Gunaratnam in Sri Lanka : Could FSP play spoiler?

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The leader of Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), Kumar Gunaratnam arrived in the Island yesterday to support its candidate for President. The FSP was formed as a breakaway group from the mainstream JVP in late 2011. The following year in 2012, Gunaratnam was involved in an episode where he claims that he was abducted from his house in Kiribathgoda and held illegally for three days. Subsequently the FSP leader managed to secure his release and was deported to Australia under the official reason of violating the terms of his visa. While in Australia Gunaratnam alleged that he was interrogated and tortured for while in Sri Lanka.

Gunaratnam’s re-entry to Sri Lanka comes in the backdrop of an expected tight presidential race between common opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena and President Mahinda Rajapaksa. FSP is fielding Duminda Nagamuwa as its candidate and some political analysts believe that FSP is poised to come in third in the Presidential race to be held on the 8th of January.

In a press conference after arriving in the country, Gunaratnam said that a Maithripala victory would only be a temporary relief to the people’s problems. “It will be like an interval in hell.” He told reporters in Colombo. “People are fed up with one rule and are so eager for a change. The so called change would not provide lasting solutions to the plight of the people. It would only provide temporary relief”.

The absence of public polling makes it harder to asses state of the race for all candidates, especially minor parties. However in 2010 minor candidates obtained nearly 2% of the votes cast, while in 2005 they secured 1.3% of the vote in a tight election that saw then candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa defeat UNP Leader Ranil Wickramasinghe with a mere 180,000 votes.

Had the LTTE-enforced boycott was not in place many predict that Wickramasinghe who ran as a minority friendly candidate would have become president outright, but perhaps a more likely scenario would have been that both candidates would fail to reach the key 50%+ 1 vote margin required to win outright.

In such a scenario the following happens. First, all other candidates other than the top two are eliminated from the race. Next the preferences marked for the top two candidates on the ballot papers of the now eliminated candidates are counted and the candidate with the highest votes is declared the winner irrespective of whether the candidate reaches the 50%+1 vote margin.

The critical question is can Gunaratnam’s FSP and other minor candidates steal crucial votes away from the opposition challenger? It may be reasonable to assume that FSP will appeal in part to the same disaffected voter that would have voted for Sirisena had there been no “left” option. Another school of thought is that since the bulk of the traditional left parties are backing President Rajapaksa, the FSP would draw in disaffected leftists as a protest vote against the leadership’s decision, thus taking some votes away from the incumbent. Even if the latter theory holds water, the impact of this is likely to be minor. The government seem to think that a FSP surge could be to their advantage which could explain the relatively pain-free re-entry of Mr Gunaratnam to Sri Lanka given his damning criticism of the regime in Australia.

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