For the second time in seven months, Sri Lankans go to the polls tomorrow. This time, they will elect the party that will govern them for the next five years. When they voted in January, the result was a surprise. There are fewer expectations of another shock outcome on Monday.
From all accounts, the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) led by the United National Party has held the advantage in the campaign. It is the ruling party and is campaigning mainly on the theme of ‘continuing the January 8 revolution’ which it spearheaded earlier this year.
In polls held in the last twenty years-most of which the UNP lost- it has been vulnerable to charges that it was soft on the Tamil Tigers and that its return to power could be a stepping stone to Eelam. That cry is becoming increasingly irrelevant as more time elapses since the end of the war.
Also, at this election, the UNP has been boosted by the presence of the Jathika Hela Urumaya on its platform, hardly a partner supporting Eelam. At the other end of the spectrum the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and several Tamil political parties which will ensure the minority vote.
The electorate will also note that since January, there has been a sense of freedom in society in general and in the media in particular. The political opposition, the Police and the courts of law are beneficiaries. The credit for this will go partly to the UNP as well as to President Maithripala Sirisena.
Against all this, however, there is one big black mark: the Central Bank bond issue. The UNP leadership has been naïve in assuming that it will simply go away. Instead, it has snowballed and provided the opposition with a potent weapon to attack the party’s commitment to good governance.
The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) on the other hand is relying on former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to see them through. He is their trump card and talisman. There is no denying that Rajapaksa’s entry to the fray has enlivened the UPFA campaign despite his questionable track record.
Had President Sirisena denied nominations to Rajapaksa, he would have contested separately, the base vote of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) would have split and the UNP would have romped home winners. That did not happen. Now the UNP has a battle on its hands but can the UPPFA still win?
One problem that Rajapaksa and the SLFP has is that its allies in the UPFA- the Old Left, The Jathika Nidahas Peramuna, the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna and the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya- have hardly any votes to call their own, despite the many high profile personalities in their ranks.
A glance at the election results in January reveals that Rajapaksa won most electorates in the South. However, all those who voted for Rajapaksa in January may not vote for the UPFA tomorrow because their candidate is no longer Rajapaksa- and some of the candidates are huge liabilities to the UPFA.
The steady stream of allegations against the Rajapaksa regime which came to light since January will also make a dent on the UPFA vote. The minority vote for the UPFA is virtually nil. As such, Rajapaksa’s claim of winning 117 seats appears to be more bravado than being reality based.
Watching all this with great anticipation is the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The party won 39 seats at the 2004 general election by nominating only a few candidates on the UPFA lists. It now believes it can emerge as a decisive ‘third force’ with about 15-20 seats in this election.
There is a significant ‘dissatisfaction factor’ working against both the UNP and the UPFA because of what they have done during the past six months and ten years respectively. Whether the benefits of this will accrue to the JVP is left to be seen; this hasn’t always happened in past elections.
That the Tamil National Alliance will win the majority of seats in the North and in Tamil speaking areas in the East is a foregone conclusion. There has been controversy about its demand for federalism but many believe this is only for the consumption of the Tamil voter.
While there is a general expectation that the UNFGG will emerge as the party with the most number of seats tomorrow, they might fall short of an overall majority, given the vagaries of the proportional representation system. That is when the political fun and games will begin in earnest.
Whatever the outcome on Monday and whichever party wins, it is imperative that the country has a stable government. It has endured enough in the last six months for its voters to realise that too weak a government is as bad as a government that is too strong.