Wikileaks – “race is neck and neck” Rajapaksa’s chief pollster Sunimal Fernando
“In a one to one meeting with Polchief, President Rajapaksa’s chief opinion pollster and close advisor Sunimal Fernando said their polling figures less than a week before the presidential election indicated the race statistically was a dead heat.” US ambassador Patricia A. Butenis wrote in a confidential cable to Washington.
Colombo Telegraph found the cable from Wikileaks database. It was classified as “CONFIDENTIAL” by the ambassador Butenis. The cable written in 22nd January, 2010, under the name “ RAJAPAKSA POLLSTER SAYS RACE IS NECK AND NECK”, further says “ undecided voters were at an unprecedented 17 percent, with six percent leaning toward Rajapaksa and eleven percent towards Fonseka. Fernando said the President was doing very poorly in the East, mainly due to the corruption issue, but surprising well in the North. In the Western region, which includes Colombo and its suburbs, Fonseka had been doing well in the city (75 to 25 percent) but recently had begun to slip following television interviews and Rajapaksa’s position was stronger in the Colombo suburbs.
By Colombo Telegraph
Read the full cable;
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 COLOMBO 000047
DEPARTMENT FOR SCA/INSB
E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/22/2020
TAGS: PGOV PREL PREF PHUM PTER EAID MOPS CE
SUBJECT: RAJAPAKSA POLLSTER SAYS RACE IS NECK AND NECK
COLOMBO 00000047 001.2 OF 002
Classified By: AMBASSADOR PATRICIA A. BUTENIS. REASONS: 1.4 (B, D)
¶1. (C) SUMMARY: President Rajapaksa’s chief opinion pollster
told us their figures and those of the opposition all showed
the presidential election to be very close. Undecided voters
were at an unprecedented 17 percent (six or seven percent
this close to the election date was more the norm), with six
percent leaning toward Rajapaksa and 11 percent toward
Fonseka. Fernando said the president was doing poorly in the
East, mainly due to the corruption issue, but surprising well
in the North, where many Tamils were grateful to be free of
LTTE terror. In Colombo and its environs, the president was
gaining on Fonseka. Both candidates were jettisoning
negative messages and focusing on economic prosperity.
Fernando observed that election violence — which he
attributed to both camps — hurt Fonseka and helped Rajapaksa
because when voters got jittery they tended to stick with the
leader they knew, despite his faults. END SUMMARY.
TOO CLOSE TO CALL
¶2. (C) In a one-on-one meeting with PolChief, President
Rajapaksa’s chief opinion pollster and close advisor Sunimal
Fernando said their polling figures less than a week before
the presidential election indicated the race statistically
was a dead heat. Fernando said he was friends with the chief
pollsters for the UNP and for SLFP(M) leader and Fonseka
advisor Mangala Samaraweera, and that the polls of all three
— which he claimed were the only reliable opinion polls in
the country — indicated a close race, with the opposition
pollsters showing Fonseka slightly ahead and Fernando showing
Rajapaksa slightly ahead.
¶3. (C) Fernando was disappointed that his original plan to
query 25,000 voters nationwide had taken much longer than
anticipated, partly due to technical glitches. “For 1.5
million rupees (about 14,000 USD) we could have had the
proper equipment,” Fernando complained, “but those idiots
(running the president’s campaign) turned it down.” The
delays in completing the survey meant that the results
stretched across different time periods and thus were
potentially inaccurate. Nevertheless, he was confident that
his results were not far off from reality, particularly given
the overlap with opposition results.
REGIONAL DIFFERENCES SIGNIFICANT
¶4. (C) Fernando said the president was doing “very poorly” in
the East but “surprisingly well” in the North — both regions
with large Tamil populations. He explained the difference as
due to different expectations and economic-development
levels. The Tamils in the North had until recently been
terrorized by the LTTE and were grateful to be liberated. In
the East, the war was a more distant memory and economic
questions overshadowed. There were many road and other
development projects in the East, but many of the contracts
were going to firms from outside the region due to
corruption. The locals liked the roads but resented the fact
that the contracts went to non-locals, and thus they were
anti-Rajapaksa. With the North still a war-ravaged region,
such economic considerations did not come into play.
Moreover, Fernando argued that the Tamil National Alliance’s
(TNA) announcement supporting Fonseka had backfired in the
North, where many Tamils believed the TNA and India used them
for their own purposes and did not really look out for their
interests. Rajapaksa, at least, had eliminated LTTE terror.
¶5. (C) In the Western region, which includes Colombo and its
suburbs, the general had been doing very well in the city (75
to 25 percent) but recently had begun to slip following
COLOMBO 00000047 002.2 OF 002
television interviews. Fernando said the general generally
spoke quite well but interspersed his remarks with extremely
crude attacks on Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and
this coarseness turned off many Colombo sophisticates.
Fernando said his wife was a member of a “very snooty”
ladies’ bonzai tree club that had earlier all been for
Fonseka but were now evenly split.
¶6. (C) Fernando said Rajapaksa’s position was stronger in the
Colombo suburbs, home to many newly prosperous business
people who resented the snobbish attitude of the Colombo —
and generally UNP-leaning — elite, were particularly strong
Buddhist-Sinhala, and had been JHU (Buddhist monk party)
supporters in the last election.
VIOLENCE HELPING RAJAPAKSA
¶7. (C) Interestingly, there was still a large segment of
undecided voters — 17 percent (a more normal figure so close
to the election date would be six or seven percent).
Fernando said that about six percent of undecided voters were
leaning toward the president while 11 percent were leaning
toward Fonseka. As the election approached, the campaigns
were adjusting their strategies. Fonseka, he said, was
focusing less on Rajapaksa corruption, which many people saw
as mud-slinging, and more on a positive economic message.
Rajapaksa, too, was giving less time to patriotic themes —
which Fernando’s polls said interested few voters — and more
to his own economic-prosperity message.
¶8. (C) Fernando said that while the overall figures for
election violence — which included trivial matters such as
ripping down opponents’ posters — were attributable more to
the ruling party, the serious figures on assaults and
killings could be attributed to both camps. (NOTE: Our
impression is that while opposition forces have engaged in
serious violence, pro-Rajapaksa forces have probably been
engaging in it more. END NOTE.) Fernando argued that the
increase in serious violence by both camps was on balance
more detrimental to the Fonseka candidacy. This was because
Fonseka was an unknown entity, and when people became rattled
by news of violence, they became nervous about change and
tended to stick with the leader they knew. Moreover,
according to Fernando — and we have heard this from other
supporters of the president — many people were concerned
about the potential of Fonseka becoming a military dictator
if put in the position of president.
¶9. (C) Fernando’s reasoning that election violence helped
Rajapaksa is worrisome. Fernando himself seems to us a
decent man and appeared to be offering this observation as
only that. Others in the Rajapaksa camp, however, may take a
more pro-active view and very well may be stirring up
violence as a way to scare undecided voters to stick with the
devil they know, despite his faults. We took the opportunity
of the meeting to pass on our concerns about violence, as
well as the importance of a free and fair election, and to
note that relations with the U.S. and the rest of the
international community could be affected adversely by an
election that went poorly. We believe Fernando will pass
this message to the president.