08 December 2019

Election results can be skinned any which way you like


A warm but flawed reading of the 2015 result,


People from the same camp, in terms of who they voted for, can and do come up with different reasons for victory, or if that's the case, defeat. 

For example, some who voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa could put his victory down to one or more of the following: a) ineptitude of the Yahapalana regime and failure to deliver on promises, b) the need for a strong and tested leader in the face of new threats to national security, c) perceptions that he was a doer as opposed to a talker (that’s Sajith), d) a strong, determined and well-coordinated campaign as opposed to Sajith Premadasa’s wayward, disorganized effort further marred by in-fighting. 

Others could point to the overwhelming surge in the anti-UNP vote from areas dominated by Sinhala Buddhists and claim that it was a response to unnecessary and endless needling of the majority community by various UNP spokespersons. They could add that lack of clarity on the part of Sajith Premadasa on his arrangement with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) given that party’s Eelamist posturing through conditions offered to and rejected by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) was key. 

So it is about strengths of the winner and weaknesses of the loser and/or their respective parties. Strengths and weaknesses can be understood in different ways. How would some one who voted for Sajith explain the outcome?

Some might say ‘he didn’t have enough time to campaign since his party was slow in offering him nomination.’ Others would add, ‘and Ranil Wickremesinghe didn’t put his heart and soul into the campaign,’ even though the party leader has refuted this claim by pointing out that he was asked to campaign in the North and East, which districts he delivered. Whether he was key in this ‘deliverance,’ of course is another matter. Anyway, some inclined to be self-critical rather than looking for scapegoats have argued that there was very little campaigning at the grassroots, that the UNP’s party machinery was rusty, that UNPers were demoralized after the debacle at the local government elections in February 2018, and that Sajith’s ‘I-ME-and-Myself’ did not excite the floating voter, that Sajith had a tough brief to defend considering the (non) performance of the government in which he was a cabinet minister.  

Finger-pointers who are not willing to acknowledge error or blemish, have simply said ‘it’s all because Gota appealed to Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists.’  Some say ‘It’s the BBS’. That’s the Bodu Bala Sena. The BBS and it’s political twin, Ravana Balakaya, following the election stated that the organizations would be dissolved following the parliamentary elections.

‘There you go!’ did someone exclaim? It’s easy to join dots (any which way you like) to prove you point. Still, the BBS and Ravana Balakaya ‘decisions’ are worth commenting on. Now these outfits are considered extremists by some who, interestingly, extrapolate the ‘extremism to the entire Sinhala Buddhist population. Interestingly too, they don’t apply the same logic to the National Thawheed Jamath (NTJ) and the Muslim community. Neither do they pause to compare and contrast the extremisms — the involvement of the BBS in Aluthgama and Digana versus the Easter Sunday attacks carried out by the NTJ.  Cost of damage to property and lives lost could be but are not compared. 

Back to the BBS and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. So is it that the BBS and the Ravana Balakaya, having ‘delivered’ the presidency to Gota, have concluded ‘mission accomplished, we got our man in and our work is done?’ Is Gotabaya a BBS man or Ravana Balakaya man? That would be utterly simplistic. First of all, the BBS and Ravana Balakaya are essentially fringe elements of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist discourse. More visible, of course, just like the NTJ, but that’s just one part of the story. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, when he was Secretary, Ministry of Defence, did accept an invitation extended to him by the BBS to be chief guest at the opening of an office somewhere in the Southern Province. That was out of order for a government servant. Does that make Gota a member of the BBS high command? Did the BBS deliver the presidency to Gota?  

The BBS contested the last parliamentary elections as the ‘Buddhist People’s Front’. The total votes polls by that party was 20,377 or just 0.19%. Nation-wide. And that’s ‘push’ enough to decide who would be president? Sobering, ain’t it?

Forget the BBS; was Sinhala Buddhist nationalism the most significant element at the election? Ameer Ali, in an analysis titled ‘Sibling wins, patriarch celebrates and minorities stunned,’ in the Colombo Telegraph, certainly thinks so. 

Ali believes that Ethno-religious nationalism decided the winner. He claims that ethno-religious Buddhist nationalists created and presented an image to the Sinhala public that the two minorities are a clear and imminent danger to national security. He claims, ‘an uncompromising but ultra-nationalist section of the institutionalised Buddhist clergy spearheaded a campaign to deprive the minorities of that privilege and rallied Sinhala Buddhist voters behind Gotabaya, who in their view will be the man to save Buddhist Sri Lanka.’ And, pointing to the fact that Sajith won handsomely in the North and East, but was trounced elsewhere, Ali concludes that it was indeed a battle between the Buddhist majority and the minorities. He says, in the process, that the minorities ‘hoped for a 2015 repeat scenario when their votes decided the winner in a tightly fought presidential contest and threw their support behind Sajith Premadasa.’

On the hand, why doesn’t Ali see that the Sinhalese and Buddhists could perceive an existentialist threat given statements issued by the likes of Sumanthiran and Hizbullah and of course the fact that terrorists from both the Tamil and Muslim communities unabashedly vented against Sinhala Buddhists? He doesn’t play that part of the game, but picks the reverse. It can’t cut just one way, though.

Anyway, Ali’s reading reminded me of an elegant meme created by Shanuki De Alwis just after the January 2015 election. It was a warm interpretation of the result, depicting the North and East embracing/protecting the rest of the country. Indeed, it seemed apt at the time. However, if you looked at the numbers, the story is very different. What the anti-Rajapaksa candidates gained between 2010 and 2015 from these two provinces are dwarfed by what Mahinda lost in just the Southern and Western Provinces. It was not just the minorities that defeated Mahinda in 2015. 

Less than five years later, Mahinda’s brother swept these very same provinces by massive margins. Were people in the relevant districts suddenly converted to the political stance of the BBS (if we believe that claim)? Obviously there are other explanations. Yes, national security was an issue. So was incompetence. Incoherence. Utter confusion. You name it!  That’s all Yahapalana attributes. 

So why say ‘Buddhist’ or ‘Sinhala’ just because of the 6.9 million who voted for Gotabaya happened to be identified in such terms? Sure, they were Sinhalese and Buddhists, but on what basis can anyone say that it is only their ethnic identity and religious faith that determined choice? It’s a bit like saying all those in the North and East who voted against Gotabaya are Eelamists or Islamic Fundamentalists. They voted for Sajith, a Sinhalese, who was in rhetoric far more nationalistic than Gotabaya was, if anyone followed their respective speeches. So Sinhala Buddhist anxieties may have been part of the story, but it cannot be concluded that it was THE story of the election result.

It’s about how you want to skin it, in the end. Minority angst can of course privilege perceptions and hence persuade people like Ali to say ‘we are shocked’. Shocked because you didn’t expect it or shocked because you fear the consequences? Perceptions are real, even if they are not based on facts. You paint a monster and then ‘the monster’ haunts you. You believe your own propaganda. You have a set frame and cannot fathom that that’s not the only one available. You see certain things, choose not to see others and are absolutely ignorant of still other factors. So you go with what you know, throw in anxieties and political preferences/disappointments and get to ‘THIS IS WHAT IT WAS!’  

It’s good to feel good or, as the case may be, to feed one’s anxieties in a masochistic kind of way. That’s however simplistic political analysis, nothing more.  

malindasenevi@gmail.com

This article was first published in the Sunday Morning newspaper [December 8, 2019]
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