By Dr.Ranjiva Munasinghe, Managing Director – Argyle X and Ruwanthi de Silva, Social Media Analyst – Argyle X.
Elections in Sri Lanka are an exciting affair. One need only look at a condensed timeline of events from the last Presidential Election to confirm this – from then SLFP Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena’s shock announcement that he would be running as the Common Candidate against then incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa to his ‘unexpected’ victory.
Various defections and crossovers provided the political backdrop. As with other elections in Sri Lanka, this was also marred by incidents of violence, misuse of State resources and numerous other violations. A Papal visit scheduled to take place just after the election had many wondering whether it would take place at all — as it is normally against Catholic Church protocol to have the Pope visit during an election year. Bollywood actors were flown in to boost the incumbent’s campaign. This move was widely perceived as insensitive, given the concurrent natural disasters in the form of heavy rainfall and landslides, which claimed the lives of many and left even more without homes and basic essentials.
Use of Social Media
In the global context the use of social media has helped spearhead political movements – e.g. the Arab Spring of 2011, the Occupy Central Movement in Hong Kong etc. Sri Lanka witnessed unprecedented levels of participation via social media for the 2015 Presidential Election. Users took to social media to express their views in what was perceived as an open and unrestricted forum. Many of the events highlighted in the introduction evoked strong responses and reactions from the social media participants.
The final outcome was clearly reflected in the social media trends which showed overall strong positive sentiment for current President Maithripala Sirisena and overall negative sentiment for Mahinda Rajapaksa. As evidenced by the current campaigning, most Sri Lankan politicians have realized the potential of social media, and are seeking to use it to increase their outreach.
Figure 1 Key Social Media indicators for the 2015 Sri Lankan Presidential Election between 24/12/2014 and 7/1/2015. Left: Share of Voice (posts generated) for candidates. Centre: Mahinda Rajapaksa sentiment as captured on social media. Right: Maithripala Sirisena sentiment as captured on social media. (Source: http://www.ft.lk/2015/02/13/deconstructing-the-2015-sri-lanka-presidential-election-through-data-analysis/)
The inclusion of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as a candidate for the UPFA coalition has certainly galvanized the election fray. There is perhaps no figure as divisive in the history of Sri Lankan politics – on the one hand, the great majority of Sri Lankans are grateful for his role in ending the 30+ year civil war and eliminating LTTE terrorism, while on the other hand, there is a large section of the population which cannot overlook the media suppression, nepotism, corruption and deteriorating law & order that accompanied his tenure as President.
Since the dissolution of Parliament and subsequent announcement of the August 17th General Elections on the 26th of June, the topic dominating headlines and conversations has been the re-emergence of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Sentiment for the former President seems to be tilted towards the negative – i.e. the number of detractors (those expressing negative sentiment) exceeds the number of promoters (those expressing positive sentiment) by 22%. Having said this, there are strong pockets of support – in an online Daily Mirror poll, the MR nomination for UPFA PM Candidate was endorsed by 32,000 votes in favour and opposed by 16,000 votes. Supporters for Mahinda Rajapaksa highlight the ending of the war and the massive development projects undertaken – including the construction of new roads and highways.
Conspiracy theories concerning the threat of a resurgence of the LTTE, the UN War Crimes Tribunal for Human Right Violations unfairly victimising the former regime, and US-India backed plans to keep MR out of power, are also mentioned by these supporters. Detractors highlight the negatives associated with the former President’s time in power – nepotism, cronyism, violence, corruption & wastage etc.
The negative sentiment is largely a result of people perceiving MR’s decision to contest at upcoming parliamentary election as a power hungry move, rather than one based on a desire to help his party and the people of the country — as he claims. He has come under a lot of criticism over the Akuressa incident (apparent attempt to punch UPFA supporter), despite his attempt to justify his actions. Many people have found his behaviour to be arrogant and unsuitable not only for a former president but also a PM candidate – a point emphasized by President Sirisena.
Promises he made while speaking during the release of UPFA’s election manifesto and at other election rallies have left people questioning why these actions were not taken when he ruled the country for over nine years. The MR effect may be a two-edged sword. There is a perception that his personalised campaign is over-shadowing the campaigns of the other candidates of the UPFA. Some fear that an overall negative sentiment towards MR will result in the UPFA losing more ground. On the positive side, his appeal cannot be written off as he has a good number of people commenting in support of him and his decision to make a comeback. The positive sentiment is a reflection of this opinion that it takes a great leader and a brave man to admit his mistakes publicly and attempt to rectify them. His supporters hail him as the leader who ended the civil war and believe only he can take this country forward.