Sri Lanka’s presidential election

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.

12 thoughts on “Sri Lanka’s presidential election

  1. Does anyone know the situation regarding the legislature? This election is for president only (elections are always nonconcurrent in Sri Lanka).

    Both Adam Carr and Parline show April, 2004 as the most recent legislative election–almost six years ago, whereas the last presidential election before today was in 2005.

    Maybe legislative terms are six years (but presidential only five!), as the Parline summary says the 2004 election was called following then-President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s dissolution of parliament “three years ahead of schedule.” The previous election had been in 2001.

    The legislative balance of power matters in Sri Lanka’s president-parliamentary system, meaning that there is a PM and cabinet dependent upon parliamentary confidence (as well as on the president’s confidence).

    In 2004 the UPFA (Rajapaksa’s party) won 105 of 225 seats.

  2. The Constitution states that both the president and the legislature are elected for six-year terms (Arts. 30. 2 and 62.2 respectively). Rajapaksa called an early election hoping to benefit from the ‘post-conflict’ situation. However, he had alienated Fonseka by taking all the credit for the ‘victory’ over the Tamil Tigers. So, Fonseka decided to run against him. Constitutionally, the president can dissolve parliament and whoever wins might benefit from an immediate dissolution, though legislative elections are due to be held in April anyway, but I have no information about a date yet.

  3. There are lots of historical precedents with the United States. In 1840 the Whig Party, which struggled to win elections during its history, ran a war hero, William Henry Harrison, on the same ticket as a turncoat Democrat whose views were as far from normal Whig views as you could get. Of course Harrison won but died a month after taking office, leaving the Democrat as president. Eight years later the Whigs ran another general for President who won, but the Democrats still had majorities in Congress. The next election they ran a third general, but lost so badly the party went out of existence.

    The Republicans had much more success in putting Eisenhower in the White House during the New Deal-Great Society leader. But the cost was forgoing any attempt to roll back the New Deal.

    There is also precedence in US history, with the Grant administration, in trying to reconstruct the country after a civil war under the peace time administration of the main general on the winning side in that war.

  4. Apparently, this is not exactly supplementary vote — but not exactly contingent vote either. I gather that voters can express first, second and third choices. Supplementary vote, narrowly defined, gives them only a first and a second choice. Contingent vote, narrowly defined, gives them as many ranked choices as their are candidates.

    I know nothing about politics in Sri Lanka, but it would appear that this makes the absence of a Tamal candidate somewhat more likely to be due to factors other than the voting rule.

  5. This system seems to combine all the vices of IRV and FPTP in one nasty package. You still have tactical voting because you have to guess who the top 2 will be or your vote can be wasted. You still have the complexities of a preferential count with next available preferences and so forth. I’d suspect the 3 preferences rule may be a stab at giving the electors a tactical preference and and an actual preference. I’d also suspect there is no Tamil candidate for the same reason that African-American, female, and non-Protestant candidates have been somewhat rare in US presidential elections.

  6. A Sri Lankan publication, The Nation, reports in this article that Rajapaksa wants to convene a Constituent Assembly to adopt a mixed-member system for the national legislature. The article doesn’t say whether list seats would be compensatory or parallel (these articles rarely do).

  7. I propose a Flexible IRV system, where either the top 2 candidates or all candidates with a virtual chance to make the runoff qualify for the second round (i.e. if a Republican gets 35%, Democrats 30%, an independent gets 25% and all the other candidates 10%, this means that the independent would have the virtual support of 35%, with 30% being the threshold to qualify for the runoff)

  8. Derek, that would not be IRV.

    You may care to call it Three Candidate Supplementary Vote or something, but IRV is incompatible with an automatic elimination of trailing candidates. It is like proposing Rapid IRV where the candidate who gets the most primary votes wins, Fast TRS where where there is no second round of voting, or Slow FPTP where the candidate must secure a quota of primary and transferred votes in order to win.

  9. Alan, OK, you’re right, I haven’t been making sense. But here’s 1 idea you might find interesting at least.

    Suggest Equal Ranking IRV for the Mayor of London race. Let voters vote for at least 2 candidates or more. If no candidate gets an absolute majority of the first preferences, re-calculate the votes until one candidate gets a majority.

    For example: let’s assume that there was a race with 4 candidates and each voter decided to give 2 first preferences.

    34 Andrea/Brad
    17 Brad/Carter
    22 Carter/Brad
    10 Carter/Delilah
    37 Delilah/Carter

    Andrea 34+0
    Brad 17+56
    Carter 32+54
    Delilah 37+10

    1st round:

    A: 17
    B: 36.5*
    C: 43*
    D: 23.5

    2nd round:

    B: 34+8.5+11= 53.5
    C: 8.5+11+10+37= 66.5

    This modified version of SV would be fairer than the actual version. Let voters cast a first preference for as many candidates as they wish, provided that it’s at least 2 candidates. Then, if no candidate gets a majority of the first round votes, the top 2 qualify for the runoff and these first preferences are re-arranged. The value of each vote depends on how many candidates you voted for. I.e. if you vote for 3, and luckily 2 of these candidates you voted for qualified for the runoff, then instead of your vote counting as 0.33 votes, it would count in the runoff as 0.5 votes.

  10. That would be Approval Voting rather than SV. Approval Voting has many defects which have often been discussed on this blog.

    • The Sri Lankan President is indeed one of the most politically powerful presidents, in terms of both formal and informal power.

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