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Sri Lankan Election Upset Brings New Scrutiny to Astrological Forecasts

Sri Lanka's newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena (C) speaks during his swearing-in ceremony in Colombo, January 9, 2015.
Sri Lanka's newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena (C) speaks during his swearing-in ceremony in Colombo, January 9, 2015.

In Sri Lanka, it was not just the country’s powerful president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who suffered a debacle when he was unexpectedly trounced in last week’s elections. His astrologer, who had confidently forecast a certain win for him, has also quietly stepped away from the limelight in a country where faith in star power is high.

When former President Rajapaksa called elections two years ahead of schedule, it was not just on the basis of political calculations. He was also given the go-ahead by his trusted astrologer of over 30 years, Sumandasa Abeygunawardena. Calling Rajapaksa an “invincible personality and a blessed man”, he forecast that he would win a great victory.

In the days preceding the January 8 vote, Abeygunawardena maintained that the election date was “immensely fortunate for Mr. Rajapaksa.” And in the run up to the election, astrologers confidently predicted on state run television that nothing would stop a Rajapaksa victory.

Rajapaksa is a firm believer in astrology. While most politicians in the country share that belief, many observers noted that the former president had an excessive dependence on astrology.

“It became talked about quite openly and a matter of public discussion. Apparently the astrologer had said it was a good period for him and he should not delay it, the date was set according to some astrologer’s prediction, his time of handing over the nomination paper, everything was determined by an astrologer,” said Harini Amarasuriya, who teaches at the social sciences faculty at Sri Lanka’s Open University.

But all calculations - planetary and political -- were thrown into disarray when Maithripala Sirisena defected from Rajapaksa’s party, and cruised to victory after bringing together a disparate opposition.

The turn of events was unexpected. When Rajapaksa had called the election, there was no credible opposition to a leader once known as the strongman of Sri Lanka.

Now, Rajapaksa’s shock defeat has put the man who was called the “royal astrologer” in the line of fire. Abeygunawardena has given up his official car and resigned from the directorship of a state-run bank, which were just some of the privileges bestowed on him. His credibility has taken a huge hit.

The astrologer told AFP that he knew Rajapaksa was doomed to lose, but did not have the heart to tell him. Defending himself, he said that even the French seer Nostradamus had some incorrect forecasts.

Millions of people in South Asia believe that the movement of planets has a deep influence on their lives. Marriage dates and auspicious events are decided as per the calculations of horoscopes, which are made on the basis of the time, place and date of birth.

However, the high profile astrological error made in Sri Lanka’s election has triggered a debate on star power.

“This is a country that has a lot of these kind of beliefs going on a day to day basis. But this time, because this is such a high profile thing, it is also getting a lot of flak and I think that is a reasonable thing to happen. Because you cannot have a situation, where a country in this time of the 21st century, cannot really doing something this serious, depending this much on something like astrology,” said Sasanka Perera, a Sri Lankan anthropologist and heads the Social Sciences Faculty at the South Asian University in New Delhi.

Harini Amarasuriya pointed out that politicians in Sri Lanka appear to put greater faith in astrology than most other people.

“Where it become such a big thing with politicians is also where there is a lot of insecurity about their position. When you are in those kind of positions, it is a very isolating place to be in, and you kind of cling to these kind of mystical practices in order to get some sense of security,” said Amarasuriya.

In recent days, there also have been many jokes and humor on social media targeting astrologers who had forecast Rajapaksa’s victory. However, faith in the influence of stars on human lives is unlikely to be shaken anytime soon.