Votes are now being counted in Sri Lanka’s presidential election. Various news reports have indicated that citizens from the Tamil minority are expected to side mostly with opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka against incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa. Unlike in past, war-time, elections, Tamils appear to have turned out in large numbers.
This contest is classic presidentialization in action, but it seems somewhat less classic as an example of the “instant runoff” rules that are used.
Presidentialization is manifest in the main opposition party, the United People’s Freedom Party (UNP), having endorsed as its presidential candidate a person with no links to the party whatsoever. In fact, Fonseka was the head of the army, and thus an agent of President Rajapaksa, as the Sri Lankan state crushed the Tamil Tigers (TTLE) guerrilla forces last year. The Independent describes the dilemma faced by the UNP and others seeking the defeat of Rajapaksa:
The former army chief was quickly recruited by an unlikely coalition, made up of the UNP, Muslims, Tamils and some strident nationalists who believed that in the martial, militaristic atmosphere following the crushing of the LTTE, Mr Fonseka with his chest full of medals represented their only chance of defeating the president. “You have to make the best of what there is,” admitted a senior UNP leader, Ravi Karunanayake
If Fonseka wins, what loyalty can the UNP count on? He is an army man, who launched his candidacy outside the party organization, and then was endorsed by the UNP. The UNP surely needs him far more than the reverse. Classic presidentialization.
Not so classic is the way Sri Lanka’s version of “instant runoff” for presidential elections is working in this campaign. Although there are twenty-two candidates, and voters may give a second-preference ranking as well as a first, the contest is very much a two-man race. Most strikingly, the Tamil minority does not have its own candidate, but rather is being courted by the two leading candidates. That seems much more like a plurality dynamic than an instant-runoff dynamic.
It must be noted that the electoral rule in Sri Lanka is not the alternative vote (i.e. STV with one being elected), in which the lowest-ranking candidates are sequentially eliminated until transferred preferences push one of the remaining candidates over the majority threshold. Rather, in Sri Lanka, if no candidate has a majority of first preferences, all but the top two are eliminated, and their ballots are examined for lower-ranked preferences among the remaining two. This is a more literal definition of “instant runoff” but not (I hope) what US-based IRV advocates mean to see adopted. (What to call this variant that Sri Lanka uses is not entirely clear; see Bob Richard’s comment.)
I am curious to know how IRV advocates would explain the absence of a significant Tamil candidate (or candidates of the Muslim and other minorities) in an IRV contest, but rather a plurality-like contest in which minority voters choose the “lesser evil” among the majority’s two candidates. Is it because of the war (too dangerous for a Tamil to come forward, too politically volatile for a Sinhala candidate to appeal for second preferences)? Is it because the rules in use are not the alternative vote? Or what?
(Rajapaksa was elected in 2005 by majority of first-preference votes as candidate of the United Peoples Freedom Alliance.)
In any case, this campaign does not match the “IRV” dynamic, but it most certainly does match the “presidentialization” dynamic.