The popularity of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has collapsed

The popularity of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has collapsed, especially among women, the poor, urban and Sinhala adults, IHP Sri Lanka Opinion Tracker Survey (SLOTS) revealed.

SLOTS is run by the Institute for Health Policy (IHP) and the lead investigator is Dr. Ravi Rannan-Eliya.

“At the Institute for Health Policy (IHP), we have been tracking favourability of several institutions and political personalities since last year. The past two months has seen substantial declines in favourability of all politicians. This has affected politicians in both government, such as the President or Prime Minister, and opposition politicians, and in opposition, such as Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, JVP leader Anura Dissanayake and UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe. Also hit is the favourability of politicians who were previously popular, such as former minister, Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle, who has consistently remained the most popular politician we track,” he said.

However, the study has shown that the public displeasure is specific to politicians. Favourability of state institutions or other organisations, such as the Ministry of Health, the GMOA, or the armed forces, has remained positive and largely unaffected. These low levels of favourability of politicians may matter, since the willingness of the public to acquiesce in painful, but necessary, actions may depend on how they feel about the political leaders calling on them to sacrifice.

The survey report says that until early 2022, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s net favourability rating remained positive, although gradually slipping from the high +50 levels during the August–September 2021 lockdown to the low tens by January 2022.

“This can be contrasted with Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, whose net favourability was often negative throughout this period, largely because of high levels of unpopularity amongst better-off Sri Lankans. The President also maintained a higher favourability rating than Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, other ministers, and other opposition party leaders, although lower than a few ministers, notably Dr. Fernandopulle,” the report said.

Excerpts of the report: “That changed in the last two months: the President’s favourability ratings have cratered. His net favourability fell from +20 during February to below -80 during the first three weeks of April, meaning that for every member of the public who has a favourable opinion about him, there are now nine others who say they have an unfavourable opinion. This decline in favourability has been faster and more substantial than most other politicians. Consequently, during March-April, the President’s favourability rating (-40) fell below those of both Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (-33) and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa (-26).

“Analysis of our data indicates that the most significant declines in the President’s favourability have been amongst women, the poor, urban and Sinhala adults. In the case of women, this has lost him the edge in favourability that he has long enjoyed over Sajith Premadasa. Women view both unfavourably now, but the President more than the Opposition Leader. The only segment of the population where the President has managed to retain his former favourability was the Southern Province, but elsewhere his favourability fell. Interestingly, his colleague, Dr Fernandopulle, former state health minister, not only managed to retain more of her favourability, but our data also indicates a significant gain in favourability amongst government employees. In contrast, Sajith Premadasa’s more modest decline in favourability was more dispersed, although he also suffered a further loss in favourability amongst women, albeit less than the President.

The current economic crisis that the country is now in will require adjustments that are difficult and painful in the short-term. Taxes need to go up and prices will increase for most things. Living standards will fall for most Sri Lankans in the short-term, whether we take action or not to improve our long-term prospects. How the burden of these painful adjustments will be distributed between poor and rich, how these sacrifices are communicated and justified to the public, how social cohesion is maintained, and social unrest is prevented will require effective and determined national leadership to make the correct choices, and to communicate clearly to the public. That is the need of the hour, but the evidence of widespread disillusionment with all politicians makes the challenge even greater. It points to the need for fresh thinking by the political establishment on how to make the correct choices on economic policy, and how to provide the leadership needed to sustain the painful measures that are undoubtedly needed over the coming months and years.”

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