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 vote.
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 the melee.

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 indeed.
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 task indeed.
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 process.

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 individuals.
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.