11 October 2011

A reading of the ‘Colombo Result’

The leader of the United National Party (UNP) Wickremesinghe has a special message to electors on the eve of the local government elections:  "vote for the UNP and give a message to the government that we want a good life and that we are no longer agreeable that our democratic rights are taken away."  Well the results are out and it is time to assess the response to this call. 
The UNP was the Colombo Municipal Council or rather retained this important local government body it had secured through a proxy in 2006.  The UNP lost everything else, including its traditional strongholds.  There was a sense though, in the run up, that the UNP would be happy to win Colombo, even if it lost elsewhere and as such there is reason for that party to be euphoric.  The call was ‘let’s begin with Colombo’. 
In 2006, despite the handicap of having to use a proxy independent group (the ‘spectacle case’ as it were), the electorate returned 23 members having cast 82,500 votes (40.24%) for the party.  The United People’s Freedom Alliance got (UPFA) 57,158 (27.85%) and 14 seats. This time the UNP got 101,920 (43.01%) and 24 seats, while the UPFA got 77,089 (32.53%) and 16 seats.  The absolute numbers have gone up (for the UNP) but the percentage increase has been small. The UPFA has done slightly better in this regard, but this improvement cannot be cheered, considering the unprecedented improvements in the city orchestrated by the Government. ‘Abuse of state resources’ has been a constant and its impact appears to be insignificant when number-change is considered.  
In 2002, with the natural advantage of incumbency, the UNP secured 32 seats, garnering 136,845 (57.83%), while the UPFA got just 8 seats (38,002 votes or 16.06%). 
In 2011 (like in 2006), the UPFA enjoyed incumbency-edge, indicating clearly that Colombo remains a UNP bastion (and as overall results indicate, the only one remaining).  What is important to note, however, is that retaining a bastion does not indicate a significant change of fortunes (for the UNP), and moreover that the overall result, even after factoring in incumbency-edge (for the UPFA) has shown a marked decline in popularity.  
One must also keep in mind that this is the second local government elections held under the stewardship of Mahinda Rajapaksa. ‘Regime-fatigue’ does not seem to have been a factor.  Even if one were to adjust for ‘abuse of state resources’ and the obvious advantages of abusing the option for holding elections on a staggered basis, the gap is still very significantly in favour of the ruling party.  Thus, with reference to the UNP leader’s call, it would seem that the electorate is happy with things as they are or at least are not too disagreeable about them.  The other possibility is that they’ve just not heard Wickremesinghe or, if they did, they don’t have any compulsion to side with him even if they were not necessarily happy with the UPFA. 
The UNP, then, needs to sober up about the results, even though it is good to have something in the pocket, or at least have the satisfaction that this last devalued coin has not slipped out of a hole the leadership itself has created.
The JVP should be even more worried.  In 2006, the JVP polled 6,145 in Colombo, securing 2 seats.  In 2011, that party has slipped across the country (bested by even the LSSP in one case), and has got just 3,162 for a dismal 7th place finish. As for the most vociferous advocates of devolution, the NSSP, they’ve barely bade it into double digits wherever they contested. 
What is the overall result?  The local government elections indicate that even if one were to ‘correct’ for inherent advantages enjoyed by the ruling party, the country still stands with the President, for better or worse, even if the President and the UPFA happened to be the consolation option for the majority.  The Colombo result does not indicate any kind of ‘resurgence’ of the UNP. It’s just same-old, same-old. 
More importantly, the ‘Colombo Result’ may tell us why the ‘Sri Lanka Story’ abroad is so slanted.  The story-tellers live for the most part in Colombo. They hobnob with the upper classes, typically diehard UNP loyalist who are conversant in English and for this reason alone (by default, as it were) are talked to/with by the story-tellers, i.e. diplomats, UN employees, INGO workers.  It would be silly to expect such people to offer analyses/opinions of those who disagree with them.  So they talk their talk, lay their versions thick on the table and it is all lapped up by a well-meaning (perhaps) but possibly naïve and ill-informed set of foreigners.  What happens next?  I don’t think elaboration is required.
The ‘Colombo Result’ is then an invitation for the well-meaning, open-minded would-be story-tellers to take a walk out of the municipal limits of Colombo.  They should not let their conversations and would-be respondents be screened by their pro-UNP friends in the cocktail circuit. The biggest mistake would be to think that those who know and can speak well in English are necessarily smart or smarter than those who don’t.  It’s just a language.  People are not stupid.  They weigh costs and benefits.  They are not naïve.  They are not blind.  They are not dumb.  Take the cross section, if you want to form an informed opinion about how this country thinks and acts.  That’s my advice for the story-tellers. 
As for the ruling party, it should take the results and try to figure out the impact of incumbency as well as abuse of state resources.  My guess is that they would still have won by a comfortable margin.  The question then is ‘why abuse?’  Insecurity, perhaps?  That’s a ‘chink’ and there should be no illusions about it.  People notice these things.  Friends as well as enemies.