A Typology Of Sri Lanka’s Presidential Candidates

By S. I. Keethaponcalan 

Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan

My new book, Electoral Politics in Sri Lanka: Presidential Elections, Manipulation, and Democracy, was published by Routledge (London) in July 2022. This book investigated the primary question, how do political actors manipulate elections? Sri Lanka served as the case study. Conclusions were drawn from independent analyses of all eight presidential elections conducted since 1982. Characteristically, the study led to a typology of electoral manipulation. The new typology included the following six elements: (1) constitutional tinkering, (2) field fixing, (3) time fixing, (4) vote suppression, (5) process manipulation, and (6) resource manipulation. Sri Lankan political actors use all of these manipulative strategies regularly.  

Constitutional tinkering involves amending the constitution to suit the needs of the ruling party presidential candidate. Field fixing means including and excluding opposition party candidates in the election through various moves to secure an added advantage for the manipulator. Time fixing means carefully choosing the election date to improve the candidate’s winning chances. This manipulative strategy is often used by the president in office. Vote suppression is a strategy manipulators use to prevent or discourage voters from hostile groups from voting. Process manipulation involves taking unfair advantage of the electoral process, including election laws, to win the election. Fielding proxy candidates is a standard manipulative strategy used in Sri Lanka. Resource manipulation denotes exploiting especially state resources to strengthen the ruling party candidate. 

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Manipulative techniques create an uneven playing field and disadvantage, especially the opposition candidates. Therefore, electoral manipulation is unethical and unacceptable. They are incompatible with the ideals of democracy. 

Candidates Not Monolithic 

The objective of the book project was to generate a typology of electoral manipulation. Hence, the outcome was not surprising. However, an interesting aspect of the study was that it developed a typology of presidential candidates. A closer look at the actions and objectives of all presidential candidates in Sri Lanka demonstrated that they are not monolithic and are referred to as “candidates” regardless of the differences. There are five different types of presidential candidates in Sri Lanka. They are (1) contenders, (2) consolation seekers, (3) vote-breakers, (4) resource mobilizers, and (5) fame seekers. 

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1. Contenders

Contenders are candidates who contest the election to win and believe that they can win. Generally, the two leading candidates in any presidential election could be called contenders. A statistical analysis of election results indicated that Sri Lankan presidential elections always remain a two-way race. The third leading candidate never crosses the five percent bar. This means only the first two candidates are in the race. Therefore, they are the contenders. For example, JR Jayewardene and Hector Kobbekaduwa in 1982 and Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa in 2019 were contenders. 

2. Consolation Seekers 

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Consolation seekers know they cannot win the election but contest to achieve other political objectives. The best example of a consolation seeker was Kumar Ponnambalam, who contested the 1982 election. Given Sri Lanka’s electoral realities and tendencies, not only Ponnambalam but also everyone else in Sri Lanka knew that he could not win the presidency. That position has been reserved for Sinhala-Buddhist candidates. A Tamil certainly cannot win the presidency even today.

Nevertheless, Ponnambalam contested the election to “reenergize” the Tamil Eelam project. By 1982, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) ceased to be the predominant Tamil party, and the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) took over the mantle. The TULF contested and won the 1977 general election on the slogan of a separate state for the Tamils. In 1982, Ponnambalam believed that the TULF had given up on the idea of Tamil Eelam and integrated into the Southern polity. He contested the election to renew the mandate for Tamil Eelam and prove that a separate state for the Tamils was feasible. Hence, he was a consolation seeker.  

Rohana Wijeweera in 1982 could also be called a consolation seeker. As a new political party, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was not ready to contest the 1982 presidential election. It did not even have the political infrastructure to contest the election effectively, let alone win it. Nevertheless, Wijeweera contested the election because the JVP did not want to be “excluded” from a significant national event. 

3. Vote-Breakers 

Vote-breakers contest or are fielded by contenders to split the opposition votes. Generally, vote-breakers are fielded as proxy candidates. In 1988, Ranasinghe Premadasa and Sirimavo Bandaranaike were the leading candidates or contenders. Ossie (or Oswin) Abeyagoonasekera of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya (SLMP) contested as the third-party candidate on behalf of the United Socialist Alliance (USA). Commentators believe that, in reality, Abeyagoonasekera was an ally of candidate Premadasa and contested to split Bandaranaike’s votes in this election. Many SLMP leaders had Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) roots or connections. A notable fact is that Ossie’s father, AWA Abeyagoonasekera, was a parliamentarian affiliated with the United National Party (UNP). Moreover, Abeyagoonasekera had no chance of winning the election. These factors contributed to the notion that Abeyagoonasekera was a Premadasa proxy, fielded to break Bandaranaike’s votes. 

Another good example of a vote breaker was AJ Ranasinghe, who was in the race in 1994. Ranasinghe was well known for his reverence of President Premadasa and served as a minister of state in the Premadasa administration. Once, Ranasinghe declared that he would be happy to be a “slave” of Premadasa. Ranasinghe was in the fray in 1994 to undermine UNP presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake, a political adversary of Premadasa. During the campaign, Ranasinghe was open about his support for Chandrika Kumaratunga and urged voters to endorse Kumaratunga.

A recent trend is to field proxy candidates with the opposition candidate’s last name. The idea is to confuse the voters. These same last-name proxies are also vote-breakers. For example, in 2015, two candidates were in the fray with the last names of two leading candidates. Namal Ajith “Rajapaksa” and Rathnayake Aarachchige “Sirisena” contested on behalf of Our National Front and Patriotic National Front, respectively. They confused the voters adequately to secure third and fourth places. Arachchige Sirisena came third with 18,174 votes, and Namal Rajapaksa secured fourth place with 15,726 votes. 

4. Resource Mobilizers 

Resource mobilizers are also proxy candidates, but the difference is that vote-breakers have a degree of public support that is expected to divide the opponent’s votes. Resource mobilizers do not have the capacity to split votes. Hence, they are in the race to provide resource advantages to one of the contenders. For example, they could use their “TV time” to campaign for their preferred (real) candidate. Another advantage is that the contenders could use resource mobilizers’ agents in counting booths to protect their interests. Battaramulle Seelarathana Thera of Jathika Sangwardana Peramuna, a staunch supporter of Mahinda Rajapaksa, withdrew his candidacy and endorsed Rajapaksa for president at the eleventh hour. The Thera was a resource mobilizer for Mahinda Rajapaksa.    

5. Fame Seekers

I defined candidates who do not fall under the above-discussed categories as fame seekers. They are in the contest to make a name for themselves. I categorized Harischandra Wijetunga of the Sinhalaye Mahasammatha Bhoomiputhra Pakshaya as a fame seeker. This is an overlapping category. Some of the fame seekers could be consolation seekers or vote-breakers. 

Conclusion

Vote-breakers and resource mobilizers are part of electoral manipulation. They help rig the election for the contenders. Too many people contesting presidential elections for different reasons leads to a large number of presidential candidates in Sri Lanka. 1982 and 88 elections included only six and three candidates, respectively. There were 19 candidates in 2015, and in 2019 the number jumped to 35. Too many candidates also indicate that Sri Lanka’s presidential elections are highly manipulated. In 2019, the Election Commissioner pointed out that too many candidates with too little chance of making an impact, let alone winning the election, is a problem. They waste state resources and confuse the voters. It is time to think about limiting the number of candidates contesting Sri Lanka’s presidential elections, especially vote-breakers, resource mobilizers, and fame seekers should be discouraged.  

*Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is a Professor of Conflict Resolution at Salisbury University, Maryland. Formerly, he was a Professor of Political Science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.   

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