The Sunday Leader

Putting ‘Em In Their Place

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Even as the Aluthgama episode  has hurt the sensibilities of almost every Sri Lankan as it did in the long run-up to the anti-Tamil ‘Pogrom-‘83’, the conspiracy of political silence has hurt the average citizenry even more. They understand it’s all about vote-bank politics, but do not comprehend how it works.

The politicians, in turn, particularly of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community, too assume that there is only a one-way ticket on that front – win or lose you do, but you cannot do both and get away with it. But is there such a large ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ constituency that deviates from the status quo when both sides, if not all, can have the cake and eat it, too?

For right reasons and/or wrong, critics nearer home and elsewhere have branded President Mahinda Rajapaksa as ‘Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian’. He cannot live down that image, whatever he does to wipe it out. It’s both a boon and bane in electoral terms, for him and the rest.

Whatever he does to put down the perpetrators of Aluthgama violence and those against the Muslim community before it, he is not going to convince the traditional, self-styled urban, liberal voters  that he is now a changed man. Many of them may have voted for him and his party, as they had done for CBK in 1995 as a one-off affair in post-war 2010 presidential polls. It may have been so even in the parliamentary elections that followed soon after, in April 2014.

In the latter case in particular, they saw in President Rajapaksa, a decisive leader that the nation could do with, if not be fortunate enough to have been ‘god-sent’. They voted for victory over LTTE terror in the presidential polls. They followed it up with a vote for stability in the parliamentary elections.

This, even if the average Sinhala voter may have had reservations about the conduct of individual ministers in President Rajapaksa’s large team, and MP candidates of the ruling SLFP-UPFA combine. They saw President Rajapaksa as the leader who led from the front, not the one to be led, in this case by parliamentarians and other political aides, alike.

Many among these urban middle class voters may have already returned to their traditional position for the next round of presidential polls, whenever held. It is both anti-incumbent by habit and/or pro-UNP. Definitely, they are not President Rajapaksa’s traditional voters, or that of his SLFP. His camp knows as much as his political rivals keep acknowledging it all along.

Single issue, but…

Indications are that the BBS kind of activity could still enthuse other sections of the urban middle class voters. The traditional vote-share of predecessor Sinhala-nationalist parties should be a precursor for what may be in the pipeline. The reverse is also true.

Such theories do not affect the rural Sinhala-Buddhist voters, or so it seems. It is yet unlikely that they would find in a rival to President Rajapaksa, qualities that they attribute to his leadership, to be able to consider an alternative to vote. Otherwise, they would need an issue that touches their hearts and/or purses as much.

The Executive Presidency is not one of them. It may help divergent political opinions to come together on the same platform, to try and give a strong and single-issue poll-fight to the incumbent.  It may even enthuse the traditional urban middle class voter opposed to the Executive Presidency to expect a solution to all his woes at one go, all over again.

On the issue of Executive Presidency, the Opposition would find that there is a lot of urban clatter, and of voters that are theirs anyway. The issue does not need to touch the rural voters, as it may have touched the respective Opposition political leaderships. Simple as they may be in their thinking, the rural voters have seen enough and more of presidential polls based on this single-issue over the past decades.

In all such elections, the results threw up a new Executive President, who became stronger than his predecessor(s). Again, the complexities of the constitutional processes too may not touch the rural voter as much as the urbanite. The problem of Opposition disunity lies elsewhere. So does the solution. ‘Executive Presidency’ is not the answer.

Other issues remain, on the Executive Presidency. The much-maligned scheme cannot be changed overnight, as is being believed and propagated. Whether it’s the Westminster parliamentary system or a 17-A based checks-and-balances scheme, any change-over of any kind will require a constitutional amendment with two-thirds majority in Parliament, and possibly a referendum, too.

It will also have to pass a judicial test, if someone were to contest the change-over under the existing Constitution.

It’s neither a one-off affair, nor a six-month, one-point agenda for a new, Opposition president. With parliamentary polls anyway due next year, a two-thirds majority need to be ensured for a new President if he had to push the agenda with any amount of seriousness and sincerity. Experience has shown that the incumbent ends up enjoying the fruits of Executive Presidency and would not want to change.

Provincial polls and after…

The results of the Provincial Council polls in the West and the South in recent months have enthused the divided Opposition as never before. The results, according to certain interpretations, showed that President Rajapaksa’s ‘post-war’ magic-touch is on the wane in electoral terms, but not enough to change the results, overall. It’s all bread and butter expectations, and inevitable ‘anti-incumbency’, deriving from governance issues. But do they appeal to the voter as much in a presidential poll as the candidates themselves?

The Opposition has now put their hearts into the campaign for the Uva Provincial Council polls that are due later this year. To ‘em, it’s the run-up to the presidential polls. The question remains if the presidential polls would be advanced if the ruling combine were at all to lose Uva, as the Opposition hopes. It would anyway be tough call for President Rajapaksa if the ruling combine were to lose Uva, or even win the PC with some hard work and difficulty.

Upsetting the apple-cart?

In all these calculations, where does the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ voter figure? It may matter if that constituency is large enough to upset the apple-cart for the incumbent, and that constituency has a better or a hard-liner candidate than the incumbent – all of it in the perception of that constituency. In the absence of an alternative, they either vote for the incumbent or would choose to stay at home.

Unless of course, there is a call that they cannot ignore or over-rule to do otherwise. All this should demolish theories based on excessive dependence on a core-constituency for electoral victory or defeat. Conversely, a full understanding of the constituency-effect on the voter-psyche would dictate that no candidate can ignore the hurt and anxiety of another  substantial constituency – the ‘minorities’ in the case of contemporary Sri Lanka — as different from the pride and possibilities attaching to the former.

The electoral truth lies elsewhere. It needs to be put in place, to derive the right lessons and understanding. Such an understanding would dictate that vote-bank politics based on extremist ideology won’t add up, and that they too need to be put in place.

Be it the incumbent or the Opposition – divided or united – they need additional vote-share that need to come from non-traditional constituencies, if there are still any left in substantial terms.

They need to work for identifying and attracting the same, which they think is already with the other side. Competitive consolidation does not work. It cannot be ignored, but can still be overcome – and needs to be overcome!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, head-quartered in New Delhi.

3 Comments for “Putting ‘Em In Their Place”

  1. Manuelpillai

    It only points out an attempt by the misguided lot to get the vote-bank intact with the powers today.They fail to understand the thinking of the world’s mind.

  2. gamarala

    It is NOT about “vote-bank politics”.
    It is all about the coming presidential election.
    Mahida Rajapakse needs to win at any cost.
    Hence he cannot antagonise firstly,sinhala-buddhists,and even non-Buddhist Sinhalese,and secondly,the minorities.
    His greatest worry is about a Sinhala-Buddhist candidate who will split the votes.

  3. Richard Kaz

    Sadly, this author has looked at the impact of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism only from an electoral point of view. How about the impact of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism on minorities and the decades of anti-minority violence starting from the 1950s. The impact of it that gave rise to the LTTE and driving away of Tamils from their country of birth. By turning against the Muslims post-2009, it is as if the Sri Lankan state has not learnt anything from the 30 year civil war.

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