Sri Lankan Public Opinion

As the American presidential election finally winds down with what appears to be a grudging concession (of sorts) by soon-to-be former President Donald J. Trump, I’ve been thinking about the fickleness of public opinion. Despite pollsters’ valiant attempts to explain and predict the collective attitude of large numbers of people, they often get it wrong, either by mis-measuring the distribution of opinions, or by interpreting accurate data incorrectly. One of the biggest problems is that public opinion can be extraordinarily fickle, especially during, after, and around national security crises. We like to think that there is some stability to public opinion, but in some cases, that kind of stability simply does not exist. One example that stood out to me recently was Sri Lanka. In early 2015, long-time wartime president Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the election to his rival, former health minister Maithripala Sirisena. Rajapaksa had led government forces to bloody victory over the Tamil Tigers in 2009, some 26 years after the insurgents first launched their war of independence. After his victory, Rajapaksa oversaw a tightening of autocratic rule, cracking down on dissent from within Sri Lanka’s minority populations (Tamils and Muslims), as well as within the dominant Sinhalese Buddhist community. One of Rajapaksa’s biggest Achilles heels in the run-up to the 2015 national elections, however, was his heavy reliance on Chinese-funded debt to launch major Sri Lankan infrastructure projects. In the months leading up to the 2015 election, Rajapaksa’s critics zeroed in allegations of corruption, many linked to the Chinese construction projects. Fast forward four years, however, and Rajapaksa was once again elected president. According to the New York Times, public anger at...