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Sixty-month challenge in the House

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Rajapaksa party falters; voters preferred the UNF and  a Maithri-Ranil Government


In his latest book on political marketing, a timely release during the electioneering process, Dr. Sunil Jayantha Navaratna argues that a vote by a person to a particular political party or to a candidate is a temporary loan based on a package presented through propaganda and promotion during the campaign. That package consists of seven Ps: Person , Party and Logo, Policies & Plans, Promises, Performances, Perceptions & Predictions and Payback.

When analysing the August 17 polls according to the above argument, it seems that the UNF has succeeded in packaging its seven Ps-or at least most of them - but still did not manage to secure the required simple majority (113 seats) as a single party. In fact the battle was not a direct competition between two persons as it happened on January 8, but a battle between a person and a set of policies which the majority trusted. 

Going by Dr Navaratna’s logic, the UPFA had only two strong Ps within its camp. The first was the ‘Person’ in Mahinda Rajapaksa; the entire UPFA campaign was designed around his charisma and all the candidates magnetised around it. The other P that worked for him was his ‘Performances’ – not on governance or economic development of the country – but purely on war. One could argue that the votes the UPFA bagged were still payback or gratitude for winning the war – mainly from his strong Sinhala – Buddhist vote base. Other than those two reasons, I don’t think his voters trusted his Policies & Plans, Promises or even Perceptions. 

On the other hand Goebbel’s theory of repeating a lie until it becomes a virtual truth would have worked well for the Mahinda camp. Its repeated claims on nationalism and patriotism rooted deep into a Sinhala Buddhist audience was well depicted by the polling pattern around the country.

Mind you, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s achievement of 95 seats was amidst massive claims of corruption, nepotism, mismanagement, murder and other alleged criminal charges against his family and other team members. Also his campaign continued to get affected by a major split within his camp, with  President Sirisena throwing two powerful bombs-one at the beginning through a speech and at the end through a hard-hitting letter and removing the two most powerful party secretaries. In that context, Rajapaksa performed well, though he lost the battle.

In contrast the UNF did not make many mistakes during its seven-month regime except for the infamous bond issue which was the only major weapon that both the UPFA and the JVP used against their major opponent. A closer study would reveal that there had not been a wrong-doing in the bond issue except for a non-declaration of a conflict of interest. But, when compared to the number of cases of corruption by the former administration of the Central Bank during the previous regime, the bond issue was a non-event. But whether the UNF was successful in countering this allegation of a scam-a highly technical matter - is a pertinent question. No average voter (or even UNF’s own candidates) would understand the UNF’s technical clarification on the bond issue. They rather listen to the echoing allegations of a massive scam both from UPFA and JVP platforms. 

With all these benefits and challenges, Mahinda Rajapaksa has managed to retain his vote base of 2010 (4.8 million votes) with a slight decrease of 2.35%. In contrast the UNF has managed to increase its popularity by 116% - attracting 2.7 million new votes to its 2.3 million votes in 2010.It means that the UNF has secured most of the floating vote. The sad story is that of the JVP, which was expected to perform better with at least 10 seats. 

What is the secret behind this success of the UNF? If we analyse it according to Dr Navaratna’s arguments, they centre on Policies & Plans, Promises, Performances and Perceptions & Predictions. The campaign to ‘clean up the house’ worked well, at least with the UNF camp. Though people generally do not trust manifestos,  it seemed that the UNP five-fold development strategy has won the confidence of its vote base.

In fact, to my mind, in the political environment of the past few months, securing a direct majority by the UNF would not have been a major challenge, as Chandrika did in 1994. But  her advantage was that she was a new face to the political landscape that provided fresh blood to the ailing SLFP and its coalition. But this time, though there were no fresh faces in the main race, the UNF had many trump cards to bring it a comfortable majority. 

The absence of powerful speakers on main platform was noticed during the entire UNF campaign. It was the party leader Wickremasinghe who took all the election rallies on his shoulders along with Imthiaz Bakeer Markar with Karu Jayasuriya operating from Siri Kotha on the national level. All the others were busy collecting their ‘manapes’ in their respective districts. The party was not benefited from the grass root popularity of Sajith Premadasa who confined himself to Hambantota. In contrast the UPFA had a full team travelling around the country along with Rajapaksa. But, there is a powerful second-tier leadership of the UNP emerging from grass roots and elsewhere. Harin Fernando, Ruwan Wijeywardene and Ajith Perera are among them. These young bloods should be well groomed and protected to ensure the sustainability and well-being of the party.

Nevertheless, the biggest challenge of the UNF is meeting the expectations of its five million odd voters and others. A new country in sixty months through a five-fold strategy is not a path of roses but could be the biggest challenge ever in post- conflict Sri Lanka. On the other hand, maintaining a clean track record in governance is among the high expectations of  voters who had been fed piles of corruption stories for the past ten years. No country can totally eliminate corruption, but it is a matter of scale. The effort should be to rise up in the international lists of anti-corruption barometers. 

The biggest challenge to the new Maithri-Ranil government would be to maintain its stronghold within the House for the next sixty months. Mahinda Rajapaksa, who created history by stepping down to the position of a parliamentarian from an executive presidency, has said he would continue in politics. He has already proved that he is a person who never gives up. Thus, no sensible person would believe he would remain silent and neutral in and outside Parliament, Instead, he would continue to create headaches both to Maithri and Ranil using all available opportunities. To my mind, Maithri should get his acts together in securing his power base within the party as the first step in countering Rajapaksa while Ranil Wickremasinghe should ensure delivery of what he has promised.
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