Crowds don’t tell a tale in electoral politics

President’s take on Galle Face crowd

Daily News Editorial

A full two weeks after the Galle Face May Day rally of the Joint Opposition President Maithripala Sirisena has come out with his own take on what was billed as the largest crowd ever at a May Day rally in this country, of course from the point of view of JO stalwarts. The crowd phenomenon had so emboldened the JO that it has gone gung-ho and strutting about predicting the imminent fall of the Yahapalanaya government, even before the target dates set by Mahinda Rajapaksa. Not only that, attempts are also being made to topple the North Central and Central Provincial Councils in the first flush of post Galle Face and a change in the equation in parliament too is being contemplated, with JO members predicting that their May Day tide will make the SLFP MPs in the government have a rethink.

Even the temporary reprieve received by MP Geetha Kumarasinghe has been attributed to the fallout of the Galle Face rally and so carried away are some JO MPs by their May Day frolics that Vasudeva Nanayakkara has once again reiterated his group’s pledge to join a SLFP led government after ousting Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. In addition, certain JO stalwarts have also gone to the extent of interpreting the disillusionment among certain SLFP Ministers in the Unity Government to their highly successfully Galle Face May Day rally. Even the proposed Cabinet reshuffle is seen as the pressing of panic buttons.

However, the sober reality must have dawned on most who consider May Day crowds as the barometer to gauge the popularity or otherwise of a political party or a grouping, following the down to earth views expressed by President Sirisena. Speaking at a function at Aralagangwila to distribute land deeds among the needy President Sirisena went onto stress that crowds at May Day rallies were not the be all and end all. He said the public were well aware as to who drew the largest crowds at the last Presidential Election. But for all that, he, as the Common Candidate, emerged the victor. He warned those who are overwhelmed by the Galle Face crowds not to harbour any thoughts that the government is going to collapse under the sheer weight of the May Day crowds.

Like the President said, there are many dynamics at play at an election that are not reflected in May Day crowds. The President of course is dead right. To begin with, there is the overwhelming numbers that constitute the middle class in this country who don’t bother with May Days. Voters also include segments that belong to different religions, castes, classes and other demographies. There is also the aged the youth, and most importantly the floating vote that are not factored in May Day crowds. There are other dynamics in electoral politics that May Day crowds don’t reflect. For example, the vast percentage of those who traditionally vote for the UNP are those who don’t care for political rallies or May Day parades which are mostly attended by the hoi polloi who are provided with buth packets and fortified with hooch. A good many of these folk are even unaware where they are taken or for what purpose. To most village folk, a trip to Galle Face is a rarity, nay, a novelty, and for others, a venue for entertainment and a golden opportunity to take in the capital city, similar to villagers descending on the city to view Vesak in their thousands.

Election predictions based on crowds at political and May Day rallies have come a cropper even in the past. There were unbelievable crowds at the final political rally of Vijaya Kumaranatunga, in Katana, presided over by Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike, in 1977, at a time when the actor turned politician was at the zenith of his popularity. For all that, the rather drab and unimpressive Wijayapala Mendis won the poll by a majority of over 4,000 votes. It was the same at the 1982 Presidential Election where Hector Kobbekaduwa drew massive crowds compared to JRJ who eventually polled 53% of the vote.

President Sirisena also made the pertinent observation that there were crowds numbering well over one hundred thousand (laksha ganan) who came to greet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Dickoya and that, had all these crowds being included in their May Day rallies they could have filled the Galle Face esplanade several fold. In fact these crowds represented the solid UNP vote, with the plantation community well known for their allegiance to the UNP, though, they prefer to have their own May Day celebrations in their own backyard, thereby denying their vast presence at the UNP May Day rallies.

Hence, crowds don’t tell a tale in electoral politics and the sooner this fact sinks into heads of the JO membership, now on cloud nine, the sooner they would come to terms with reality. Mahinda Rajapaksa of course has always been enamoured by crowds and this time too has based his political fortunes on the JO Galle Face May Day rally.