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Lessons from the previous regime

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Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat at the presidential election was not a surprise as the contest was always too close to call since the advent of President Maithripala Sirisena as the opposing candidate. Yet, it has left many asking the question ‘what went wrong?’

 A simplistic explanation has been offered: Rajapaksa lost the election due to the vote against him in the North and East. The former President himself emerged from his Tangalle residence and told crowds that President Sirisena won because of “Eelam votes”. That though is not quite true.

 Statistically, it is true that the majorities given to President Sirisena in the two provinces amount to more than his ultimate majority. However, many other factors contributed to Rajapaksa’s downfall. It would be naïve to attribute his defeat only to losing the minority vote.

 A study of the voting pattern reveals that, in 2010 too, Rajapaksa lost in the North and East; so, this was not a new phenomenon even if the margins of these losses increased at this election. In contrast to 2010, however, Rajapaksa also lost support in key districts in the South in 2015.

 For instance, in the Colombo district, a 81,000 majority for Rajapaksa in 2010 transformed into a loss by 162,000 in 2015. Similarly, Rajapaksa won the Gampaha district by a whopping 284,000 votes over Sarath Fonseka but lost it by 4000 votes to Sirisena at last week’s election.

 The same pattern was seen in the Puttlam district which Rajapaksa won in 2010 by a comfortable 65,000 votes, only to lose to Sirisena in 2015 by 4000 votes. Sirisena also easily won his home district of Polonnaruwa by 42,000 votes though Rajapaksa won it comprehensively by 65,000 votes in 2010.

http://www.nation.lk/edition/images/2015/01/04/Main/this-my-nation.jpgIt is also relevant to note that overall, Rajapaksa’s vote has been reduced from 6 million in 2010 to 5.7 million in 2015. This was despite an increase in the number of registered voters by one million during that period and a significant increase in the voter turnout from 74 percent to 81 percent.

 These results show that while the contribution from the North and East towards Sirisena’s victory was significant, this was not the sole factor. Rajapaksa’s losses in other regions were heavier and left no room for him to compensate for his poor performance in the North and East.

 Statistics apart, Rajapaksa’s defeat merits careful scrutiny for the factors that contributed towards it because the burden of incumbency alone will not explain why a leader who was at the zenith of his popularity four years would fall from grace and that too to a relatively low profile minister.

 Many factors are responsible. Growing allegations of corruption, increasing involvement of the first family in government, the immunity ruling party members enjoyed for their errors of omission and commission and the manner in which the election campaign was conducted are notable among them.

 Corruption allegations grew from being speculation to a more tangible issue during the campaign, especially when ex-ministers such as Champika Ranawaka and the well informed Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake gave voice to them. And, there were hardly any denials.

 The involvement of the first family went beyond the President’s siblings. In fact it could be argued that siblings Chamal and Gotabaya did justice to their positions and continue to command respect. It is the distribution of key appointments to the extended family that raised issues of nepotism.

 The issue of law and order-and the impunity with which ruling party members violated it at all levels without consequences was also a key factor in alienating voters from the government. In the end, Mahinda Rajapaksa was blamed as he had executive powers but did not act decisively on this issue.

The ruling party campaign strategists also got it all wrong. The gross abuse of state media, the use of cut-outs, resorting to false and personal allegations against Sirisena in the media, the assault on local artistes and the antics of the likes of Nishantha Muthuhettigama added to Rajapaksa’s unpopularity.

The campaign also picked wrong spokespersons for the government. The arrogance displayed by Ministers Johnston Fernando, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Mahindananda Aluthgamage and especially Wimal Weerawansa during television talk shows and rallies could not have been of help to Rajapaksa.

Campaign strategists - perhaps deluded by astrological predictions - didn’t believe Rajapaksa could lose despite signs of a close contest being evident to the man on the street: the Sirisena campaign’s zeal, the general feeling of discontent and buses being required to carry crowds to Rajapaksa’s rallies.

The outcome is now history. Rajapaksa must be ruing the decision to call for elections two years ahead of schedule. For the nation though, it would be best if the new government learnt from the mistakes of the old regime even if President Sirisena says he will not contest elections again.

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