No certainty in the presidential election

The presidential election to be held at the end of this year promises to be one of the most closely fought contests in the recent past. With two of the mainstream political parties having unveiled their choices for the candidacy, the attention has turned to the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was announced several weeks ago as the candidate for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), is still to receive the official backing of the SLFP. This past week, discussions continued between the two parties over a potential alliance for the upcoming election. With the discussions once again ending with no clear agreement, rumour mills continued to spurt out stories that the SLFP will in fact be fielding their own candidate.

SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara hinted to the media that his party may choose to nominate President Maithripala Sirisena as their own candidate.

In the event the SLFP does choose to contest the election with their own candidate, it will open the door for potentially four mainstream parties having thrown their hats into the ring.

The UNP on the other hand has made it clear that while discussions are continuing over who their candidate will be, they are in no hurry to make an announcement owing to the fact that the election is not scheduled for another several months.

However, once all the candidates have been announced, and the election called for by the Election Commissioner, attention will turn to the candidates and their chances in the contest.

Since 1982, Sri Lanka’s presidential elections have been a two-horse race, with the smaller parties putting forth candidates in the hope that certain issues would not go unnoticed. For the most part, Sri Lanka has been a two-party political system, with several smaller parties remaining on the fringes with their vote banks demarcated along ethnic or religious lines.

In the 1999 presidential election, whilst the SLFP and the UNP were the parties that commanded the overwhelming majority of the votes, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) fronted a candidate in the form of Nandana Gunathilaka.

On that occasion, while Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga emerged victorious for the SLFP, the election saw the JVP candidate obtain 4% of the national vote. While it was not enough to sway the election, it illustrated that the JVP did hold a sizeable vote bank that could be pivotal in a more tightly fought contest.

Less about party policies, more about the individual

In the 2018 local government elections, which is the most recent national election, no single party was able to secure an outright majority. The SLPP, which is considered the front runner in the upcoming presidential election, won 40% of the vote, the UNP obtained 29%, and the SLFP secured 12%. Between the JVP and the TNA, 7% of the vote was divided (5% and 2%, respectively).

With neither the UNP nor the SLFP having announced their candidates, it would seem that in the event four candidates are announced, the election will not be decided in a single count.

The 2018 electoral defeat of the UNP has been described by political analysts as being the result of an anti-UNP vote led by their own disgruntled voters.

For the SLPP, their strong showing at their first official election was due to the grassroots campaigning carried out by Buddhist monks. It was the noticeable absence of political figures at the groundlevel which allowed them to capture the anti-politico vote which is continuing to emerge in the market. However, whether the emergence of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as their candidate will be capable of replicating this strong showing remains to be seen.

The presidential election in Sri Lanka is less about party policies and more about the individual and his or her ability to command nationwide support.

The SLPP, recognising this, has announced a joint Gotabaya-Mahinda Rajapaksa ticket for the upcoming election. While Gotabaya commands a loyal following, it will be the ability of his brother to attract the masses which will determine whether he is successful or not at the polls.

Unfortunately for the SLPP, the emergence of Gotabaya, who is seen by many as a polarising figure, will mean that the party will have to rely solely on the Sinhala-Buddhist vote to achieve victory. Having performed poorly in the Northern and Eastern Provinces in 2018, the 40% vote they achieved appears to be the ceiling for the SLPP.


There is an estimated 700,000 new voters for the 2019 presidential election, as opposed to the 2015 presidential election (a 4% increase in the number of voters). The SLPP is banking on securing a larger portion of these first-time voters.

However, the appearance of a JVP candidate in the form of the popular Anura Kumara Dissanayake has meant that the SLPP is no longer certain to secure first-time voters. At the 2018 local government elections, the JVP was able to secure 5% of the national vote. With Gotabaya Rajapaksa being the sole target of the JVP’s presidential campaign, there is all the likelihood that their vote count could increase to a significant 7%, eating into the new vote bank that is up for grabs.

Northern and Eastern votes critical

For the UNP, the climb up the ladder appears to hinge on whether or not the party is capable of securing the votes of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Historically, the success or failure of UNP-backed presidential candidates has been determined by the votes from the Tamil-dominated North and East of the country.

The infamous 2005 presidential election, which saw Ranil Wickremesinghe lose by 170,000 votes, was the scene of an enforced boycott of the election in the Northern and Eastern Provinces by the LTTE.

The success of Maithripala Sirisena, who was backed by the UNP-led alliance, was dependent on the votes of those provinces.

In fact, had the North and East been removed from the equation, Sirisena would have lost the election as Rajapaksa was able to muster 50.5% of the Sinhala-Buddhist vote, while the UNP commanded only 48.5% of the vote. It was the 978,112 votes from the North and East which was cast in their favour that allowed them to win the overall election by 449,000 votes.

It will also be essential that the UNP ensures that the voter turnout in those regions match the national levels. At the 2018 local government elections, the overall voter turnout was reported at 80%. However, the North and East reported a voter turnout of an average of 76%, 4% less than the rest of the island.

The SLFP, who for all intents and purposes appears to have been relegated to a third force, may very well be a deciding factor in terms of the preferential vote. At the 2018 elections, the SLFP was able to only muster 12% of the national vote.

However, at an election which will require a single candidate to secure a majority of the votes, the second count of the votes will be a key factor. Similar to the JVP, those who mark a second preference on the SLFP ticket will very possibly contribute to the overall victory. While recent history suggests that neither the SLFP nor the JVP will be able to challenge the UNP or SLPP, they both have the possibility of playing kingmaker with their supporters’ second preference.

For the UNP, the emergence of the JVP and a potential SLFP candidate would be an opportunity to make up lost ground amongst the Sinhala-Buddhist vote bank. Those voting for an SLFP candidate suggest that they are not ready to return to a Rajapaksa-governed era, while the JVP voters will clearly be casting an anti-Gotabaya Rajapaksa vote. The door has been left ajar for the UNP to capture these floating votes which appear to belong to the undecideds.

As the SLPP continues to hold talks with the SLFP, they will recognise that it is of utmost importance that they capture the 1.5 million votes that went the way of the SLFP at the 2018 election.

The battle lines are slowly being drawn in the sand, and as the political parties in Sri Lanka gear up for the closely contested election, the attention will now be on whether or not alliances are secured in the lead-up to nominations.