Battling for the ballots

On November 16, Sri Lankans will go to the polls to elect their new president. Neville de Silva assesses the two main contenders

In the 71 years since independence, Sri Lanka (formerly named Ceylon) has earned a reputation for breeding the most promising politicians. One political leader on an election campaign trail even vowed to bring rice from the moon to feed the people.

Such unviable promises are common currency in Sri Lanka,especially at election time. Scant wonder Singapore’s astute and visionary founder Lee Kuan Yew, an admirer of Ceylon in its early days, perceptively described Sri Lankan politicians’ electoral promises as the ‘periodic auction of non-existent resources’.

As the final days count down before voters trek to the polls for the crucial presidential election on 16 November, it seems nothing has changed.A host of populist policies, similar to those that often beggared Sri Lanka in the past, are being dangled like carrots before the 16 million registered voters in the hope they will bite as they often have before, only to quickly regret their decisions.

So while one of the main contenders offers to cancel farmers’ unpaid loans and provide free fertilizer, his strongest opponent promises free meals to schoolchildren, tax cuts that will eat deep into the country’s fiscal reserves and a sheaf of other goodies.

Where the money is coming from to meet these additional financial burdens, no-one really knows or wants to say. The prospective beneficiaries seem not to care, as long as they benefit from these election promises.
Never since Sri Lanka’s executive presidency was established in 1978 by the country’s first executive head of state Junius Richard Jayewardene, popularly known as ‘JR’, have there been so many contenders for the top job as this year – 35 in total. Voters need to be careful not to trip over a ballot paper that is more than two feet long.
Many of the candidates promise to sort out the country’s political mess. If all those who make extravagant claims to cure the ills of this highly polarized society, with its ethnic and religious antagonisms eating away at the body politic,were to pool their ideas and resources,they would possibly churn up something as appetizing as the witches’ broth in Macbeth.

Gotabaya is expected to receive the major share of the Sinhala Buddhist vote in Sri Lanka’s south

Despite the unprecedented number of candidates, there are only two real contenders for the presidential ‘crown’, both with some historical connection to Sri Lanka’s top post.

Tipped by many as the front runner is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a younger brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was president from 2005 to 2015. Gotabaya was picked as candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), led by his brother Mahinda, a breakaway branch of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), one of Sri Lanka’s oldest parties going back some 60 years.

Besides being Mahinda’s sibling, Gotabaya’s key credential for the top post is that he was secretary of the defence ministry under his brother. The pairare credited with having jointly helped vanquish the separatist Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in May 2009, bringing to an end a near 30-year war.
But Gotabaya’s image has been tarnished by accusations of alleged human rights abuses, the torture of journalists and multiple other allegations, including misuse of public funds. Certain cases are still before the courts, which have been postponing hearings, some for several years.

The other front runner is Sajith Premadasa, deputy leader of the rival United National Party (UNP), a minister in the current cabinet and son of a former president, Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber in 1993.

Though deputy to current prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in the UNP hierarchy, Premadasa has been working mainly with the country’s rural peasantry,uplifting villages and building houses for the poor, as did his father, who was essentially a grassroots politician. Alleviation of rural poverty has been Sajith Premadasa’s dominant concern.

Two developments, however,gave Gotabaya Rajapaksa a head start in the campaign for the presidency.
Firstly, although he operated largely in the umbra of politics, with little appetite to step out of his elder brother’s shadow, there were some in the Rajapaksa family circles intent on keeping the political dynasty alive.The outer circle promoting a Gotabaya presidency came from retired military officers in search of a place in the sun, along with groups of academics and professionals calling for a stable society stamped with the Sinhala nationalist seal,in which the economy, and they, could thrive.This was buttressed by a section of influential Buddhist monks who presented the former military officer as a Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist who could discipline a disorderly, corrupt and increasingly globalised society.

FRONTRUNNERS: Presidential candidates Gotabaya Rajapaksa (l) & Sajith Premadasa
FRONTRUNNERS: Presidential candidates Gotabaya Rajapaksa (l) & Sajith Premadasa

Secondly, fortuitous circumstances provided Gotabaya –now more amenable to being cast in a new role that would keep the Rajapaksa escutcheon aloft –with an opportunity last Easter Sunday, when Muslim jihadists bombed Christian churches and three luxury hotels in Colombo, killing some 270 people.

The news that Indian intelligence had alerted their Sri Lankan counterparts at least thrice and several days ahead of theimpending attacks,evoking little response from Colombo, provoked the former defence secretary toblame the current government for dismantling the intelligence apparatus he had created.

Egged on by an ultra-nationalist lobby, including some saffron-robed monks, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was hailed as Sri Lanka’s saviour from the new terrorism by Islamic jihadists in search of operational bases in South Asia.
National security thus became a core issue in the presidential election. While Gotabaya was cashing in on the reputation that he and his president-brother were the key figures in the defeat of the Tamil Tigers and hence responsible for the consequent years of peace, Premadasa countered by announcing he would place national security in the hands Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, the army commander who led the ground troops against the Tamil Tigers and is credited with being the strategist whose consummate planning led to the LTTE surrender.
But it took the UNP several months to finally settle for Premadasa as their candidate, for Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the UNP were not only involved in an increasingly acrimonious conflict with President Maithripala Sirisena but also locked in an internal debate on who should be the partynominee. This meant they lost much valuable time.

Still, Premadasa is more experienced in the political arena than Gotabaya and more at ease with the media than the tetchy former defence secretary whose first media conference proved a flop, according many observers.

National security is a core issue in the election

While Gotabaya is expected to receive the major share of the Sinhala Buddhistvote in the country’s south, that will not be enough to get him the 50+ per cent of the votes to ensure victory.He knows very well that in 2015 brother Mahinda lost the presidency because the minorities, especially the Tamil community, did not support him. Yet last month a local authority election in the Sinhala south saw the Rajapaksa-led party romp home.
However, even if this translates into a southern phenomenon in the election, it might still not get Gotabaya across the 50+ line without some minority support. One cannot see the northern Tamils voting in numbers for him because of the past anti-LTTE war and subsequent developments.

But he has made some inroads into the Muslim community and signed a memorandum with a union of plantation workers of Indian-Tamil origin. Meanwhile, five parties of the northern Tamil community have presented a list of demands including wide ‘constitutional’ concessions that Mahinda Rajapaksa has already rejected.
Traditionally the minorities have supported the UNP. Whether they will this time, or demand their pound of flesh, remains a moot point.

In which direction post-election Sri Lanka will turn is being keenly watched by at least three major powers, especially because of its geo strategic location and the growing importance of the Indian Ocean.
India is Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour, and China’s incursion by land and sea into the island nation worries not only Indian security but also the US,which has been pushing the Sri Lanka government to enter into various pacts with military implications, which President Sirisena stopped.

Jayadeva Uyangoda, a former professor of political science at Colombo University, spelled out the options facing the people of Sri Lanka. ‘The choice before us in the 2019 presidential election is whether we want to pave the way for an oppressive authoritarian regime, or whether the space that opened for freedom, democracy and citizens’ rights in 2015 should still remain available.’

A simple choice, maybe, but Sri Lankan politics is far from simple.


Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London

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