10 August 2020

General Election 2020: The what, the why and the what next


Elections produce winners. Everyone wins. Everyone has a consolation prize. Even the United National Party, which didn’t secure a single seat from the district vote can enthusiastically exclaim, ‘we can now start afresh!’  The winners declared as such by the Elections Department have the lion’s share of bragging rights of course. The ‘losers’ can console themselves by offering various versions of the timeless excuse, ‘the masses are asses’ or indulge in pick-and-choose to extract positives from numbers, percentages, relative merits, comparisons and contrasts.  

In essence, 'results' is a cake that can be sliced in any number of ways. Let’s discuss a few of them.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) polled 6.9 million, securing 145 seats. The Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) got 2.6 million (54 seats), the Illankai Tamil Arasu Catchy (ITAK) 0.3 million (10 seats), the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) 0.46 million (3 seats), the United National Party (UNP) 0.25 million (1 seat) while others polled less than 100,000 votes with some of them securing one or two seats thanks to adequate returns from districts and the allocation-cut from the national list allocations.

The SLPP won 18 of the 22 districts, the TNA carrying three and the SJB just one. If we went with electorates, the SJB just got 10, six of them in a traditional stronghold of it’s mau-pakshaya (UNP), those in the Colombo Municipal area. The Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) won the islands off the Jaffna Peninsula, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) won Udupiddy and the TNA swept the rest of the electorates in the Northern Province in addition to winning Batticaloa and Padiruppu in the Eastern Province. The Muslim National Alliance won the Puttalam electorate while the Thamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) won Kalkudah. The rest went to the SLPP. That’s a lot of territory.

Percentage is another way of cutting the cake. The SLPP’s slice was 59.09%, the SJB’s 23.90%, the JJB’s 3.84%, the ITAK’s 2.82% and the UNP’s 2.15%.

If comparison is the knife, the cake can be cut in many ways. The numbers for the SLPP, SJB and the JJB can be compared with those returned in November 2019 for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sajith Premadasa (leader of the SJB who contested on the UNP ticket) and Anura Kumara Dissanayake (contesting as the candidate of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, the main party in the JJB). The results can also be compared with those of the August 2015 General Election (using the UNP returns as proxy for the SJB, the United People’s Freedom Alliance for SLPP and the JVP for the JJB).

Gotabaya Rajapaksa got 6.9 million votes (52.25%) while Sajith Premadasa got 5.6 million (41.99%) and Anura Kumara Dissanayake got just 418,553 votes (3.16%) at the Presidential Election in 2019. Rajapaksa’s party (SLPP) secured close to 6.9 million votes (59.09%), Premadasa’s party (SJB) got 2.8 million votes (23.9%) and Dissanayake’s party (JJB) got 0.45 million (3.84%). Considering that the voter turnout was 83.72% in 2019 and just over 71% on August 5, 2020, the result is a clear vote of confidence on the president and his party. The fact that several candidates from his think tank (Viyath Maga) topped the lists in their respective districts, the result could be read as the electorate’s wish to strengthen the president and an clear approval of his policy framework ‘Saubhagyaye Dekma (Vision of Prosperity).’ Even if the numbers for the SJB and UNP were amalgamated, the decline is obvious — from 5.6 million to a little over 3 million (from 41.99% to 26.05%). The JVP, expanded to a coalition (JJB), went from 0.42 to 0.46 million (from 3.16% to 3.84%), the marginal gain attributable to this expansion.

If we compared the results of the last two general elections, purists (read, ‘politically naive’ or ‘incurably arrogant’) could argue that the first and second places in 2020 went to two newbies, the SLPP and SJB. I would argue that they are the product of a rebranding exercise, the SLPP evolving from the SLFP/UPFA and the SJB (given the abysmal performance of the UNP) in effect being the party to which the vast majority of the UNP’s bloc vote migrated.

Let’s consider the numbers here. The UNP-led coalition secured 106 seats in 2015 (5.1 million votes, 45.66% of the vote) while the SJP and the UNP together, in 2020, secured 55 seats (3 million, 25.05%). If you want to be (stupidly) pure, you can say the UNP went from 106 to 1 (5.1 million to 0.25 million, and from 45.66% to 2.82%), the consolation seat coming from the national list, much like the Sihala Urumaya (SU) in 2000. Either way, the decline is stark.

The stupidly pure can claim that the SLPP went from zero seats to 145, from no votes to 6.9 million, 0.0% to 59.09%. The UPFA won 95 seats in 2015 (4.7 million, 42.38%) while the SLPP polled 6.9 million (59.09%) in 2020 and if we take the SLPP as proxy for the UPFA (even without counting the SLFP returns — note, some SLFPers, contested on the SLPP ticket), the surge is massive.

The JVP polled 543,944 (4.87%) in 2015 and the JVP’s numbers were, respectively, 445,958 votes and 3.84% for just 3 seats. That’s losing parliamentary presence by 50%. A significant loss, clearly.  

The Subplots
We could compare the UNP with the SJB, the JJB with the Frontline Socialist Party (which broke away from the JVP), the JJB with the UNP and the SLFP, and ITAK with other Tamil parties. The SJB bested the UNP by a stretch and if the election was a battle for Sirikotha between the the factions led by party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and former Deputy Leader and the party’s presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa, then the Kotte property should be handed over to the SJB forthwith. Just consider the SJB vs UNP numbers: 54 seats to 1, 2.8 million votes to less than 250,000 votes, 23.90% to 2.82%. Ranil and the UNP were creamed by Sajith and the SJB.  

The JVP can claim a significant victory too, the coalition it led coming in 4th with 3 seats whereas the two parties that have ruled the country for 72 years either by themselves on in coalitions they led able to secure just a seat apiece on August 5, 2020. That’s another one for the purists. But who is being fooled here? The JVP’s slice got smaller (from 6 seats to 3), whereas those who were with the SLFP and UNP not too long ago make up the vast majority in Parliament.  The JVP/JJB did much better than the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), but the latter was not a factor in any of the major elections it contested since breaking ranks with the JVP.

Individual Winners and Losers
There are parties and there are politicians. The fortunes of individuals also tell a story. The routing of the UNP obviously meant that big names contesting on that ticket also lost. The most significant eviction was that of Ranil Wickremesinghe. It was the first time he failed to be elected in 43 years. Obviously all his loyalists also lost. A lot of second-level UNPers, contesting from the SJB weren’t elected, prominent among them being Sujeewa Serasinghe, P Harison, Hirunik Premachandra, Palitha Thevarapperuma and Ajith P Perera. The national list may have saved the likes of Harin Fernando, Eran Wickramaratne and Ranjith Maddumabandara.  

Mahinda Rajapaksa set a record for preferential votes (over 527,364 from Kurunegala which is 81% of the votes cast for the SLPP). However, several big names were relegated to second place in relevant districts by newcomers who played a prominent role in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy formulating team such as Nalaka Godaheva (first in Gampaha), Channa Jayasumana (second in Anuradhapura) and Sarath Weerasekera (first in Colombo). Indeed, most of the 'Viyath Maga' candidates got into Parliament.

Sunil Handunetti of the JVP, contesting under the JJB, lost in Matara. He lost in 2015 too but was brought into Parliament through the national list. Whether he will get lucky a second time is left to be seen. In 2015, the JVP filled its national list with professionals but reduced circumstances made the party use the two seats allocated to accommodate party seniors. Nalinda Jayatissa, one of the two beneficiaries in 2015 opted to contest from Kalutara this time around and lost. The JJB included non-JVP persons in the district lists as well. They’ve not won any seats. Whether the solitary national list seat goes to Handunnetti, Jayatissa, Bimal Ratnayake or K.D. Lalkantha is left to be seen.

Policies / Ideologies
We can also cut the cake in terms of ethnicity, religious faith, caste, age, gender, sexual preference, profession, educational attainment etc. More interesting would be to discuss the policies and ideologies that have been endorsed and rejected.  

In the 2019 presidential election, both Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa painted themselves as nationalists and vowed to protect the unitary nature of the state. Together they polled 94% of the vote. Federalism and federalists took a hit. They were whacked in the General Election as well. The chief spokesperson for the anti-nationalist school, Mangala Samaraweera chickened out at the last minute.

Sajith Premadasa and the SJB were no less nationalist this time around. They even championed ‘national heritage,’ something that Ranil’s UNP never did.  Well the nationalists have secured 199 seats. Now there’s nationalism and nationalism, nationalists and nationalists. Lip service is an old game. That said, no one can say that this result reflects a wish on the part of the polity to pursue reconciliation of the kind espoused by the likes of Samaraweera, Chandrika Kumaratunga and M.A. Sumanthiran. Grievances have to be sorted out in some other way. Aspirations which are reasonable should be met in some other way. The devolutionists lost, too bad for them.

On the other hand, the one party that secured a parliamentary presence which was also very critical of the existing political culture in and out of parliament, the JVP, didn’t fare too well, as evidenced by the numbers given above. JVP MPs has always conducted themselves with exemplary dignity in Parliament, let us not forget.  

 What does that say about the electors? Sunil Handunnetti is widely recognized as an often lone voice against corruption. Maybe he would have got in had he contested from the SLPP or SJB. In 2004, let us not forget, the JVP contesting with the SLFP on the UPFA ticket secured 41 seats. Handunnetti contested from the JJB. The JJB is led by the JVP. The JVP has a history with a lot of good and a lot of bad. Parties are not one-dimensional and neither are voters. They play marginal benefits over marginal costs. Handunnetti lost out. At some level though the voters have stated that the existing political culture is not something they are overly worried about.  

How did we get here?
Here too, theories abound. The woeful performance of the yahapalanaya regime, the mess that the bipartisan arrangement (SLFP-UNP) produced, the resounding victory of the SLPP candidate over the SJB leader in November 2019, the largely effective measures to counter COVID19, the infighting in the UNP can all be cited as factors. If the president enjoys a high approval rating (as one suspects he does and as the results probably indicate), then obviously his party would have the inside track. It did. The SLPP was far better organized than any other party/coalition. The UNP voter may have been too demoralized to step out of the house. The floating voter who stood with Premadasa in 2019 may have wandered off towards the SLPP or the JJB. Sajith’s leadership or rather his failing as a leader could have also contributed to the final outcome. Some have claimed that Patali Champika Ranawaka would have been a more convincing leadership voice. He, however struggled in Colombo, barely making the cut.  

In the North and East, the decline of ITAK is significant as is the SLFP securing an electorate in the Northern Province and a seat in Parliament. The latter is hard to explain but the former is understandable given the simmering internal problems in the ITAK that couldn’t be hidden any longer. That however is a subplot in the larger story.

One thing is clear. In 2015, the majority voted out Mahinda Rajapaksa. That result was interpreted as a mandate to implement an Eelamist version of ‘reconciliation’ and proceed with a mindless neo-liberal agenda. It was not a ‘yes’ for any of that and certainly not for Resolution 30/1 of the UNHRC, just as this result is not a green light for the MCC Compact or withdrawal of Circular 1/2005. It was not a green light for subverting the national security apparatus or to give Jihadists a free hand. The misreading was protested in part on February 10, 2018 at the local government elections. The Yahapalanists were routed. In November 2019, the objection was reiterated. Indeed, at every opportunity accorded, the people stated in no uncertain terms that they will not suffer being misrepresented. The August 2020 result is the logical culmination of all that. An end point.

What holds?
Given the majority enjoyed by the SLPP and the likelihood of cobbling together 150 MPs to make the all-important two-thirds majority (the EPDP, SLFP and TMVP are known allies), constitutional amendment is certainly on the cards. The 13th Amendment is a white elephant. No one is interested in provincial councils any longer (some have not been functioning for years now). Indeed, local government bodies seem to be far more important — dissolve them and every village, town and municipality will produce an unbearable stink! There’s little talk of the 13th though and it is possible that it will be largely ignored.

The 19th cannot be ignored. It was an atrocious piece of legislation. Term limits can stay. Confusion over the powers of the president and the prime minister must be dealt with. The president is elected by the entire country, let us not forget. The prime minister is a person elected by people in a single district and his/her rise depends on the choice made by representatives. It’s certainly a lower order option. If we have an executive president, he/she should have considerable power and not be a yes-person to the prime minister. The 19th was made for Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP. It was a partisan document which, interestingly, the entire opposition with the exception of Sarath Weerasekera voted for. The unclear division of power is partly to blame for creating conditions for the Easter Sunday tragedy.  The 19th also imposed a limit on the size of the cabinet but included caveats that made the relevant article meaningless. The device was the notion of ‘national government.’  That was left undefined. It should be clearly defined in any amendment to the 19th that stops this side of repealing.

What will the new government do about Circular 5/2001 regarding ‘other state forests’? Over 500,000 ha of forests are threatened by a cabinet decision to withdraw the said circular. Let’s see. The MCC? The Eastern Terminal? What will happen to these? Left to be seen. Need to be flagged.

Labels come off in practice. The yahapalanists promised democracy but postponed elections. They were routed in three consecutive elections. The SLPP talks nationalism as does the SJB, but ‘nationalism’ is also an easy label. Its worth is tested in practice. Talk is easy. Talk is cheap. Time is long and it’s the earliest of early days. Let us see.