The outcome of the Uva Provincial Council election was a foregone conclusion. The election itself was not meant to be a game changer in the existing status- quo of political power at the national level and as expected, the UPFA romped home to victory. It polled fewer votes than it did in the previous Uva Provincial Council election held in 2009.
However, such comparisons do not have a practical value for that the 2009 poll was held months after the military victory over the Tamil Tigers, at a time when the government was riding on a wave of popular support. (In 2009, UPFA secured 72 per cent of popular votes against 22 per cent polled by the UNP, winning 25 seats in the 34 member Provincial Council.)
This time around, the combined opposition (UNP 44.7 %) and JVP (4.6 %) secured more votes in the Badulla District than the UPFA (47.3%).
In the Monaragala District, UPFA reasserted itself securing 58 per cent of popular votes against UNP’s 31.9 per cent.
At the end, it won the Provincial Council, securing 17 seats, against UNP and JVP tally of 15 seats. With two bonus seats, UPFA will have 19 seats and enjoys a convincing majority in the Provincial Council. Contrary to the popular perception, Provincial Council elections do not necessarily become an outburst of public discontent with the government. Nor is it a barometer to gauge how the voters would behave in a future Presidential or Parliamentary election.
In general, voter behavior of previous Provincial Council elections is that they tend to vote with the incumbent government. Since the late 80s, all but two Provincial Council elections held in the country (Barring the North East, where ethnic passions overwhelm voting) are won by the party in the government at the time. The two notable exceptions were Chandrika Kumaratunga’s win in the Western Provincial Council election in 1993 and People’s Alliance victory in the Southern Provincial Council in 1994. The two incidents were the precursors of a change in the national power and were also a manifestation of the mounting public discontent with the UNP regime at the time.
However, the two provinces, Western and Southern, which set the precedent were relatively rich and politically conscious. Whereas Uva is a backwater in Sri Lankan politics. It is hardly a standard setter. In this context, even, the UNP’s impressive performance in Badulla is unlikely to have much impact, in terms of rejuvenating dejected opposition voters.
Also, Sri Lanka has too many elections, which makes the outcome of Provincial Council and local government elections largely redundant in the wider discourse. That the Provincial Council leaders are subservient to the party leaders and have little practical autonomy in terms of policy making, further weaken the allure of the Provincial Council system. However, none of those factors has discouraged over 70 per cent of registered voters from exercising their franchise in Saturday’s election.
Those numbers suggest that the rural electorate is still abuzz with politics, while voter apathy is being felt in the urban centres of the Western Province. Nonetheless, the bottom line is that the government has won another election.
It would be puzzling for an outside observer that the incumbent administration, which is accused of its gloomy human rights record is winning elections, hands down. In the eyes of outsiders and even discerning locals, it is a case that tests the true meaning of electoral democracy.
That a government which has an authoritarian tilt is continuing to win multiparty elections is an interesting phenomenon, though it is not unique to Sri Lanka.
The misuse of State property and the intimidation of opposition were frequent in recent elections. Those factors though provide an undue advantage to the ruling party, do not provide a convincing explanation about the series of election successes of the incumbent regime.
In a civilized society, abuse of power and government’s excesses tend to provoke a strong reaction from the public, who would rather vote against a government in a show of protest. That is exactly what culminated in the People’s Alliance’s victory in the Southern Provincial Council in 1994. However, 20 years on, Sri Lankan voters have so accustomed to the government’s excesses and abuse of power, (Including by the PA government that they cheerfully voted to office) that they have lost their spirit and faith in the system.
It is this particular sense of detachment and disconnect with the political system, that is being so brazenly manipulated to serve the political and personal ambitions of a few in the ruling cohort, that has perpetuated the rule of the incumbent regime.
To make matters worse, there is no convincing political alternative at the moment. The UNP has lost its best minds due to the crossovers and those who remain with the party are busy fighting with each other. That leaves the public with a limited political choice.
And despondent voters have opted to stay with the incumbent administration, which has used its democratic mandate to enhance powers of the executive at the expense of country’s independent institutions and rolled back fundamental rights and civil liberties.
This lopsided outcome also reveals deep structural flaws in Sri Lankan democracy, many of which are common to the other flawed democracies in the developing world.
However, Sri Lanka’s dilemma has been aggravated by the 18th Amendment which removed the mandatory term limits of the Presidency and weakened Independent Commissions.
When the political structures of the State become increasingly authoritarian and suffocating, people are left with limited options.
Also, in the Sri Lankan context, patriotism has been given a new meaning by the government which has interpreted that the blind loyalty to the ruling party as being patriotic.
Overdose of propaganda to that effect is effective in conditioning the public opinion. In the meanwhile, while the public are enthralled by the government version of events, rarely contesting it, their own fundamental rights are being grossly violated; checks and balances mechanisms of the State are dismantled and their own government is facing a grave deficit of international legitimacy in the eyes of the practicing democracies in the world. It is this dichotomy of electoral democracy, which is not limited to Sri Lanka that would continue to puzzle the political scientists for decades to come.
Perhaps equally interesting question is as to why Sri Lankans continue to vote for a government which is overtly authoritarian and driven by familial politics, rather than confronting it on the streets and through the ballet box.
The answer to that question would partly address the concerns raised in the earlier puzzle.
Like its authoritarian counterparts, such as Mahathir’s Malaysia or Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore or contemporary China, the Rajapaksa administration has succeeded in delivering economic goods and services to the public. While suppressing political freedoms and civil liberties, the incumbent government has enhanced economic opportunities. This is primarily the pro- growth authoritarian model that Tiger economies of South East Asia followed for decades with a marked success. This is also the model that J.R.Jayewardene sought to emulate after his electoral victory in 1977 and to that end, he drafted a new Constitution and further tinkered with it to make it suit to his personal political ambitions through repeated amendments.
However, he failed miserably and was soon besieged by twin insurgencies in the North and the South. There again, Rajapaksa differs from his predecessor. His brand is more of populist authoritarianism vis a vis Jayewardene’s elitist oriented pro-growth authoritarianism, the latter was akin to that was practiced by Lee Kuan Yew.
The Rajapaksa model is more sustainable than the other variety in this part of the world, for the president has the luxury to draw from a fountain of diverse public sentiments ranging from nationalism, anti-imperialism, patriotism, west bashing etc, each when it suits his political agenda. He has been quite successful in doing that.
He is equally successful in embarking on an ambitious economic programme, which is now his main trump card. Whereas his more liberal predecessors, such as Chandrika Kumaratunga failed in building country’s infrastructure and bringing in large scale investment to the country. Rajapaksa has succeeded transforming the infrastructure landscape. He has dared to think big. Proposed projects such as the Colombo Port City and the Northern Express Way are symbols of his self confidence, which his predecessors lacked.
Also the failure of his predecessors in the economic front resulted in an overall public discontent with the system, which Rajapaksa has masterly exploited. After decades of stagnation in infrastructure and economy in general, people who are enthralled by the incumbent administration’s economic performance, are willing to overlook authoritarian tendencies of his regime.
The Uva Provincial Council election is yet another expression of that particular public mood. And it is hard to expect that mood would swing anytime soon, unless, of course, the government commits a fatal miscalculation, leading to a major confrontation with the public. (Every time that happened, such as in Rathupaswala and the Police shooting of the Free Trade Zone worker in Negombo, the government has backed off, another sign of its matured strategy)
Of course, voters tend to vote differently in Presidential and Parliamentary elections. However, given the public mood at the time and the absence of a convincing political alternative, the prospects of a political change in the near future is remote.
However, extraneous factors such as the on -going UN Human Rights Council probe could swing the pendulum. Such an intervention could have mixed results, depending on the maturity of the society.
In the meantime, it is safe to say that the verdict of the Uva Provincial Council is a manifestation of public mood within the contrasting political and economic realities of our time. After all, we are handicapped and our freedoms are compromised by those existential realities.
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