Squabbling for Preference Votes
There are many issues being debated
in the context of the general election due to be
held on April 8 - a two-thirds majority, party
manifestos, the Proportional Representation (PR)
system- but a pervasive and pre-dominant feature
enveloping the poll is the battle for the preference
The issue has come to the forefront mostly in the
ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), so
much so that President Mahinda Rajapaksa has had to
intervene. The President has hinted that those
squabbling for preference votes should not expect
positions and portfolios in the new government.
In some ways, the battle for the preference vote at
this election is inevitable. Parliamentarians in the
UPFA have had to contend with an influx of
politicians from the United National Party (UNP) in
almost every district. Thus, under the PR system,
they face an uphill battle to get re-elected.
Even so, the intra-party tussles
have been paramount, rather than dealing with the
collective opposition for the ruling party, in this
poll. That these have reached massive proportions is
no secret to anyone now, and the evidence is there
for all to see in the form of writings on the walls.
That too would be tolerable, but the conflicts and
turf wars have now gone beyond the limits of
decency: Posters are being defaced, cut-outs of
rival candidates are being splashed with black paint
and party offices are being destroyed. The day may
not be far off when lives and limbs too are lost in
That is probably why President
Rajapaksa has reportedly suggested that those who
are embroiled in preference battles, disregarding
the norms of decency, would be overlooked for high
offices in the next government. We know the
President has the best of intentions, but this is
easier said than done.
Against this backdrop, three districts stand out:
Gampaha, Hambantota and Polonnaruwa. In these
regions, there is apparently no battle for the
preference vote. This ‘rare’ phenomenon merits
scrutiny, and the underlying factors are revealing
In both Gampaha and Hanbantota, a presidential
sibling is in the fray, with a presidential
offspring too running in the latter district. In
Polonnaruwa, the main contender happens to be the
general secretary of the major partner of the ruling
coalition, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
What this implies is that, even
among these would-be parliamentarians, there appears
to be a reluctance to cross the path of the high and
mighty, even if it costs them a seat in the
Legislature. In other districts, where there is no
such authoritarian figure heading the list, it is a
veritable free-for-all among the candidates.
This is best highlighted in the Ratnapura district.
The two leading aspirants are ministers, one being a
lady and both being of similar seniority within the
SLFP. The battle for the preference vote is extreme
in intensity, though what they are fighting for, in
reality, is only the number one slot, both being
assured of re-election.
When one considers this scenario with what prevails
in Gampaha, Hambantota and Polonnaruwa, it suggests
that party discipline plays a key role ultimately.
If the party is in a position to crack the whip, the
contestants do fall in line.
The Gampaha district is the best
example of this. There are many high flying
candidates, most of them ministers, and while they
have launched their respective campaigns, the
atmosphere is, by and large, one of live and let
live. Even a minister notorious for his indecent
antics, is keeping a low profile.
That the onus is on the party to stem the rot is
further suggested by the policy adopted by the
Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The leftist party
has a policy of selecting candidates on its own,
regardless of the voters’ preferences. This may not
sound very democratic, yet the battle for
preferences is non-existent.
It is true that President Rajapaksa
has publicly declared that this election would be
the last poll where the battle for preferences would
be fought. But the President’s desire to scrap the
PR system of voting depends on whether his UPFA
obtains a two-thirds majority, which is an uphill
Therefore, in the event that the PR system is
retained, there is a considerable challenge ahead
for all political parties, if they are keen on not
only winning elections, but also preserving party
unity and protecting the party faithful in the
It would then be the ultimate
responsibility of the respective parties to ensure
that men and women of political skill are nominated
on their lists, and that, these men and women also
have the courage of their convictions to fight their
political battles as a team, not as selfish
Rewarding such personalities with cabinet portfolios
and ignoring those who do not keep to these
standards, may be one way of achieving this, but it
would be much better if our would-be legislators
realise the follies of their deeds and take it upon
themselves to do so.