| by Harim Peiris
( December 3, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Kicking off his election campaign in his native Polonaruwa, with his first election rally, the Maithripala Sirisena, common opposition campaign is gaining momentum. Increasing the exodus from the UPFA was Nuwara Elisa District parliamentarian Navin Dissanayake, the Minister for Public Management Reforms, who resigned from the government and pledged his support to Maithripala Sirisena. He was preceded late last week by Hunais Farook, MP from the Vanni, who also crossed over to the opposition. While not a flood, the breakaway from the UPFA has been ongoing and despite offers of fabulous sums of money, there seem to be no takers, at least at the time of writing this article, for the Rajapakse’s filthy lucre. Further the opposition parties and civil society groups have finalized a minimum common program around re-democratizing Sri Lanka, which includes abolition of the executive presidency. What was believed to be impossible only a few months ago, that the opposition would unite around a common candidate has now become a reality. As Buddhism teaches us nothing is permanent in life. Not even the seemingly invincible Rajapakse Administration.
The Mahinda Rajapakse campaign is in complete disarray
Meanwhile the Mahinda Rajapakse campaign is in complete disarray. It has still not recovered from the failure of its secret police to inform it of the impending political storm and it has no clear message or strategy. It spent the week trying to prevent further crossovers to the opposition and get a prize cross over to the for an astronomical price and it was not successful in either.
Further the Rajapakse campaign lacks any clear or cogent message. He has yet to explain to the people why he has gone for elections two years before his second term is up, with his eligibility for a third term itself disputed. A set of infrastructure plans does not constitute a political vision and the Rajapakse campaign lacks any clear message to voters. In the absence of a message, the opposition now has the luxury of defining the proposed Rajapakse third term as a really bad idea for a variety of reasons, linked to his governance track record.
President Rajapakse’s election brain trust has not really adjusted to the fact that the situation in January 2015 is completely different from when he ran in January 2010. Then he was the President who had presided over winning the war only seven months earlier and a duly grateful electorate reelected him comfortably. But in 2015, he can no longer run on the war victory, that would suffice once and soon after the war. President Rajapakse understood this, then and now, which is why he advanced his election even in 2010. However, now he will be judged as least by the floating, uncommitted voter on his track record of the past five years and what it indicates for the next seven years.
Uva was an effective defeat for President Rajapakse
The Uva election was quite a disaster for the Rajapakse Administration. They managed to hang onto power, but only just. It was not enough to conceal the fact that support was slipping for the regime. This perception of support is an important aspect of the Rajapakse regime. At the grass roots, every abuse of the system and the complete erosion of the separation of the ruling party and the state machinery is done and this ensures that a significant section of its support comes from people who credibly believe that the morning after the election; the Rajapakse regime will still hold sway. In a provincial election, the opposition vote is only a protest vote. This is also why the election turnout is about 62% to 65% for provincial elections, while the national elections would see turnouts of between 75% to 80%. These additional voters have only to vote in a greater proportion for the opposition, to see the required swing towards it.
The Uva provincial election was fought with way more weaknesses for the opposition than the presidential election will be. Then the opposition was not united. Now they are. Then the serious slippage of support for the Rajapakse’s was an untested thesis, after the results and the breakaways, it is now confirmed. A provincial election is not a government changing election; a presidential election is a chance for real and lasting change, both for good and for bad. Amarasiri Dodangoda is not a political household name. But in 1993, as SLFP candidate for Chief Minister of the Southern Province, he defeated the UNP and set the stage up for the Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, clean sweep the next year. Young Harin Fernando may not have quite piped Shasendra Rajapakse to the post in the earlier Uva provincial race, but he wounded them sufficiently and exposed the weaknesses openly enough for, Maithripala Sirisena to seem very likely to complete the job.
An effective shift in the balance of social and political forces in the country
There is an effective shift in the balance of social and political forces in the country, post the Uva provincial council elections. The mere coming together of the opposition to support a common candidate is in itself a significant game changer. The absence of everyone joining the same platform is not a loss, the support from outside is a common practice, such as in India. The important thing being that that parties not formally in the alliance are not running their own candidate and are especially strongly criticizing the incumbent. From the Sinhala nationalist JHU, to heavy weights from the SLFP, to the Muslim People’s Congress, the JVP, the TNA and General Fonseka‘s Democrats are all informing the country that a third Rajapakse term is a really very bad idea. Add to that the Bar Association, the University Teachers and other professional groups. Countering that seem to be largely just the Rajapakse’s. In an election of the Rajapakse’s verses the rest, they may find that unlike the low turnout and high mal practice Uva provincial election, they may well not prevail.