In the end, defeat boiled down to a million votes. Mahinda Rajapaksa was depending upon the 5.8 million Sinhalese-Buddhist people, who voted for him in the January presidential election, to support his side in Monday’s parliamentary election.
Unfortunately for him, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) polled a million votes less in those same districts, crashing his comeback dream. Sri Lanka voted for a hung parliament but gave the edge to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) and its front for good governance (UNFGG), which is all set to form the next government.
There were rumours of an early swearing-in after Wickremesinghe met President Maithripala Sirisena on Tuesday, but with 93 seats — it is expected to get 10 more on the basis of its national vote share — the UNFGG was also well short of a majority in the 225-seat House.
The buzz in UNP circles was government formation may take a day or two more.
The UPFA won 83 seats with 42.38 per cent of the votes, and will also be allocated extra seats calculated on total vote share.
“In almost every district in southern Sri Lanka, I won the presidential election. Sirisena won only because he got the minority votes from Tamils in the North. But this is not a presidential election. This is different. We will win all those districts in this election again and get a majority,” Rajapaksa had confidently predicted last Friday, after his last public meeting.
But it was also Rajapaksa who saw the writing on the wall before most.
“My dream of becoming prime minister has faded away,” he told AFP, even before Wickremesinghe’s coalition had established leads. “I am conceding. We have lost a good fight.”
He may have dismissed accusations of corruption, nepotism and most recently, even of possible indirect involvement in the murder of Sri Lanka’s most popular rugby player, but he lost to the perception that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and President Sirisena had brought about noticeable positive changes in the last six months.
Defeated once again by popular vote after losing the presidential election in January, Rajapaksa disappeared from public view after his somewhat dramatic exit line. None of his inner circle was available thereafter.
The only clues of what the Rajapaksa camp was thinking came from social media. “We may not have won this battle but we will never stop fighting for the motherland,” tweeted son Namal.
A former minister in the Rajapaksa government posted a similar message on Facebook: “Thank you for joining us to secure the motherland. The fight will continue despite the electoral defeat.”
Rajapaksa won his own election in Kurunegala with over a record 4.2 lakh votes. According to unofficial estimates, Wickremesinghe also polled a similar number of votes in Colombo district where he was a candidate.
The UNFGG was businesslike about coming out as the single largest grouping at the elections. As the trends began emerging, Wickremesinghe met party seniors at the UNP headquarters in Colombo.
“The majority of the people of this country have approved the continuance of good governance and consensual politics endorsed by the people through the silent revolution of January 8,” Wickremsinghe said.
There shouldn’t be divisions between “winners and losers”, Wickremesinghe said, asking all sides to join in towards “building a new political culture”.
Rather than take the support of the Tamil National Alliance (also known as the Iykiya Tamil Arasu Katchi or ITAK), which swept the Northern district and has won 14 seats across the North and East, the UNFGG is looking to President Sirisena to deliver the remainder from the UPFA.
“The UPFA has 10 or more [MPs] who support the President. Because our programme is also the President’s programme, we think they will join us to form a national government,” said Daya Pelpola, a senior party adviser and head of the UNP legal cell.
If that happens, the TNA’s influence on the new government will be minimal despite its stellar performance. In recent months, it has been riven with internal divisions between moderates and those veering towards extremist rhetoric under the influence of sections of the Tamil diaspora.
All eyes are now on President Sirisena, to see if he is able to deliver his loyalists to form a “government of national unity” with Wickremesinghe.
Last week, Sirisena suspended Rajapaksa loyalists from important party posts, appointing his own men there in a bid to take control of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, and its UPFA coalition.
On polling day, he suspended 25 more members from the central committee of the party, an indication that he was preparing both for a Rajapaksa victory or a hung Parliament.