Center for Electoral Forensics

President Rajapaksa No Longer

[Flag of Sri Lanka]Sri Lanka held its quinquennial presidential election in January. It put incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa against Maithripala Sirisena for the presidency. The election was close. Rajapaksa expected to win reelection easily.

Sirisena won, but was it fairly?

[Maithripala Sirisena]

President Maithripala Sirisena of Sri Lanka

This marks the second presidential election in Sri Lanka that we have been privileged to observe from the sidelines. The 2010 election (see: Fonseka to be Free!) saw Rajapaksa beat his long-time ally Sarath Fonseka by a count of 58 to 40%. Immediately after the announcement, Rajapaksa had the military surround Fonseka and his supporters, arrest Fonseka, and jail him for corruption. Fonseka was released permanently in May 2012.

In that presidential election, there were strong patterns in the invalidation rate that were consistent with Rajapaksa supporters stuffing ballot boxes. The patterns were also consistent with an electoral system biased against the Tamils.

Just a few years into his term, Mahinda Rajapaksa called for an early presidential election. If a politician does this, it is a sign that the politician (thinks he) has a lot of support in the population and can easily win the early election. So, just five years into his six-year term, Rajapaksa stood for reelection. It turned out to be a costly mistake.

The Freedom Party general secretary, Maithripala Sirisena, decided that a third term of Rajapaksa would not be in the best interest of Sri Lanka. Already, rumors of corruption beyond the well-known nepotism had been circulating in political circles. Sirisena left Rajapaksa's party and started his own. Normally, this should not have concerned Rajapaksa. The easiest way of winning an election is to split the competition. The Sirisena defection should accomplish that nicely.

The Twist

However, the opposition parties came together supporting Sirisena. This threatened Rajapaksa's reelection.

Being a powerful political figure allowed Rajapaksa some leeway in handling the challenge. Because Sri Lankan elections are typically marred by violence, it was easy to call out the military on the pretext of keeping the peace. It was also easy to allow them to suppress the vote in Sirisena-leaning regions. That these regions tended to be Tamil and Muslim regions only made things easier:

Mr Sirisena also has the backing of Sri Lanka's minority Tamil and Muslim populations, who make up 25 per cent of the electorate,

In a statement this week, the Tamil National Alliance said: "The values of democracy, good governance, and rule of law have suffered [an] unprecedented assault" under Mr Rajapaksa.

However, even with the entire apparatus of the Sri Lankan government in his control, Rajapaksa lost the election to Sirisena, garnering only 48% of the vote.

A Coup d'État?

Never willing to give up, Rajapaksa reportedly approached the inspector-general, requesting that the election be declared void. After the inspector-general refused, Rajapaksa requested army chief Daya Ratnayake declare martial law and invalidate the election. That did not work either:

He said police Inspector General N K Illangakoon was "very vocal and did not want to be a party to this".

Army chief Daya Ratnayake stood by the police and refused to deploy troops for Rajapaksa to seize power, while the state attorney general's department warned of dangerous consequences, the spokesman said.

And he stepped down, allowing Sirisena to take the oath of office on January 9, 2015. In return, Sirisena is conducting an extensive review of government actions and properties, looking for evidence of the alleged corruption.

President Maithripala Sirisena has appointed Supreme Court Justice Priyasath Dep to head a Commission of Inquiry to look into corruption and misuse of power under the previous regime. The other members of the commission are Supreme Court Judge Anil Gunaratne, High Court Judge Gihan Kulathunge, retired Auditor General Sarath Mayadunne and retired Additional Solicitor General Aiyathurei Gnanadasan. The terms of reference of the commission are likely to be made known next week.

This commission will function in addition to the anti-corruption committee headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. This commission has been tasked with looking into matters including illegal acquisition of lands, irregularities in the Colombo Stock Exchange and the handling of money in the Employees 'Provident Fund.'

Electoral Unfairness

So, why was Rajapaksa so surprised about the outcome of the election? Perhaps we can divine the answer in the results of the 2005, 2010, and 2015 presidential elections. The following are invalidation plots for these three elections.

[invalidation plot 2005]

The invalidation plot for the 2005 Sri Lankan presidential election.

[invalidation plot 2010]

The invalidation plot for the 2010 Sri Lankan presidential election.

[invalidation plot 2015]

The invalidation plot for the 2015 Sri Lankan presidential election.

Note that all three share (at least) on feature: The regression curve has a negative slope. This means that as the support level for Rajapaksa increases, the proportion of the ballots declared invalid decreases. This result is consistent with Rajapaksa supporters stuffing the ballot boxes. That the effect (slope) is negative even for the election he lost suggests that he was still able to influence the vote, even in the losing election of 2015.

[2015 invalidation map]

The invalidation map for the 2015 Sri Lankan presidential election.

Note that the darker areas tend to line up with the Tamil areas. The Sri Lankan Tamils tend to be in the north and east. The Indian Tamils tend to be in the center. That the minority distribution does not perfectly line up with the invalidation rate suggests that the effect is due more to election unfairness than electoral unfairness. However, to determine which interpretation is closer to reality, the statistical analysis must await additional data.


The final conclusion is still that there is significant evidence that the previous three Sri Lankan presidential elections were unfair. Whether this was due to election rigging or to a pervasive systemic bias against Tamils is important only in the resulting solutions.

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