Sri Lankan Presidential Elections: A Historical Study of Results and Outcomes

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This research article analyses historically the Presidential Elections that have taken place in Sri Lanka since 1994. Sri Lanka is a democracy and elections are a crucial part of this process. Generally, an election is held once every five years to elect the next President who will serve a 5-year term with the possibility of re-election for a second term. This research article makes the central argument that Sri Lankan presidential elections are ineffective, too costly to administer and a study of the results and the outcomes indicate that they do not return a good outcome which is in the best interests of the country’s economic and political future.

Developing the ‘effectiveness argument’ by looking at Sri Lankan Presidential Elections

First it is important to look at the purpose and functions of an election in a democracy.

Accountability of Government : Elections serve as a means of checking the excesses of the people’s representatives in Government. When the people’s aspirations and wishes are not reflected in Government policies and programmes, the electorate can effect a change of leadership during elections.

Legitimacy of Government : Elections are held to enable Government leaders to legitimise their rule. Legitimacy of Government affords representatives the opportunity of exercising Government powers on behalf of the citizenry.

Political Participation : Elections make it possible for the people to participate as voters or office seekers.

Communication Link : Elections serve as a means of political communication between the Government and the governed. It is the process through which decision makers become sensitive to the electorate’s political demands and address such demands at least verbally.

Political Education : Elections raise the political awareness and consciousness of the people of a country. Parties present their manifestos. It enables the electorate to discuss political and other national issues extensively, thereby providing an opportunity for the resolution of controversies and arrival of some form of national consensus.

Smooth Leadership Succession : Elections are held to provide smooth leadership succession by voting.

Government Control : Elections enable political parties to field candidates whom they campaign for to enable them to control the machinery of Government.

Patriotism : Elections encourage a sense of identification and nationhood when it is free and fair.

Opportunity to test the popularity of leaders. Elections are held periodically to test the popularity of the leaders and their political parties.

Between 1994 and today there have been 6 Presidential Elections in Sri Lanka.

• 1994 Presidential Election : The contest was between Chandrika Bandaranaike  Kumaratunga and Gamini Dissanayaka. Dissanayaka was assassinated at the last minute so his wife Srima Dissanayaka’s name appeared on the ballot box. Kumaratunga won the election and was installed as the first woman President of Sri Lanka.

• 1999 Presidential Election : Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga Vs Ranil Wickremesinghe. Kuamaratunga wins the election and secures a second term as President of Sri Lanka. Wickremesinghe loses the election to Kumaratunga

• 2005 Presidential Election : Ranil Wickremesinghe Vs Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa wins the election and becomes President as Wickremesinghe loses and concedes defeat.

• 2010 Presidential Elections : Sarath Fonseka Vs Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa wins the election as Fonseka loses and concedes defeat

• 2015 Presidential Elections : Mahinda Rajapaksa Vs Maithripala Sirisena. Sirisena wins the election and Rajapaksa loses and concedes defeat.

• 2019 Presidential Elections : Gotabaya Rajapaksa Vs Sajith Premadasa. Rajapaksa wins the election and Premadasa loses and concedes defeat.

 The first point to make when analyzing these results is that the stakes in a Sri Lankan Presidential Election are too high. There are basically two leading candidates in each election belonging to a particular party and one candidate wins and the other loses. For the losing candidate and party the outcome is very jarring- personally as well as politically and it is very difficult for a candidate who has lost a Presidential election to rebrand and secure the nomination of the party and win a future election. So we have a ‘winner-loser’ game in Sri Lankan Presidential Elections and this increases the stakes of the contest.

The second point to note is the costs of administering a presidential election in Sri Lanka. At the last presidential election the Election Commission estimated costs of Rs 4 billion including the costs of administration, Police and employees as well as postal services, printing and managing polling booths.

It is important to question whether such a high cost and expenditure is justified in light of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. Is there an opportunity cost here, where one can divert presidential election campaign costs to other areas of spending in the economy.

• Conclusion

In conclusion, this research article restates the argument in the introduction that Sri Lankan presidential elections are ineffective and do not return a good outcome. This argument was developed by analysing six (6)  Presidential Elections in Sri Lanka from 1994 to today. In summary, Sri Lankan citizens need to carefully evaluate the efficacy of having Presidential Elections as part of their democracy in light of the observations made in this article.

(Sachin Parathalingam is a law (LLB) graduate and can be contacted at [email protected])

By Sachin Parathalingam