OPINION

Insights into Sri Lanka’s next presidential election and challenges faced by NPP

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NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake addressing a political rally.(File photo)

Navigating political landscape:

By Prof. Amarasiri de Silva

Sri Lanka’s next presidential election, scheduled between September and October 2024, has heightened the political atmosphere with anticipation. According to the Constitution of Sri Lanka, voters can elect a president for a five-year term. The election process involves limited ranked voting, allowing voters to express up to three ranked preferences for the president. If no candidate receives over 50% of valid votes on the first count, all candidates except the top two are eliminated. The second and third preferences of the eliminated candidates are then distributed until one of the remaining two candidates secures an outright majority. While this system has seen limited use in practice, citizens often choose to mark only one candidate, with many unaware that multiple candidates can be ranked.

In the current political landscape of Sri Lanka, the primary contenders are the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), a political alliance led by opposition leader Sajith Premadasa, and the Jathika Jana Balavegaya, the National People’s Power (NPP), led by Anura Kumara Dissanayake. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPFA) is emerging with limited popularity. There are ongoing negotiations regarding the incumbent president, Ranil Wickremasinghe, who is expected to contest as a joint UNP and SLPFA candidate. The nation eagerly awaits the outcome of this significant political event.

As highlighted by the news media, NPP and SJB have attracted massive crowds to their election meetings, with significant attention focused on the NPP. In the 2019 presidential election, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPFA) secured 52.25% of the votes, while the United National Party (UNP) gained 41.99% support. The NPP, on the other hand, received 3.16% of the votes.

Recent polls on election preferences in Sri Lanka reveal a dynamic and evolving political landscape. According to opinion polls by the National Health Policy Institute, Sri Lanka’s NPP, led by AK Dissanayake, has shown steady progress, garnering 51% of the votes. The upcoming presidential election promises to be a closely watched and contested event, reflecting the changing dynamics of public opinion.

The question delves into a fascinating aspect of social science research and the potential impact of public opinion polls on the opinions they aim to measure. Let’s break down the query:

“The question is whether the public opinion polls, by measuring opinion, affect the opinion they measure?” This inquiry essentially explores the concept of reflexivity in social research. Reflexivity refers to the idea that the act of measuring or observing a phenomenon can, in turn, influence or change that phenomenon. In the context of public opinion polls, the question is whether the mere act of measuring people’s opinions can alter those opinions.

“The question of whether, and how much, an instrument influences what it is designed to measure is analytically distinct from the question of its accuracy.” This statement emphasises the need to distinguish between two key aspects: the impact an instrument (in this case, public opinion polls) has on what it aims to measure and the accuracy of the measurements. Analysing the influence of the instrument on the measured opinions is a separate consideration from evaluating how accurately it captures those opinions.

“Any reading, accurate or not, of the public mind will enter into.” This part suggests that regardless of whether the public opinion polls provide accurate or inaccurate readings, the results will still have an impact. The act of measuring public opinion, even if flawed, becomes part of the broader discourse, and can influence various aspects of society.

In summary, the question raises issues related to reflexivity in social research, urging a closer examination of how the measurement process itself may shape the opinions being measured. It also highlights the distinction between the instrument’s influence and its accuracy, emphasising that even imperfect measurements can have significant consequences in shaping public discourse.

The current technological landscape, characterised by smartphones and internet connectivity, allows for the instantaneous evaluation of public responses to political events. This information can be rapidly disseminated through mass media channels. However, in Sri Lanka, there seems to be a noticeable absence of swift information dissemination that significantly influences polling behaviour.

Sri Lanka’s election history has demonstrated the potential for momentous changes in public opinion, particularly in the final moments leading up to the elections. The 2019 elections witnessed the National People’s Power (NPP) drawing tremendous crowds to rallies in support of Anura Dissanayake. However, despite the massive support, Mr. Dissanayake ultimately secured only 3.16% of the votes.

This article explores the pivotal factors that may have a last-minute influence on the voting preferences of individuals who endorse the NPP and actively participate in its gatherings. Grasping the dynamics that shape voters’ decisions in the concluding stages of an election is essential for conducting a thorough analysis of the political terrain and anticipating possible changes in public sentiment.

Voters in their 40s, 50s, and beyond vividly recollect the events of 1987 and 1971 led by the JVP. Despite the declining trend in population growth, the overall population has surged from 7,945,977 in 1950 to 21,949,268 in 2023—an impressive general population increase of approximately 176.52% from 1950 to 2023. About 50% of the population could recall the 1971 and 1987 incidents, which may act as deterrents to last-minute voting behaviour, even though people attend NPP political rallies in large numbers.

In numerous villages, about three fell victim to the violence of the JVP during the tumultuous period of 1987. I have firsthand knowledge of a tragic incident in my village in Batapola, where three individuals lost their lives for supporting the UNP. In my neighbourhood, a harrowing episode unfolded as a middle-aged mechanic was forcibly taken from his home at night—he cowered under the bed in fear—and was apprehended, ostensibly for questioning related to specific incidents. A few minutes later, the household residents and the surrounding area were startled by the sound of a gunshot. He was found lifeless, bound to a Kitul tree. The mechanic, a father of two, left behind a wife without employment or any other source of income. The children, unable to pursue their education, found themselves compelled to engage in underage wage work to support their mother and the family.

The village, being closely knit, remembers this incident and asserts that they would never vote for the NPP, the successor of the JVP. Similar incidents have occurred in many villages. My estimate is that there would be 50,000 to 75,000 such incidents spread across the villages and urban areas of Sri Lanka. I presume that the NPP must be cognizant of these incidents, and it’s plausible that they have created a database to document such occurrences.

The burning of the Meetiyagoda Weaving Mills in 1971 during the insurrection had a significant impact on the local community in Batapola and Meetiyagoda. The weaving mill, which employed nearly 5000 people in the surrounding villages, was an essential source of livelihood for many. The memory of this devastating event seems to have left a lasting impact on the residents, and there is a sense of fear among them regarding the NPP coming to power. The concern is that it may lead to similar incidents or other actions that could negatively affect the community.

To address these fears and gain the support of the people, the NPP, if aspiring to come to power, should consider developing a comprehensive strategy. This strategy should focus on addressing the community’s specific concerns, providing assurances, and outlining plans for alleviating fears of the people.

The NPP claims to have 39 million rupees in their funds, which they are considering using for the upcoming election. An impactful and compassionate approach to utilise a portion of these funds would be to allocate financial assistance to the families whose breadwinners fell victim to the violence inflicted by the JVP. This gesture could be a significant source of comfort to these affected families, potentially alleviating their fears and fostering support for the NPP.

Taking proactive steps to visit the homes of these families, the regional leaders of the NPP should express their solidarity and convey heartfelt support. They must empathise with the pain and loss experienced by these families, emphasising that the decision to target and harm their loved ones was a misguided policy. Furthermore, the leaders should make it clear that the present stance of the NPP denounces such harmful policies and advocates for a more inclusive and compassionate approach.

By demonstrating genuine concern and taking tangible actions, the NPP can provide financial relief and build a stronger connection with the affected communities. This outreach effort has the potential to contribute to a positive perception of the party among the families who have suffered, creating a pathway for trust and potential support in the upcoming election.

Additionally, the fear expressed by my friend in Australia regarding the NPP potentially acquiring empty houses and distributing them to homeless people highlights the need for clear communication and transparency from the NPP. Assuring property owners that their assets will be protected and outlining the party’s housing policies can help alleviate such concerns. Effective communication, community engagement, and a well-thought-out strategy are crucial for any political party seeking to address the people’s fears and gain their trust and support.

I firmly believe that the citizens of Sri Lanka will exercise their voting rights with the intention of supporting candidates who exhibit qualities of integrity and a commitment to ethical conduct. The electorate is likely to favour individuals who are not tainted by corruption and pledge to bring about positive outcomes and prosperity for the population.

In this crucial decision-making process, voters are likely to prioritise candidates who demonstrate a genuine desire to address the needs and concerns of the people. This could include a focus on economic development, social welfare, and the nation’s overall well-being.

The desire for leaders who prioritise the country’s best interests over personal gain is a common sentiment among the electorate. The expectation is that elected representatives will work towards fostering a climate of transparency, accountability, and responsible governance.

As the electoral process unfolds, it becomes a platform for the expression of the people’s collective will, reflecting their aspirations for a brighter and more prosperous future. The emphasis on non-corrupt, positive, and outcome-driven leadership underscores the importance of building a nation that thrives on justice, fairness, and progress principles.

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