The elections to the Western and Southern provincial councils in Sri Lanka, home to a third of the country’s voters, was expected to be a walkover for the Mahinda Rajapakasa-led United People’s Freedom Alliance. After all, the government had fought bravely against ‘foreign conspirators’ at the 25th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva barely days ahead of the well-timed polling. In fact, much of the election campaign made it appear as if Sri Lanka was under siege and no one other than President Rajapaksa’s UPFA was capable of saving the nation. But the electorate did not buy the whole story, the voter turnout was low, and the results appeared puzzling. Local elections may be fought on immediately relevant issues and the outcome of a national poll may well be decided on larger considerations; still, the latest results provide an idea of the country's mood. The UPFA did win a majority in Mr. Rajapaksa’s home province, the Southern Province, and emerged the biggest party in the Western Province that has Colombo as its headquarters. But a point of concern for the ruling combine was the numbers: the UPFA won 33 of 55 seats in the South — down from 38 in 2009 — and managed 56 of the 104 in the West where it had 68 in 2009. More worrisome for the UPFA is the fact that it lost votes in the President’s hometown, Hambantota — represented in Parliament by his son Namal Rajapaksa. Clearly, people of the port-town prefer their district MP, Sajith Premadasa, son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Mr. Sajith Premadasa has fought both the Rajapaksas and has a running battle going in his own United National Party. This is the last round of polls in Sri Lanka ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2016.
Though the losses do not appear massive, the message behind it cannot be wished away. The UPFA’s loss did not result in its main rival, the UNP, gaining votes. In fact, there appears to be serious confusion among people: they voted for former General Sarath Fonseka’s Democratic National Alliance, which is now emerging as the third force in the country, and also the JVP, which is re-grouping under a new leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake. The UNP’s vote share declined in Colombo Central, its biggest stronghold, and it will have to double its vote share if it has to emerge on top in a future election. Ranil Wickremasinghe, the UNP chief who survived many bids to unseat him, does not seem to be the leader who can carry the UNP into an election victory. With Sarath Fonseka’s fate already sealed following the deal he struck to be released from prison, people are clearly looking for a new leader. And there appears no one in sight. That might be Mr.Rajapaksa’s biggest trump card yet.