Sajith Has His Job Cut Out


(MENAFN- Colombo Gazette) By N Sathiya Moorthy

In the common man's belief, an intent-on-voting opinion poll, that too on phone with only around 500 samples is a not a good way to assess the mood of the voter in an election year. Yet, in the absence of any other bench-mark from the ground, something is better than nothing, especially when the opinion poll seems to have a scientific basis to it.

In this background, the latest data from the Sri Lanka Opinion Tracker Survey (SLOTS) by the Institute for Health Policy (IHP) should be something to go by. The October reading of the Tracker shows that JVP's Anura Kumara Dissanayake, AKD, might have won the presidency, pooling the mandated 50-per cent-plus vote-share, if election were held that month. But that was not the case, and that (alone?) should keep the hopes alive for the rest of 'em all, especially the Opposition SJB leader and presidential candidate, Sajith Premadasa.

According to the SLOTS, AKD passed the test with the required 51-per cent vote-share, followed by Sajith P, 30 per cent and incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe, 13. The irony continues to be that of the 'ruling' (?) SLPP, which even without a candidate to take to the voters, continues to remain in the single-digit, with six per cent.

Compared to past polls, Dissanayake alone has scored more, up from the highest past figure of 42 per cent in the post-Aragalaya Tracker series. Sajith may have actually lost when Ranil's figures are hovering just above the two-digit mark, give or take one or two per cent. Translated, it means, all anti-JVP forces should come together if they even have to have a fighting chance that is going by SLOTS-October.

Published reports carried error quotients but there was no mention of 'undecided voters' and those who were definite in October that they would boycott the polls. Even if their numbers may be low – and it may not be – the figure would matter when push comes to the shove, and there is hope for others too in the race to come on the top of the heap, with unending hopes of making it in the first round.

Project Reunification

It is anybody's guess if Sajith and his SJB are taking such opinion polls seriously and are working on them, or if they have they own ways to evaluate the voter-mood on a given day and month, to strategise on their own. Unless motives could be attributed to the IHP-SLOTs series (and none has said so), they cannot ignore it, either.

Going by what is available on the table, for Sajith and SJB to have a fighting chance, they should have a strategy to get all anti-JVP votes together on the side. That means they would have to patch up with the UNP parent and President Ranil, who too has not hidden his ambitions to contest next year's elections.

Reunification of the two becomes essential for the so-called free market policies and parties to take on the rabidly socialist JVP – under the given set of circumstances. Can they afford to leave our the SLPP with less than six per cent vote-share under the present circumstances is another question altogether. Independent of the triangular leadership issues and ego clashes – what with there being one too many Rajapaksas to contend with, in an unlikely alliance, this may not at all happen.

In which case, where is Sajith's vote going to come from, assuming that he still has a fighting chance and he would not patch up with Ranil, nor with the Rajapaksas, who are both an ideological mismatch and historic adversaries in native Hambantota? It will remain so even if the fact remained that the Rajapaksas and the SLPP may need allies more than the other way round. That will remain significantly so at least until they name their candidate, if any, for the presidential poll (other than Ranil) and launch their campaign.

Untouchables for allies

For the Rajapaksas, two-term President Mahinda has already launched a broadside by listing out the faults of previous regimes, especially the 'Government of National Unity' (GNU) for rendering a 'good governance' which it was never ever through the five years from 2015. If it was also his response to the Supreme Court holding them all accountable for the economic crisis last year, he did not mention it as such.

It remains to be seen if the Rajapaksas really take the battle to the other camp(s). Whether it has even a remote chance for success is an entirely another matter. Just now even more, the Rajapaksas are total untouchables as an alliance partner, even if a minor partner. But will the voters' mood remain the same through the coming months is another factor, but there is nothing to suggest that it could change violently.

If the SLOTS figures are anything to go by, the SJB should assume that the 13 per cent that identifies with incumbent Ranil is traditional UNP votes that have broken away from Premadasa's 2019 presidential poll figure of 42 per cent. A back-of-the-envelope calculation would leave the SJB now with around 30 per cent, which is what the opinion survey has given Sajith now.

Thirty per cent was the kind of vote-share that came from the minorities in the 2019 elections, going by district-wise figures, where the traditional voters of the SLT, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil allies of the SJB are concentred. Translated, this means, the SJB and Sajith, not necessarily in that order, might not have any Sinhala-Buddhist votes to go by.

Granting that the minorities continue to vote for Sajith as they are already upset with incumbent Ranil more than ever, the SJB would still have to look around for another 20 per cent, at the very least. Taking the more recent Parliament polls of 2020 into account, Sajith's current popularity is a fourth more than the old figure of 24 per cent.

Controversial visit

The alternative is for Sajith to wean away a substantial share of existing vote-shares, as allotted by the SLOTS to JVP's Dissanayake. It is not impossible, yet it is not going to be easy either. Rather, it is going to be as much hard for the SJB to do it as it is also so for the JVP, independent of the current projections and predictions.

It is not as if the AKD-JVP combine is not incapable of losing some votes. For instance, the Tracker poll occurred before Dissanayake's controversial US visit last month. While his new voters may or may not have problems with the visit, the JVP's core minimum three per cent might look askance. Yet, for the cadre-based party to be able to dream of presidency since founding as far back as 1965 (though as a militant outfit at the time), they may acquiesce to the ground realities unless there is a trigger for them to act and vote otherwise.

Going back to back-of-the-envelope calculations, it can be safely assumed that most, if not all of the traditional Rajapaksa votes identified with Mahinda R, is going to AKD and his JVP. Ideologically, they belong to the same traditional socialist camp – and both have a rural background, which the two Preamadasas, namely, the late father and the present son, have not been able to inject into the old-world 'UNP voter-base'.

There is a caveat – nay, add-on finding. When the SLPP won the nation-wide local council polls in 2018, the presidential polls the next year and the parliamentary elections yet another year later, the parent SLFP's identifiable 13-per cent vote-share had travelled with it. At the time, the SLFP needed the SLPP and the Rajapaksas more than they needed their leader, Maithripala Sirisena.

Hence, Sirisena, after all that estrangement from the Rajapaksas, ended up contesting the 2020 parliamentary elections on the SLPP's 'Lotus Bud' symbol. But he has not forgiven the Rajapaksas for not giving him a Cabinet berth in the short-lived Gotabaya Government. Looking back, Sirisena should have thanked the family for leaving him out of the mess that they had created and also left behind.

That Sirisena himself created a mess of his own, in the company of his Prime Minister Ranil, now President is another story, for another day. The fact for now is that Sirisena and the SLPP have no votes to offer the SJB and Sajith, as they are supposedly with AKD and the JVP already. Hence the question is, when you say that Sajith has to wean away voters from the JVP, it is Sirisena, if he intends partnering with the SJB, who has to (be able to) do it.

The implausible question is about the JVP itself. Over the past decades, the party's vote-share has been consistently coming down. It was 5.75 per cent in the nation-wide local government elections of 2018, 3.16 per cent in the presidential polls in 2019 and 3.84 per cent in the 2020 parliamentary polls.

Truth be acknowledged, on the election-eves in the past, the JVP and allies had gathered more people at capital Colombo's Galle Face Green in campaign meetings than they might have got as votes in the polls that soon followed. So, AKD and the JVP too would have to look up at the crystal ball, to see where exactly their votes are going to come from, if at all, without resting on their unearned laurels.

After all, Aragalaya, which has given the JVP this push in public imagination, has not changed anything other than effecting a regime-change, in a not-so-democratic way. So, how other components of it, if they really were there, would work on the ground remains a big 'IF', still...

(The writer is a Policy Analyst & Political Commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: ...)

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