Monday, December 22, 2014

1988 Sri Lankan Presidential Election

Sri Lanka’s political climate deteriorated dramatically after the 1982 Presidential Election. In 1983, after the Black July events, the separatist war in the north and east escalated. Meanwhile, the JR Jayawardene government blamed the Black July on three leftist political parties, imposing a ban on them. Thereby, Sri Lanka Communist Party, Nava Sama Samaja Party and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna were proscribed. While the bans on the other two parties were subsequently lifted, the JVP remained banned for years.

The separatist war, which was waged by a number of militant groups to carve out Tamil Eelam, a separate state for the Tamil people, opened a new path for India to intervene in the affairs of Sri Lanka. It is known that the central government in India under Indira Gandhi wanted to apply pressure on the West-leaning United National Party (UNP) government of JR Jayawardene. It is known that India supplied weapons and training to the nascent Tamil militant groups.

A new chapter in Sri Lanka’s war separatist war and the Indo-Lanka relations opened with the sighning of Rajiv Gandhi-Jayawardene Indo-Lanka Accord of July 29, 1987. This created a huge uproar of protest by many opposition parties, including the main opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) arrived in Sri Lanka to oversee the peace process in the north and east. However, the JVP launched an armed insurrection in the Sinhalese majority areas and by October 1987, the peace process has broken down in the north and east. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were engaged in a full-fledged war against the IPKF in the north and east while the south was burning due to the JVP insurrection.

It was in this backdrop that the presidential election of 1988 had to be held. JR Jayawardene was barred from seeking a third term due to constitutional restraints. He actually had a 5/6 majority in the parliament and could have amended the constitution. There were also calls for him to do so since some people thought he was the best person to face the multiple crises the country was facing. However, he was now an octogenarian and was perhaps unwilling to go through this. Therefore, Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa was selected as the UNP candidate in the presidential election.

There were to be only two other candidates in the election, making it the presidential election with the lowest number of candidates. The SLFP leader Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who had not been able to stand in the 1982 election due to the seven year ban on her civic rights, came forward as its candidate. Her seven year ban from public life had ended in 1987. Meanwhile, Oswin (Ossie) Abeygunasekera came forward as the candidate of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP).

The Sri Lanka Mahajana Party was a breakaway group from the SLFP, led by the actor turned politician Vijaya Kumaranatunga. On February 16, 1988, he was assassinated by unknown gunmen, making him one of high profile political killings in that dark era. Inaugurated on January 22, 1984, the SLMP has been viewed for a few years as an alternative to the docile SLFP as the main opposition party. However, it remained a relatively small party and was one of the few political parties which had supported the Provincial Councils introduced as a solution to the separatist war.

Nominations were accepted on November 10, 1988, and the election date was set to December 19. The election took place at a time where being a member of a political party or engage in politics was a reason enough to have someone killed. The LTTE in the north and east, and the JVP in the rest of the country, were opposed to the elections. People did not turn up on election rallies in fear of being killed afterwards. There was also a death threat to anyone who voted in the areas where the JVP had influence. In much of the north and east, even holding the election was out of the question.

Both Ranasinghe Premadasa and Sirimavo Bandaranaike promised ask the Indian troops to leave the country, one reason for the JVP insurrection as well. The sentiments were high against the presence of these troops in the country. However, by this time, the JVP was not limiting their demands from this. It was seeking political power and therefore was aiming to disrupt the democratic elections.

With this environment of fear and intimidation, the voter turnout was 55.32 percent, a record low for a presidential election in Sri Lanka to-date. There were allegations of election fraud and therefore, there is no way in which one can declare if this turnout was authentic, especially in the areas under the JVP and LTTE threat.

According to the final official results, Ranasinghe Premadasa won the election with 50.43 percent of the votes. Sirimavo Bandaranaike polled 44.95 percent and Ossie Abeygunasekera polled 4.63 percent. Interestingly, this is the highest percentage of votes received by a third candidate in a Sri Lankan Presidential Election to-date.

According to official results, the Vanni Electoral District, comprising of the three Administrative Districts of Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya, saw the lowest turnout at 13.79 percent. Moneragala, Hambantota and Matara Districts also saw low turnout due to the JVP threat. Only 17 percent of the votes in Moneragala District were casted. Voter turnout was highest at 80 percent in Nuwara Eliya District where JVP threat was relatively minimal.

In electorate level, the lowest percentage of votes was polled in Hakmana Electorate in Matara District. It was just 4.45 percent. In the same district, only 7.45 percent voted in Kamburupitiya. In the Moneragala Electorate, the turnout was 6.51 percent and the turnout was lower than 10 percent in Minneriya Electorate in Polonnaruwa District also.

The election victory of Ranasinghe Premadasa could not be accepted as a true mandate of the people as most people were unable to vote due to threats. The threat on the election affected all candidates. However, since the JVP had more influence in areas where the political left had more popularity, one could argue that Sirimavo Bandaranaike was affected more than Premadasa. She won the highest number of votes in five Districts, namely Gampaha, Kalutara, Galle, Matara and Jaffna. Out of them, voter turnout was especially low in Galle, Matara and Jaffna. However, in constituency level, even some UNP strongholds showed lower voter turnouts than district averages. There is no credible manner in which one could calculate the effect on each of the candidates.

However it is clear that the third candidate had little impact on the final outcome, as Premadasa had won more than 50 percent of the votes. It is said that Ossie Abeygunasekera broke votes from the SLFP camp. It could be assumed that had he not been a contester and it had been a matter between the two main candidates, Sirimavo Bandaranaike could have done better. But still, it could not have been enough to defeat Premadasa.

Under the circumstances, even if the election was completely free of threats and intimidation, Ranasinghe Premadasa might have won it. He was a populist leader and a man who rose in politics starting from the common man’s level. Therefore, he was a champion of the poor people and he had given a clear pledge to ask India to withdraw the IPKF. At 64, he was relatively younger than his main challenger, who was almost a decade older. Abeygunasekera was relatively much younger at 38 years. He was perhaps too young in the eyes of the population to be the president of the country.

Ranasinghe Premadasa carried out one major promise of and successfully negotiated the withdrawal of the IPKF. Meanwhile the JVP was also destroyed. However, the peace process Premadasa started with the LTTE became a controversial matter and ultimately collapsed. He was both deeply hated and deeply loved by different sections of the population. Premadasa died on May 1, 1993, in a suicide attack attributed to the LTTE.

First published in 'The Nation' on Dec. 07, 2014

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