Reading the Result
Law and Trust Society Review May 2018 says according to the election results, it is clear that – except in the area subject to the Weliweriya – Rathupaswala drinking water controversy and brutal attack on protestors – in Bandarawela, Beruwela and Lahugala, the SLPP has failed to secure the landslide victory depicted by their overall island-wide result. Therefore, it could be assumed that people in these field survey sites still bear a grudge against Mahinda Rajapaksa for the harms to them which took place during his presidency.
However, in order to understand the underlying reality, the ethnic composition of the wards that the SLPP has lost should be studied. The majority of the population in Nayabeddawatta ward that the SLPP lost in Bandarawela Pradeshiya Sabha (PS); as well as those of the wards of Ella, Ballakatuwa and Demodara in Ella PS, are Hill-Country Tamils (who overwhelmingly supported the Sirisena candidacy in the January 2015 Presidential election and voted for the UNP/UNF in the August 2015 Parliamentary election).
Similarly, the Muslim community forms the majority of the population in the wards of Dharga Town, Weliwitiya, Maggona and Malewana that SLPP lost in the Beruwala PS. This minority community also opposed the previous government in 2015. Likewise, Enderamulla-1 which is the only ward the SLPP lost in Mahara Pradeshiya Sabha, is the only area where Sinhalese are a numerical minority (it is a Muslim majority electorate). Bandarawela Municipal Council, where Muslim and Tamil communities are usually important in deciding elections, was won by an independent group backed by the SLPP, SLFP and CWC (thus gathering votes of non-Sinhala communities supportive of the SLFP and CWC candidates). The leader of that independent group is currently a strong supporter of Mahinda Rajapaksa; and previously held the office of Mayor for over 20 years representing the UNP.
To explain this confusing scenario, this independent group were not official candidates of the SLPP. Thus, none of their candidates participated in the SLPP election rally in Bandarawela town which was addressed by Rajapaksa. Neither did the former President call upon people to vote for that independent group, despite some of his supporters contesting on that independent list.
It is true that in Lahugala PS, where a majority of the population in the five wards that faced the land-grab issue in Paanama are Sinhalese, the SLPP lost in four out of five wards. However, this result should be interpreted in the context of the result of previous elections in that division. Traditionally, this area is a UNP stronghold and it won all the five wards in the 2011 Local Government election. This time they won only three wards; while one ward was won by the UPFA and the other by SLPP. According to the views expressed by residents of Paanama, the SLPP result is not a setback but an advance in a former UNP stronghold.
“We thought the UNP would win this ward by a great majority. However, they won only by 10 votes. More people voted for Mahinda than expected.”
By the manner the SLPP executed its election campaign in areas of multi-ethnic composition, it is clear that it has realized it is difficult to win the support of non-Sinhala communities. For instance, the strategy adopted by the SLPP to win the Beruwala PS was to focus on winning the Sinhala-majority wards by a great majority; rather than making efforts at getting more votes in wards such as Dharga Town where the numerical majority are Muslims.
In their election propaganda in Sinhala majority wards, the SLPP charged the present government with being one formed with the support of minority communities and thereby dancing to their tune rather than the wishes of the majority community. The SLPP appeal to the Sinhala majority was to strengthen Mahinda Rajapaksa in order to recover that community’s lost superiority.
JVP and the Bandarawela campaign
The JVP had formed an organization named ‘Peoples’ Front Against Uma Oya Multi-Destructive Project’ with the support of community activists from affected areas. It also organized many protests including a highly successful Hartal which brought Bandarawela town to a standstill and led to the direct intervention of the President in mediating this issue.
At the 2018 Local Government election, this movement contested as an Independent Group in the Bandarawela PS and Bandarawela Municipal Council. Instead of an election campaign similar to that of the mainstream political parties, based on national-level power politics and needs, the approach the JVP took was to highlight the crucial issue of people in the area – which is the destructive consequences of the Uma Oya project on their homes, land, livelihood and water supply. Also the Peoples’ Front presented a local development plan for the two local bodies. Although this movement was clearly backed by the JVP, in the submission of nominations, the opportunities to contest were equally divided between the JVP’s own supporters and non-JVP leaders of the movement. There were no large-scale rallies in its election campaign.
Their approach was to raise awareness among people by explaining their future plans through house-to-house canvassing and by holding pocket meetings in different places. Although the JVP organized rallies throughout the island, none were organized in Bandarawela. Instead the Independent Group decided its own strategy which was to campaign using community networks.
However, there were occasions where some persons (particularly a Buddhist monk) who participated as speakers in the pocket meetings of the Independent Group made contradictory statements. The monks emphasised that every vote cast for the Independent Group was a vote for the JVP. Such statements undermined the positive approach of the JVP towards the Independent Group. In fact, the JVP’s approach in Bandarawela should be appreciated in terms of the promotion of representative democracy at the local government level.
This unique step taken by the JVP enthused people elsewhere and raised expectations of a victory against the mainstream parties in the Bandarawela PS. Unfortunately this hope was not reflected in the election result. It was the SLPP that gained an overwhelming victory in the Bandarawela PS. This result is a blow to those who believed that the new electoral system allows for local aspirations and local people to come to the fore in local government.
Waiting for Mahinda mahaththaya
In its election campaign, the SLPP repeatedly asked people to make use of this election as an opportunity to protest against the coalition government. It further requested people to make this the first move to bring Mahinda Rajapaksa back into power.
From the election results in the four field research locations, it is clear that many people have indeed taken the chance to express their displeasure in the present government. There are multiple reasons for such disappointment. People in Paanama are disappointed in the present government’s failure to solve their demand for return of their land. After the change of government, they accused a powerful UNP minister of planning to continue the proposed hotel project on their lands.
People in Dharga town are frustrated that the present government has failed to bring any of the Sinhala Buddhist perpetrators of the 2014 attacks before the law.
People of Weliweriya are angry with the broken promise of the present President, who visited them during the 2015 Presidential election campaign and promised to solve all their problems. But up to date, he has failed to make any positive intervention; even regarding the cases that were filed against the villagers by the company allegedly responsible for the contamination of water.
People affected by the Uma Oya project in Bandarawela are furious with the present government for proceeding with the destructive project. Although it was initiated by the Rajapaksa government, only 20% of the project had been completed by the end of 2014; whereas the remainder has been implemented by the current government.
Further, residents complain that most of the damage was caused by the sudden halting of the excavation of the tunnel for a few months after the change of government in 2015 (when all development projects associated with the previous regime were suspended).
They also believe that the present government failed to take immediate steps to stop the water leakage inside the tunnel. Moreover, dissatisfaction about payment of compensation for cracked and damaged houses; problems related to payment of compensation for destruction of cultivation; and a reduction in fertilizer subsidy by the government, too have become major factors to the political disadvantage of the present government. In summary, the people have expressed their displeasure over the failure of the coalition government to work out practical solutions to their problems.
Nevertheless, the paradox is that people in these four places, who are unhappy with the actions and inactions of the government, have expressed their sentiment by resorting to vote in favour of the very person who is responsible for beginning or adding to their troubles. Significantly, what was revealed through our interviews is that the majority of the people have no faith or confidence in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ability or interest in bringing them better solutions. Instead, what people expect from him is simply a change – even if it is negative in nature – in place of a government that has failed to make any meaningful change to their lives.
It seems that the reason for people to reach this conclusion is that they believe Mahinda Rajapaksa to be a strong leader who is authoritative and action-oriented. This is connected with the image his supporters always attribute to him, i.e. as ‘the hero who won the war’.
Karu Jayasuriya, Speaker of Parliament, when placing his signature on the Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Bill to assent to its enactment, said in the presence of the media in October 2017, that the most significant feature of this new electoral system is that it provides voters a direct opportunity of electing a representative for their area; and is therefore a vital step in taking representative democracy to the local level.
After the local government election that was held under the said new electoral system, Member of Parliament Bandula Gunawardana (who supports SLPP/Joint Opposition), stated at a press conference that this result is a victory for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He further said that even if a coconut husk had been presented as a local candidate by the SLPP, it would have won through the charisma of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
This statement obviously implies that the new electoral system, which was created exerting a lot of effort over a long period of time, has failed to strengthen representative democracy. The way the political parties of this country acted in the election process shows that they have taken action to subvert those expectations. The mass media too has made a considerable contribution in that regard. Further, this election result reveals that the SLPP, which intends to gain the governing power in future (most probably in 2019/20), keeps confidence in its Sinhala voter base. This election result too, has proved that Mahinda Rajapaksa is not attractive to non-Sinhala ethnic communities.
Further, (Sinhala) people choose Mahinda Rajapaksa not because they always expect goodness and justice from him, but because he is considered to be strong and decisive as against the weakness and wavering of the coalition government.
Thus, it is not wrong to analyze the political change that people expect to achieve in 2019/2020 as a complex expression of utter disappointment in the present scenario.