The crowd at the pro-Mahinda rally held in Matara last Friday was even larger than the crowd in Nugegoda. The number of parliamentarians on the stage was variously mentioned as 76, 77 and 78. As far as the pro-Mahinda camp is concerned, there is nothing more to be said, no more points to be made.
Matara has six UPFA parliamentarians and of them, Lakshman Yapa Abeywardene, Hemal Gunasekera, Sanath Jayasuriya and Vijaya Dahanayaka hold portfolios in the government and did not attend the meeting. Indeed the last two were given portfolios days before this rally, with a view to bolstering support for Sirisena. There were only two parliamentarians from Matara on the stage – Mahinda Yapa Abeywardene and Chandrasiri Gajadeera. Dullas Alahapperuma who played a major role in organising the meeting is a national list MP.
Despite four UPFA parliamentarians in the district keeping away, the rally was a phenomenal success. In the opinion of this writer no other political party can organise a meeting like that in Matara – certainly not the Sirisena faction of the SLFP, and the UNP is not strong in the Matara district to begin with. What should worry the government even more than the crowd or the number of parliamentarians on the stage is the fact that this was not just a pro-Mahinda crowd, it was an opposition crowd. Mahinda Rajapaksa himself turned up to take a peek at the meeting from the rampart of the Matara Fort. The crowd went wild on seeing him. But he left after a few seconds. It was clear that this was an unscheduled appearance. If he was going to make an appearance and it was advertised beforehand, the crowd turning up would have been even bigger. What should worry the government is the fact that after Mahinda came and went, the meeting continued as if nothing had happened. Nobody left the meeting because MR left.
Nobody in the crowd asked “How come Mahinda came and left so soon?” “How come he did not make a speech?” Nobody was upset by the fact that their hero had come and gone without getting on to the stage. The crowd remained just as it was, and Udaya Gammanpila soon resumed his speech which was disrupted by MR’s appearance. What that shows is that while the outward form of this movement is that of a personality cult, it is in reality an opposition movement which is barreling forward on a momentum of its own quite regardless of MR’s physical presence or absence. Signs of the personality cult of course, were everywhere. About 300 meters away from the meeting, near the Matara Bodhi was a large cut out of Mahinda resting on the pavement.
A bare-bodied youth with MR painted on his back in blue body paint – a member of the facebook generation mind you – had prostrated himself in front of the cut out, knees and forehead on the ground, arms outstretched on the pavement, rear end up in the air. Some girls standing by were giggling at the sight. A passerby asked them, “Why are you giggling? He’s right!” The vice-president of the Desha Vimukthi Janatha Pakshaya, a constituent party of the UPFA added to the religious symbolism by actually saying in his speech. “We (meaning the crowd) are the body of Mahinda”. That’s kind of a statement you’d expect to hear at Christian revivalist meeting where preachers claim that the congregation is the body of Christ. What the Desha Vimukthi activist said was in a way borne out at this meeting itself by the fact that nobody was upset about the flesh and blood Mahinda making only a very brief appearance – it was almost as if the crowd actually considered themselves to be Mahinda and the physical presence of the flesh and blood person was not really necessary.
Politically, Chandrasiri Gajadeera’s statement that he was not present at that meeting in his personal capacity but on a policy decision of the Communist Party indicates that a change is taking place in the alignment within the UPFA. Gajadeera also said that this was the largest gathering he had addressed in recent times. The rhetoric at this meeting was overtly anti-imperialist with many speeches openly expressing opposition to American and Indian meddling in Sri Lanka. The clenched fist oath taken by the crowd to protect the nation against enemies within and without added a radical element to this meeting which was not to be seen at previous meetings. Clearly, the Mahinda group has a kind of political energy and a momentum that no other political party has – and this is not even a political party.
At one point the announcer Sanjiva Edirimanne made a plea for people to voluntarily step down from the stage as it could not bear the weight of the crowd. One of the first to comply was the portly Prasanna Ranatunga, apparently for fear that if the stage collapses he’d be blamed for it! Pavithra Wanniarachchi who was jeered at the first meeting she attended after resigning her portfolio was given a rousing welcome which shows that she is now once again an accepted figure. She delivered her usual fiery speech and was seen joyfully singing “Numbai ape appachchi” with Malini Fonseka. Karuna Amman delivered a speech in Tamil. Nobody understood a word of it but every time he mentioned Mahinda Rajapaksa, people cheered.
The attendance at these rallies show that the Mahinda group has public support. But how would this translate into votes at a parliamentary election? The January presidential election marked the lowest point in Mahinda’s political fortunes. Since then, things have obviously improved. But even if one assumes that nothing has changed and that the result of the January election will remain intact even at the next parliamentary election, where does Mahinda stand then?
A district by district analysis would reveal the following picture.
The North and East
We should start off this analysis from the areas widely thought to be least favourable to Mahinda Rajapaksa – the Northern and Eastern Provinces. As conventional wisdom goes, these two provinces are a complete write off as far as MR is concerned. However if we analyze the results of the 2015 January presidential election, a different picture emerges.
Rajapaksa does have a few minority community allies such as Douglas Devananda in the Northern Province, Karuna Amman and S. Chandrakanthan in the Batticaloa district, A.L.M. Athaulla in the Digamadulla district, M.L.A.M. Hisbulla in the Batticaloa district. Largely because of these allies and the Sinhala voters in the Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Digamadulla districts, MR did get a substantial percentage of votes in all those districts. Those percentages may not count for anything at a presidential election but at a parliamentary election they do count.
Mahinda got nearly 22% of the votes in the Jaffna district, 19% in the Vanni district, nearly 27% in Trincomalee, nearly 34% in Digamadulla, and 16% in the Batticaloa district. These percentages are more than adequate for the Rajapaksa camp to win at least one seat in each district. There is no standard which can be applied to all districts to say that a certain percentage would win a fixed number of seats for the recipient. But if we go by past elections, 22% in the Jaffna district should be enough to get two seats for the EPDP and 34% in the Digamadulla district should be enough to win two seats. Besides, when the regional leaders in those districts contest personally for seats, the possibility of increasing the vote percentage is that much greater. The Rajapaksa camp can be certain of getting five seats in the North and East, with a very good chance of getting seven including two Sinhala MPs. Five to seven seats assured seats from the North and East for the Rajapaksa camp is not bad at all considering the fact that the even the TNA has only 14 seats from both provinces.
At the January presidential election, Mahinda lost all the electorates in the Polonnaruwa district because that was the home turf of Maithripala Sirisena. Obviously, the people of this district wanted their man to be the head of state. But at the next parliamentary election, Sirisena will not be a candidate so will the anti-Rajapaksa forces (especially the UNP) be able to carry the district again? There are three electorates in the Polonnaruwa district and it’s only the Polonnaruwa electorate that Sirisena was able to win with a substantial majority of 30,000. In the Minneriya electorate the margin was less than 1,000 and in the Medirigiriya electorate it was just over 5,000 votes. At the next election, when the political forces that came together for the presidential election fragment and go their separate ways, the margins in the Medirigiriya and Minneriya electorates will disappear and the Mahinda camp will be on top in both electorates. How things will turn out in the Polonnaruwa electorate is not certain but the margin of the anti-Rajapaksa camp will almost certainly be reduced.
Mahinda won the neighbouring Anuradhapura district handsomely winning every electorate in the district despite the presence of Duminda Dissanayake a key SLFP rebel who sided with Sirisena. For this reason, the Anuradhapura district is regarded as a bastion of the Rajapaksa camp and the latter are expected to retain this support at the parliamentary election.
Puttalam is among the districts that the Rajapaksa camp is expected to lose at the forthcoming parliamentary election. Rajapaksa lost the Puttalam district by over 4,000 votes at the last presidential election. But this was largely because of the Muslim vote in the Puttalam electorate where Sirisena got a majority of over 24,000 votes. All the other electorates in this district, Anamaduwa, Chilaw, Nattandiya and Wennappuwa were won by Rajapaksa. In Anamaduwa the latter’s majority exceeded 20,000 votes. The reason why some people think the Puttalam district may be won by the UNP next time is because of a narrowing of the gap between Rajapaksa and those opposed to his government in the Catholic majority electorates of Chilaw, Nattandiya and Wennappuwa with people feeling that the ‘Catholic belt’ would vote against Rajapaksa as Catholic electorates like Negombo and Ja Ela and Wattala had done further south. This yet remains to be seen as the result of the next parliamentary election depends not just on Mahinda Rajapaksas’s leadership, but also on the candidates put forward in the various districts.
Mahinda won the Kurunegala district with a substantial majority and 11 out of the 13 electorates in the district. He lost only the Kurunegala and Mawathagama electorates with margins of over 6,000 and 2,000 votes respectively. But when the yahapalana forces fragment at the parliamentary election, these margins will disappear. Just taking the JVP, DP and SLMC component out of the two electorates lost by MR will restore his lead in both electorates. The Kurunegala district is also regarded a pro-Rajapaksa bastion.
Ratnapura and Kegalle districts
MR won all eight electorates in the Ratnapura district and the district is rightly considered to be a Rajapaksa bastion. Despite the presence of a substantial Indian Tamil presence in the Kegalle district Rajapaksa won eight of the nine electorates in the district, losing only in the Mawanella electorate which has a large Muslim population.
Rajapaksa lost the Kandy district by a margin of over 88,000 votes winning only the Galagedara and Uda-Dumbara electorates and losing all the other eleven electorates. The political balance of power in the Kandy district has shifted decisively away from the Rajapaksas. Kandy was always a UNP bastion and in August 1994, when the UNP lost power in the country, the Kandy district voted solidly with the UNP. That situation appears to have been restored.
The Rajapaksa camp won the Matale district and lost only the Matale electorate of the four electorates in the district.
Nuwara Eliya district
Like the North and East, the Nuwara Eliya district was also a write off as far as the Rajapaksas are concerned. This district was lost by a margin of over 127,000 votes at the last presidential election winning only one of the four electorates, and that too by a small margin of just over 1,700 votes. However because of the voting pattern in the district, the CWC may contest the election from the Rajapaksa camp so that their three candidates will get all three preferences of Tamil voters. The three Tamil preference votes on the UNP list have already been taken over by the pro-UNP alliance that was formed between P.Digambaram, V.Radhakrishnan and Mano Ganesan. So in order to get his three candidates elected, Thondaman will be compelled to contest on another list. Apart from this practical consideration, Thondaman like Douglas Devananda appears to have opted to remain in the Rajapaksa camp. Apart from the Tamil votes that Thondaman will bring in, the Sinhalaese in the Nuwara Eliya district are expected to vote mostly for Rajapaksa which is why C.B.Ratnayake resigned his portfolio and joined the Rajapaksa camp – to be the fourth MP on the Rajapaksa list. Thondaman and Rajapaksa together will be able to win the Nuwara Eliya district.
Galle Matara and Hambantota districts
Mahinda won nine out of ten electorates in the Galle district losing only the Galle town electorate which has a substantial concentration of Muslims. He won six out of the seven electorates in the Matara district losing only the Matara electorate which was lost by a small margin of just over 1,000 votes. Simply eliminating the JVP component of Sirisena’s votes will give Rajapaksa a substantial lead even in the Matara electorate. All four electorates in the Hambantota were won by Rajapaksa and the Southern Province generally is seen as a bastion of the Rajapaksa camp.
Mahinda lost the Badulla district but only by a small margin of just 281 votes. Sirisena actually won six of the nine electorates in the Badulla district and his margin of victory would have been much larger if not for the support extended to Rajapaksa by the CWC. Like Kandy, Badulla has traditionally been a UNP bastion which the latter has won even while losing badly in other parts of the country. Whether Rajapaksa will be able to win the Badulla district at the forthcoming parliamentary election will depend on the support of the CWC and the latter’s relative strength against the Digambaram-Radhakrishnan-Ganesan combine on the one hand and on the stand taken by Lakshman Seneviratne. It appears that the latter was able to shift the Mahinyangana electorate from being a solidly UNP electorate into a Rajapaksa bastion – it’s the Mahiyangana electorate that shores up the margin of the Rajapaksa camp in that district. As of this moment, with Lakshman Seneviratne taking Sirisena’s side, there is a likelihood that Badulla may fall to the anti-Rajapaksa camp.
The Moneragala district was won by a substantial majority by Mahinda winning all three electorates. However which way the cookie will crumble in this district at a parliamentary election will depend to a large extent on the candidates that the Rajapaksa camp fields in this district.
The two main SLFP figures in this district Jagath Pushpakumara and Vijayamuni Zoysa have taken Sirisena’s side and are unlikely to come over to the Rajapaksa camp. Indeed Zoysa cannot come over even if he wants to because of his “Appachchi mala” statement.
The Kalutara district was won comfortably by Mahinda, losing only the Panadura and Beruwela electorates among the eight electorates in the district. The Panadura electorate was won by Sirisena only by around 900 votes and removing the JVP component once again places MR on top in that electorate. The district is considered to be a bastion of the Rajapaksas.
Maithripala Sirisena won the Gampaha district by 4, 668 votes. Rajapaksa lost the Wattala, Negombo, Katana, Ja Ela and Kelaniya electorates. In the latter three electorates, simply subtracting the DP/JVP component of the vote from Sirisena’s vote will push Rajapaksa into the leading position again. It was the large margins in the Wattala and Negombo electorates and the across the board drop in the majorities received in the other electorates that caused the narrow defeat in the Gampaha district. However at a parliamentary election where everybody cannot gang up against the dominant party, the removal of the JVP and Democratic party component from Sirisena’s votes gives Rajapaksa the edge once again.
The Colombo district gave Sirisena a huge majority of over 162,000 votes. The heavy minority presence in the five electorates of North Colombo, Colombo Central, Borella, Colombo West and Colombo East and in electorates like Dehiwala, Ratmalana, Kolonnawa, Kotte and Moratuwa combined with the drop in the majorities traditionally received by the SLFP/UPFA in electorates like Kaduwela, Kesbewa, Homagama, Maharagama, and Avissawella resulted in this poor showing in the Colombo district.
Thus when we look at the last election in terms of the pro-Rajapaksa and anti-Rajapaksa camps,
The anti-Rajapaksa camp is strong in 12 districts – Jaffna, Vanni, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, Digamadulla, Badulla, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Polonnaruwa, Puttalam, Gampaha and Colombo.
The Rajapaksa camp is strong in ten districts – Anuradhapura, Kurunegala, Kalutara, Galle, Matara, Hambantota, Moneragala, Ratnapura, Kegalle, Matale districts.
But if we remove the North and East from the equation, the anti-Rajapaksa forces have only seven districts to the ten of the pro-Rajapaksa camp. Once the JVP component is removed from the anti-Rajapksa vote in the Gampaha district, the Rajapaksas will once again be on top. If Rajapaksa retains the same support of the Catholics in the Puttalam district as at the January presidential election, they will win that district too at the parliamentary election. Since Sirisena is not a candidate at the next election, the Polonnaruwa district too may fall to the Rajapaksas.
It’s difficult to see the UNP winning Polonnaruwa even though the people there voted mostly for Sirisena. And as we pointed out earlier, even Nuwara Eliya may be won by the Rajapaksa camp. Of the seven districts outside the North and East left to the anti-Rajapaksa camp, they can really rely only on three districts, Colombo, Kandy and Badulla. Usually, after a government is elected into power its popularity declines progressively. The problem for the anti-Rajapaksa camp is that even if the yahapalana vote remains completely intact, it will fragment into its individual components at a parliamentary election. The pro-Rajapaksa vote will also divide into two with some of it going to the Sirisena camp. But the signs are that the division of votes in the Rajapaksa camp will be of a much smaller magnitude than in the anti-Rajapaksa camp.
To what extent will the Rajapaksa camp be able to retain the 5.8 million votes they got at the presidential election? It is said that the Rajapaksas got these votes after an expensive campaign and handing out various goodies to the voter and that they will not be able to get this vote again. There is some truth in that argument. The same argument applies to the anti-Rajapaksa camp as well. The yahapalana camp managed to win 6.2 million votes by uniting to topple Rajapksa. One way in which Rajapaksa’s vote was reduced was by making various allegations against his government. Those allegations will not work at the next parliamentary election for obvious reasons. The fact that the yahapalana government has fallen short of the expectations placed on it may be another factor that diminishes its vote.
The longer the government continues before holding the next parliamentary election, the greater the decline. Going by the above, a victory for Rajapaksa at the next parliamentary election is not just wishful thinking but a distinct possibility.