Sri Lanka’s mostly closely contested presidential election will be held in four days. The campaign leading to the poll has had many twists and turns, right from the inception when incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena announced he would be running for office.
With less than a hundred hours before voting begins, political observers, opinion polls and astrologers have but one thing in common with the average voter: their choices are equally divided. As a result, the remaining days may yet be crucial in the final outcome.
In two previous polls, the final days were decisive. A bomb blast on the last day of the 1999 campaign swung a close contest in favor of Chandrika Kumaratunga. In 2005, an election day boycott decreed by Tiger terrorists helped Mahinda Rajapaksa win. In both, Ranil Wickremesinghe was the loser.
The last few days were eventful. Crossovers from one camp to another continue. By last week, the Sirisena campaign had gained the upper hand in this game with high profile personalities joining them while the ruling party was able to attract only provincial councilors and pradeshiya sabha members.
Arguably, among the more significant developments were the endorsement of Sirisena by the two political parties which define themselves on communal lines, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). Though expected, there were doubts this would materialize.
Given the poor relationship between President Rajapaksa and the TNA, a ringing endorsement for the President was never on the cards. In fact, neither the President nor Sirisena ardently wooed the TNA for fear of repercussions from the majority community. Now the TNA has decided to support Sirisena.
The TNA was categorical in stating that it had not struck a ‘deal’ with Sirisena. Their support for him is based on the expectation that ethnic issues would be a priority under a Sirisena Presidency. They are disappointed at the lack of headway in dealing with the President, especially after the war.
The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) will project this as a pact between Sirisena and the Eelamist lobby. It is hard though to stick the ‘Tiger’ label on Sirisena when he has the likes of Champika Ranawaka, Maduluwave Sobhitha Thera and Athuraliye Rathana Thera supporting him.
The decision of the SLMC was revealing. The party and its leader Rauff Hakeem have often been accused of indulging in opportunistic politics and switching sides for personal privileges. It was also reported that some party stalwarts wanted to remain with the UPFA.
However, what was unusual was that the SLMC faced enormous pressure from its supporters who urged it not to support the President. This was a direct consequence of what was perceived as state inaction when the Muslim community faced threats from the radical Bodu Bala Sena organization.
Minister Rishard Bathiudeen, a rival vying for leadership of the Muslims in Parliament had already left the UPFA, and Hakeem and the SLMC had no choice, but to exit from the Cabinet. If they remained, they risked losing their vote base to Bathiudeen and to other political parties.
To add to the woes of the UPFA, the antics of some of its members left it embarrassed. The escape of parliamentarian Nishantha Muthuhettigama to Singapore while there was an arrest warrant out on him only underscored one of the key messages of the Sirisena campaign: the decline of law and order.
It was also unfortunate that on the day when Bollywood stars made their appearance in Sri Lanka, local artistes were attacked at Kumbukgatey. This was an unexpected ‘bonus’ for the opposition which was claiming that the costs incurred in having the Indian stars in Sri Lanka ran in to millions.
Despite all these hiccups, President Rajapaksa has soldiered on. He remain his campaign’s main attraction and in an election where the personality of the contestants remains a vital factor, the UPFA believes he still commands enough respect in the rural hinterland, to pull through and win the poll.
Maithripala Sirisena, unlike Sarath Fonseka five years ago, has not committed any major blunders so far and his easy-going personality style has helped his campaign. However, questions still remain about how a group as disparate as his allies are, could form a cohesive and competent government.
Theoretically, if the Tamil and Muslim communities vote overwhelmingly for Sirisena, President Rajapaksa would have to score heavily in the South of the country to win. However, such predictions are of little value as other factors – such as last week’s heavy floods – could impact on the final outcome.
The clock is ticking for D-day, but only the naïve will predict a certain winner at this stage, because this is a contest where every hour and every vote will have an impact and where there will be more surprises as election day approaches. – See more at: http://www.nation.lk/edition/columns/this-is-my-nation/item/36892-many-twists-and-turns-in-run-up-to-polls.html#sthash.wH0DJjtE.dpuf