied on to the population with regard to ‘non-new votes’,” the researchers said in the full report of the survey which was made public on Friday (January 02).
“With regard to ‘non-new votes’, nearly 28% of those who voted for MR in 2010 would shift towards MS this time and 11% would still be undecided, while 4% of those who voted for Sarath Fonseka in 2010 would shift towards MR in 2015 while 11% would be undecided. It is interesting to note that nearly 30% of those who voted for MR in 2005 Presidential election would deflect towards MS in 2015, and around 9% of those voted for Ranil Wickremasinghe in 2005 would deflect towards MR in the coming election,” the researchers also said.
However, when asked about this survey, a spokesperson of the government said they were not in a position to accept this result as the ‘sample size’ of the survey was too small.
“When the sample size is too small, the predictions tend to go in the wrong direction. Therefore, you cannot say this survey represents the public opinion. It should also be examined whether the samples represented the country’s population in a scientific manner. Voting patterns differ from one community to another,” he added.
Kelaniya University survey supports MR
Meanwhile, a survey conducted by the University of Kelaniya stated that President Mahinda Rajapaksa would win the forthcoming presidential election with a percentage of 53 %. The survey was led by Dr Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa, Head of the Dept. of Mass Communication Unit of the Kelaniya University. It was the same survey which predicted the victory of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010, with a percentage of 62%.
According to the survey, Common Opposition Candidate Maithripala Sirisena will obtain 44% of votes while 3% of voters may abstain from voting, it stated. It further said that 5% had not responded at all.
“This survey,” Dr Piyadasa said, “has been conducted in two stages. One has been done before giving nominations under ‘Most Popular Political Character’. Under the second phase, which was done after commencement of election campaigns, 5,000 voters were selected randomly covering 25 districts. The survey was conducted in Sinhala and Tamil mediums basing the new electoral register according to ethnicity, gender, population composition, profession and age.”
Meanwhile, another internal survey done by a group affiliated with the United National Party said the Common Candidate would win the forthcoming presidential election by 52 per cent obtaining 5,978,545 votes while President Mahinda Rajapaksa will get only 47 per cent with 5,400,0687 votes. According to the survey, President Rajapaksa is expected to win Gampaha, Matale, Galle, Matara, Hambantota and Kurunegala districts. It also said that the results of Colombo, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Puttalam, Badulla and districts of the North and East are likely to go in favour of the Common Candidate of the opposition.
Another survey has been conducted by a group affiliated with the Ministry of Information and they had predicted that only Badulla District was in favour of the Common Candidate of the opposition. The government affiliated survey also said that in some districts the margin between the incumbent President and the Common Candidate of the opposition would surpass 100,000.
However, it should be taken into consideration that of the three major minority parties in the country, only Ceylon Workers’ Congress supports the President. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the Tamil National Alliance have already pledged support to the Common Candidate without any conditions. It is naïve to believe that this is not a serious concern for the election campaign. The minority vote-base in Sri Lanka is approximately 26 per cent.
It is claimed that Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena holds an edge among the minority voters in the country. A spokesperson of the opposition said they were expecting nearly 75 per cent of the minority votes. Be that as it may, one should realize that President Mahinda Rajapaksa has a lot to catch up where the minority votes in the country are concerned. President Rajapaksa’s strongest battle front is the rural areas in the country where there is a Sinhala-Buddhist majority.
However, if the Common Candidate of the opposition can obtain over 70% of minority votes, he only requires over 40 per cent from rural Sinhala-Buddhist voters. Even the spokespersons of the government have admitted that the Common Candidate has some ‘influence’ in urban areas. It is in this context that rural Sinhala-Buddhist votes are of pivotal importance to President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
When considering the results of the Provincial Council elections, the UNP alone has obtained 26 per cent. At the PC elections, the Jathika Hela Urumaya, P. Digambaram’s party, the SLMC and the ACMC (Rishad Bathiudeen’s party) were coalition partners of the government. The percentage obtained by all the political parties of the opposition (including the UNP, the JVP, the Democratic Party, the TNA) stands at 44 at the last Provincial Council elections including the Northern PC election. The overall percentage of the government stands at 56.
When Maithripala Sirisena, Common Candidate of the opposition announced his candidature in the third week of November, the ‘equation’ stood at 56: 44 in favour of President Rajapaksa. In 2010, when President Rajapaksa was at the peak of his popularity just several months after the war victory, he obtained 57.88 at the presidential election where former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka was his main opponent.
Today, the stakeholders of the opposition, including the Common Candidate, former President Kumaratunga, the UNP, the TNA, the SLMC, the ACMC, the JVP (covertly) and 27 defected parliamentarians of the ruling party are on a mission to obtain the remaining six per cent and surpass the ‘50 per cent’ mark – the winning margin at the presidential election.
Meanwhile, ‘The Hindu’ newspaper, on Friday (02), examined the way the urban-rural dichotomy of Sri Lanka would affect the final result of the upcoming presidential election. On this matter, ‘The Hindu’ got viewpoints from two prominent experts attached to prominent state universities. One of them was Kumudu Kusum Kumara, senior lecturer at Colombo University’s Sociology Department.
“The rural youth are increasingly landing jobs in the city. The urban-rural divide does not necessarily stop them from understanding the nature of disparity. Many of them work in the cities and go back to their villages during the weekends. They are very much aware of the realities,” the university lecturer said alluding that the voting patterns of urban and rural community will not differ from each other drastically. According to Kusum Kumara, “This is a crucial, decisive, do-or die election,” he told the Indian newspaper.
However, Jayadeva Uyangoda, professor of political science at the University of Colombo, who was also quoted by ‘The Hindu’ newspaper on Friday, was of the view that the momentum of the election was very much confined to urban areas. It is still not clear whether the opposition campaign has made any significant inroads into Mr. Rajapaksa’s core constituency of the rural Sinhalese voters, observed Jayadeva Uyangoda, in a recent article.
What is also making an impact at the ground-level is the crossovers of PS members. Pradeshiya Sabha members are the ones who directly deal with the grassroots level votes and their movements certainly affect the rural votes that are not very sensitive to contentions and complicated matters such as the abolition of Executive Presidency and constitutional amendments. In the past few days, a large number of PS members representing the government crossed over to the common opposition giving a fillip to political campaign of the latter.
Another factor that would affect the result at the ground level is the natural disaster which occurred in many parts of the country early this week. According to the statistics of the Disaster Management Centre, 1,106,380 people in 21 districts were affected due to inclement weather conditions and floods. Uva, North Central and Central provinces were severely affected due to floods, landslides and heavy rains. “The official death toll stands at 30 with 06 people missing,” a spokesperson of the Disaster Management Ministry said early this week.
The advantages of natural disaster
Various requests were made to the Department of Elections to postpone the presidential polls. However, according to sources of the Elections Department, various obstacles stood in the way of postponing elections – including the Papal visit which is scheduled to commence on January 13, five days after the presidential election.
As an immediate damage-control measure, the Elections Department has already accelerated the issuance of National ID cards for the people who have lost their IDs due to the unexpected natural disaster. National ID is the main way of ascertaining one’s identity at the election.
On the other hand, areas such as Badulla and Polonnaruwa, two of the worst-hit areas, are areas where Maithripala Sirisena, Common Candidate of the opposition, expects a favourable outcome. Therefore, some sections believe that displaced people in the two districts would refrain from voting at the presidential election, that will be advantageous to President Rajapaksa. However, apart from Polonnaruwa and Badulla, there are 19 other districts across the country, where people have been affected due to inclement weather and some of these districts are strongholds of President Rajapaksa. Therefore, when taking the bigger picture into consideration, one can arrive at the conclusion that no candidate will be able to ‘cash in’ on the natural disaster where the presidential election is concerned.