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Politics is most certainly a numbers game but are numbers the be all and end all of politics?

That was the question being posed in political circles last week, in the aftermath of the May Day rallies that were being portrayed as a show of the relative political strengths of the major parties.

The reason for all this angst was the massive crowds that thronged the Galle Face Green where the Joint Opposition (JO) faction of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa held their May Day rally.

In the past, it has almost been an unwritten rule that the ruling party held their May Day rally at Galle Face Green. This ‘tradition’ assumed greater significance during the tenures of Presidents J.R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa when the United National Party (UNP)’s May Day rally became a virtual musical extravaganza, with artistes being flown in from neighbouring India to provide entertainment.

Therefore, it came as a surprise when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe announced that the JO’s request for the Galle Face Green for its May Day rally had been granted. Going further, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe instructed authorities to provide adequate security for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the venue.

Many interpreted this to be a smart move by the Prime Minister to outwit the JO. In the event the JO was unable to fill the Galle Face Green, it would convey the message that it was lacking in public support. If, on the other hand, it was able to do so, it would further exacerbate the divisions within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

Most, including critics of the JO, would agree that the turnout for the JO rally was impressive. Pictures of the event conveyed the story in a convincing manner. The gathering, estimated at over 100,000, was second only to the crowds seen at Galle Face Green when Pope Francis visited the country.

It is not that the rallies of the UNP and the mainstream SLFP were unimpressive. Both rallies, at Campbell Park in Colombo presided over by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and at Getambe in Kandy presided over by President Maithripala Sirisena respectively had large turnouts. However, the crowd at Galle Face Green was decidedly more.

The impressive turnout at Galle Face has naturally buoyed the JO. It is now demanding elections, be they local government polls or provincial council elections. It feels it can sweep the board, if polls were to be held in the current political climate. It is now even thinking of going ahead and contesting on its own steam, through the newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

This begs the question: are crowds at rallies a yardstick of a political party’s popularity? While an abysmally low turnout would certainly suggest a decline in a political party’s fortunes, it does not follows that larger turnouts at rallies always translate into election victories.

Just ask the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). For years, the JVP has staged the most disciplined and impressive May Day processions and rallies- and they did so this year too. Even during general election campaigns, numbers at their meetings have been impressive. However, when the numbers mattered most- in counting the votes in the ballot box- the JVP has always been a distant third.

What this means is that the JVP’s supporters consist of committed activists who would always attend their meetings and that the party’s organisational network was strong and active. However, the leftist party, for many decades, has lacked a core vote base, possibly because the average Sri Lankan voter is still in fear of the party’s agenda following the insurrections it staged in 1971 and 1989.

Former President Rajapaksa, being a seasoned campaigner, would of course know that crowds are not everything in a political campaign. In his last presidential campaign in 2015, crowds at his rallies easily outnumbered those attending the meetings of candidate Maithripala Sirisena. That was a consistent trend throughout the country. Yet, Rajapaksa lost the election.

When Rajapaksa and the JO organised a ‘paada yaathra’ from Kandy to Colombo several months ago, that too attracted large crowds, generating a similar feeling of euphoria in the JO camp but that enthusiasm soon fizzled out. It remains to be seen whether the crowds at the May Day rally at Galle Face Green would also soon be yet another memory, giving way to the next political incident.

This is not to say that the crowd at Galle Face Green amounts to nothing. It does demonstrate a few home truths. The JO can be happy that its organisational strength and party machinery is working as it should. It underscores the fact that Rajapaksa does still command a following, more than two years after being ousted from power.

Similarly, both the UNP and the mainstream SLFP have lessons to learn from Galle Face. The fact that the JO was able to muster a massive crowd should certainly be an eye-opener for the National Unity government. If the government claims that it is on the road to economic prosperity, peace, ethnic reconciliation and restoring law and order, there is obviously a section of the population which needs convincing that this is indeed the case.

Rather than being alarmed at the turnout at Galle Face and trying to persecute the JO, the government would do well to treat it as a rude wake-up call and be thankful that it was delivered not at the tail end of its term of office but with two years left of its tenure, so it still has time to get its act together.

Elections in this country are rarely won by crowds alone. One recalls the humungous crowds attracted be rebels such as Vijaya Kumaratunga (who formed the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya) and Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake (who formed the Democratic United National Front). At the polls, the parties they represented had decent returns – but they didn’t win the elections.

Therefore, the moral of the May Day rallies for all parties – the JO, the UNP and the mainstream SLFP – is that they all have miles to go and more promises to keep.

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