By Vishvanath

The Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) is going to elect its leader for the first time in its 74-year history, according to media reports. The contest for party leadership, to be held on Jan. 21, will be between MP M. A. Sumanthiran and MP Sivagnanam Shritharan. All efforts by party seniors to persuade one of them to step down or come to some sort of agreement to lead the party on a rotational basis for a period of two and a half years each are reported to have failed.

Speculation is rife in political circles that the upcoming internal election could lead to dissention or even a rift in the ITAK, which has dominated Tamil politics for decades. This is an interesting development ahead of a presidential election, withthe southern presidential hopefuls trying to woo the ITAK in a bid to secure a block vote. 

There is the likelihood of none of the candidates contesting the next presidential election being able to obtain more than 50% of the votes to win the presidency in the first round. It is thought that the need will arise for the second and third preferences to be counted for the first time. 

Sri Lanka’s presidential election voting system provides for ranked preferences; a voter can cast three preferential votes by writing 1, 2, and 3 against the names of candidates on the ballotin order of preference. Or, the voter can simply write 1 or mark a cross against the name of a candidate. This is what most voters do at presidential elections. 

If no winner emerges by polling more than 50% votes in the first round of a presidential election, then the candidates except those who come first and second are eliminated. Thereafter, the second and third preferences marked for the remaining candidates, if any, in the votes cast for the eliminated ones are counted, and the person who secures a simple majority is declared the winner. This may seem like a complicated process, but it is not. 

The need for counting second and third preferences could arise in situations where there are three or more equally popular candidates in the fray or none of the contestants are popular enough to win over more than 50% of voters in the first round.

Today, Sri Lankans are disillusioned with politicians, political parties and politics and hence their call for the resignation of all MPs and a system overhaul. The current economic crisis, which has devastated the people’s lives and shattered their dreams of a secure future, is likely to lead to voter apathy or a situation where many voters will spoil their votes as a mark of protest against politicians and political parties. All established political parties have traditional vote bases, but the outcome of an election is usually determined by floating voters who are not blinded by party loyalties.  

There have been eight presidential elections in Sri Lanka since the introduction of the presidential system in 1978, and only one of them was held under relatively normal circumstances. The first presidential election in 1982, which saw the re-election of the then incumbent President J. R. Jayewardene, was held amidst widespread rigging and violence against the Opposition. Polling agents were chased away and ballot boxes stuffed by the UNP goons. 

The country was reeling from JVP violence and state terror when the 1988 presidential election was conducted. The JVP ordered the public to boycott the election and the UNP resorted to large-scale rigging to ensure its candidate Ranasinghe Premadasa’s election. The LTTE was also active at that time. The voter turnout was very low.

The LTTE assassinated UNP’s presidential candidateGamini Dissanayake in the run-up to the 1994 presidential election, which Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga won easily. On the eve of the 1999 presidential election, the LTTE made an attempt on President Kumaratunga’s life, and the incident triggered a sympathy vote for her, placing UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe at a disadvantage. 

The outcome of the 2005 presidential election was affected by a poll boycott ordered by the LTTE in the North and the East. Many Tamil people could not vote, and Mahinda Rajapaksa stood to gain at the expense of UNP candidate Wickremesinghe. The UNP went so far as to accuse Rajapaksa of having bribed the LTTE into preventing the Tamils from voting for Wickremesinghe. 

The January 2010 presidential election was held about eight months after the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, and President Rajapaksa secured a third term easily by leveraging his political leadership for the war. His main rival, former war-winning Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka, who contested as the common Opposition candidate, came a distant second.

The circumstances under which the 2015 presidential election was held could be considered relatively normal, and the minority votes played a pivotal role in enabling Maithripala Sirisena to defeat the then incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa in what was an upset win. But Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidency in November 2019 without the backing of Tamil and Muslim political parties, and he was able to do so because the country had come under a pall of uncertainty following the Easter Sunday terror attacks (April 2019), which catapulted national security to the centre-stage of politics againmuch to the advantage of Gotabaya.

Sri Lanka is experiencing its worst ever economic crisis, and no elections have been held since August 2020. Public resentment is palpable. Workers are up in arms, demanding pay hikes, and the government has jacked up taxes and tariffs at the behest of the IMF. It is believed that the next presidential election will be a four-cornered contest with the UNP, the SLPP, the SJB and the NPP fielding candidates in addition to a Tamil politician like C. V. Vigneswaran running for President.

As it stands, there is not likely to be a groundswell of support for any of the candidates contesting the next presidential election. The support of minority political parties becomes a decisive factor in a presidential election when there are no swings for any of the candidates, as was the case in 2015. President Wickremesinghe seems to have realized the need to win over the minority votes; he toured the north for four days recently as part of his presidential election campaign.

All eyes are on the ITAK, which is expected to play a key role in determining the outcome of the next presidential election. 


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