The tide which brought Maithripala Sirisena and the UNP to power in 2015 has now turned the other way. That, at any rate, is what I gather from last week’s results. And that tide didn’t just turn: it grew and grew, until the gap between the two leading candidates, a paltry 500,000 four years ago, ballooned more than twofold to 1.3 million this time.
There are a number of factors which can account for such an increase – the youth vote, the discontent of the middle-class, the rising tide of paranoia and anti-US sentiment over the MCC deal, and of course the April 21 attacks – but at the end of the day, to emphasise on one factor over another would be futile. Gotabaya Rajapaksa won, no doubt about that, but how he won will be a matter for speculation for weeks if not months to come.
For now, all we can say with certainty is that, as with 2015, what he obtained was largely and mostly a protest vote.
In any case, the election could have gone either way, and both sides – Gotabaya and Sajith – were facing circumstances different to those which Mahinda and Maithripala faced four years ago.
For the most, the odds were against Gotabaya, though the underdog was Sajith; the latter had the advantage of contending from the ruling party but the party had lost ground after the Easter attacks, while the former had the advantage of substantial private media airtime but was not going to get much of the minority vote – which had been crucial for the opposition candidate the last time. So though their campaign was “national” in the sense that they spoke to everyone, Gotabaya’s team knew they were going to lose six districts. That left them with 19 other districts. As it turned out, they lost the districts they had planned to lose, and won, with bigger margins than last time, the ones they had planned to win.
Why one won and the other lost must be seen in the context of the approach each resorted to. In 2019, the populist candidate was not a Rajapaksa, but a Premadasa. His contender was not a populist, but then he’d secured the backing of a group of populists who had allied with his brother and had now pledged allegiance to him. Dayan Jayatilleka’s distinction between Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Left Populism and Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s authoritarianism is not really helpful, yet despite its reductionism it captures the essence of the difference between the two brothers.
That difference came out in ideology as well as in the optics: just imagine Gotabaya wearing the kurahan satakaya and think how incongruous it would have been, for instance. This difference supplemented another, bigger difference: between the two contenders. Sajith was populist but couldn’t get in disaffected sections of the bourgeoisie; Gotabaya on the other hand was technocratic and could get in the petty bourgeois and chunks of the bourgeois vote, plus he had his brothers and the joint opposition to get him the rural vote. To put it simply, in other words, Sajith spoke to the poor, but lacked a Viyath Maga.
"Gota was technocratic and could get in the petty bourgeois "
Arithmetically, Gotabaya’s team took a big risk. The margins in the UNP’s strongholds – the North, the East, parts of the Uva and Central Provinces including Kandy, Nuwara-Eliya and Badulla, and Colombocity – were going to remain the same. The SLPP’s strategy then was to minimise those margins and obtain bigger margins elsewhere. In Colombo, the really tough challenge was going to be Colombo Central – since it had been Sajith’s father’s base – while outside the city only Dehiwela and Kotte were going to be hard to get.
The disaffected middle class in the city was not going to come in droves to Gotabaya for the simple reason that the metropolitan centre, culturally cut off from the rest of the country, housed a pampered pro-UNP class. They did have misgivings about Premadasa, yet they would vote for anyone Ranil Wickremesinghe approved of. In that sense the suburban vote counted, big time: for instance, the Yahapalana brigade secured the highest victory margin since 1982 for Kotte, while this time, by a little over 8,000 votes, the margin tilted to the other side.
Margins in divisions further away from Colomboand Kotte were bound to go the SLPP way – massively so – and they did. The reason was obvious: these had turned into strongholds of the floating voter in the district, especially the floating youth vote: Avissawella, Homagama, Kaduwela, Kesbewa and Maharagama.
They contributed to a massive victory: Rajapaksa got from the district 2,000 votes more than what Maithripala got in 2015. He lost only one area outside the city, Dehiwela, and that by only a third of the margin Maithripala won it with in 2015. As for Ratmalana and Moratuwa, which Mahinda lost in 2015, well, the Buddhist and Catholic vote rallied overwhelmingly around Gotabaya.
The biggest margins came from divisions immediately leading from Nugegoda, all the way from Maharagama, Homagama and Kesbewa to Avissawella. The urban petty bourgeois vote was particularly pronounced there; mid-level professionals and government workers went out in favour of the Pohottuwa. Many of them had voted for Sirisena, and were unaffected by the joint opposition’s Nugegoda rally in 2015 (which targeted the pro-Rajapaksa voter). But the formation of the SLPP and of Viyath Maga obtruded on their consciousness: for them, the local government polls provided an opportunity through which they could support an anti-regime movement that was thoroughly professionalised. They saw such a movement in the SLPP, rather than the Left Populist joint opposition; not surprisingly, even at the time of the LG polls, they were getting ready for a Gotabaya candidacy, and presidency.
"Sajith spoke to the poor, but lacked a Viyath Maga "
How, when, why, and where the joint opposition’s Left Populism changed to Viyath Maga’s amorphous blend of hardcore authoritarianism, rationalism and professionalism are questions which remain unaddressed and unresolved. For me, a casual observer, there was not so much a transition as a transmogrification: it explains the opposition to Gotabaya’s candidacy by Kumara Welgama (who failed this time to wean his electorate from the SLPP) and the doubts about the candidacy’s viability exuded by Vasudeva Nanayakkara.
On the other hand, the old populist firebrands like Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila, Prasanna Ranatunga and Dinesh Gunawardena stayed behind. It was those firebrands who kept the momentum for Gotabaya going in areas outside Colombo. Their organisers, who went on to dominate the LG polls, did not think twice about resorting to thuggery, as the fracas in parliament after last October’s constitutional coup demonstrated: this, as we now can clearly see, distinguished the joint opposition from the discernibly more refined, genteel Viyath Maga.
Because the JO set was, unlike the Viyath Maga clique, in the fringes and not out in the open as they had been earlier, it was tempting to think that a rural exodus was about to transpire or had already transpired from the SLPP to the Sajith Premadasa faction. Not only did this grand illusion blind supporters of the UNP or the NDF; it also blinded intellectuals, think-tanks, and other Colombo-based organisations, from universities and NGOs.
Gotabaya hadn’t divided the rural vote and urban petty bourgeois vote; he had unified them. Sajith’s vaguely-defined social democratic ideals didn’t catch on with the rural base, but for those who had lived through, supported, and been a part of the Premadasa presidency, those ideals seemed to be adequate to get a chunk of the village vote. I believe Sajith was bluffing when he dared Gotabaya to win his seat, but I am convinced that many of those who lent their support to him, including Tissa Attanayake, believed that the South was going to bifurcate between the contenders.
They mistook the woods for the trees: since the middle-class Sinhala Buddhist vote had become Gotabaya’s turf, they thought they could get the rural vote plus the minority vote. The secured the latter, but failed to secure the former. That was rooted in the haste with which those whose fortunes had drastically diminished, including Harin Fernando, forced the UNP to confer the candidacy on their guy. So they compelled Ranil, and Ranil, after dithering for weeks, conceded – probably knowing they would not win.
The suburban middle-class (Buddhist and Catholic) voted overwhelmingly for Gotabaya this time around. That cannot be denied, nor can it be taken for granted. They voted for Sirisena against Gotabaya’s brother four years ago because they believed in something the brother had failed to deliver. What that something is, I can’t really tell. In any case, they have turned. And Viyath Maga played a large role in that transformation.
At the same time, however, Gotabaya has his set of hanger-ons, whose support was vital to securing a resounding majority in 2018. Which of these sides will he take? More than anything else, that will determine the trajectory and the fortunes of his presidency, in the coming few months. So yes, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has won. But will he be able to keep what he’s won?