By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, September 12: The Chairman of the Sri Lankan Election Commission, Mahinda Deshapriya, has reportedly decided to hold the Presidential election before December 7 and to call for nominations before September 30.
What is noteworthy this time round is that there is no clarity as to which of the candidates (tentatively in the field), is the front runner. There is no discernable “wave” for or against any candidate, including Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is being touted by his Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) as a star contestant with a magic wand to set right everything that has gone wrong in Sri Lanka.
Most surprisingly, the ruling United National Party (UNP) is yet to decide on who it should field, even though one of the claimants to the party mantle, Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, has been publicly campaigning as if he has been officially nominated.
The moods of the various politico-ethnic or politico-religious constituencies are still shrouded in mystery. For example, it is not certain if the Sinhala-Buddhist constituency, which is about 70% of the voter population, is predominantly behind the SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa who is being trumpeted as the Sinhala-Buddhist-nationalist icon. It is not clear if Gotabaya is under challenge from Sajith Premadasa, whose claims to be a Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist cannot be brushed aside.
The minority Tamils and Muslims are currently sitting on the fence having been let down by both the national mainstream Sinhala-Buddhist dominated parties, namely the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the ruling United National Party (UNP).
The minority parties have their wish-lists which they are discussing with the mainstream parties. But it is not certain which of the mainstream political parties would be able to accept them, and that too, publicly.
The SLPP had a jumpy start with uncertainty over Gotabaya’s release from US citizenship but it has crossed the hurdle. However, he still has four problems dogging him: First, he has a case in court relating to alleged misappropriation of public funds for the construction of a memorial for his father D.A.Rajapaksa in his hometown. Apparently under directions from President Maithripala Sirisena, the Attorney General is pursuing these cases to weaken Gotabaya politically ahead of the Presidential election.
Secondly, Gotabaya is facing dissonance with the minorities. The Tamils blame him for the ruthless way in which he fought the last phase of Eelam War IV and allegedly sanctioned “White Van” abductions of terror suspects during the 2006-2009 war. The Tamils are put off by the way Gotabaya brazenly surrounds himself with ex-Generals who led the war. The Tamils fear that he would behave like a military man as Lankan President. The Tamils also dislike his dismissive attitude towards their demand for devolution of power.
As for the Muslims, they see Gotabaya as the root cause of the intimidation and riots they were subjected to after the victory in the war against the Tamil Tigers in 2009. They fear repression if he became President. However it appears that the Catholics and other Christians have veered to Gotabaya’s side after the incumbent UNP-SLFP government failed to protect them against Muslim extremist terror.
The minorities are important in a Lankan Presidential election because together they are 30% of the population and to win, a candidate has to get 50 percent plus. Gotabaya undoubtedly has a strong Sinhala-Buddhist base, but he has to get at least 25% of the minority votes, especially if Sajith Premadasa, another Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist, is pitted against him by a united UNP.
The third problem that Gotabaya faces is his reluctance to campaign in the open. So far, he has spoken only to the business elite and intellectuals in closed door meetings. Even his popular older brother and former Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has not started campaigning.
The fourth problem Gotabaya is facing is the uncertainty about SLPP’s alliance with the SLFP led by President Sirisena. The SLFP, the mother party of the SLPP, has been reduced to a rump in parliament, but still it has loyal voters, albeit small in number. As Keheliya Rambukwella, spokesman of the SLPP, said, in a Presidential election every vote is valuable. However, the SLPP finds it difficult to accept the SLFP’s grandiose demand that the election be fought under the SLFP symbol and not the lotus bud of the SLPP. The SLPP believes that the lotus bud is now well recognized as the symbol its iconic leader Mahinda Rajapaksa who showed his mettle in the local bodies elections in 2018 in which he bagged 45% of the votes in the Sinhala areas. However, it is expected that, eventually, the SLFP will settle for less in order survive politically.
The UNP is badly divided between Leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe and the Deputy Leader and Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa. Uncharacteristically, Sajith declared his intention to contest without taking Leader Wickremesinghe into confidence and without going through the set procedure for nomination.
A majority of UNP MPs and even close confidantes of Wickremesighe jumped on to the Sajith bandwagon because, in their view, Sajith is the only top UNP leader with the “common touch” in contrast to Wickremesinghe who is seen as being too uppity and aloof to swing votes of the hoi polloi. Wickremesinghe also has a proven track record of losing Presidential elections where personal charisma counts.
But Sajith and his backers found that Wickremesinghe is a hard nut to crack. Wickremesinghe is the acknowledged leader of the UNP with a fund of experience and with a firm hold on the party machinery. He used this to good effect by stubbornly refusing to endorse Sajith’s candidature. Finally, Sajith had to come down from the high horse and declare publicly that he wishes to become President with the blessings of seniors like Wickremesinghe and parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya.
Eventually, both Sajith and Wickremesinghe realized that a united the UNP might win the election, but a divided UNP will be defeated because in the coming election no constituency can be taken for granted. Every vote has to be fought for.
But Wickremesighe, who is still not convinced that Sajith is the best UNP candidate, put a few demands as a condition for his support. First, he asked him to agree to the abolition of the Executive Presidency and replacing it with the Westminster-style parliamentary system. Second, he wanted to be appointed Prime Minister. And third get the support of the minorities.
Sajith may have difficulty in rejecting the demand for abolishing the Executive Presidency outright as it is an unfulfilled election promise made in the last Presidential election and has a wide measure of support from the minority parties and also progressive opinion.
However, Sajith will have difficulty in meeting some of the other demands of the minority parties especially the Tamils’ demand for devolution of power beyond the 13 th.Amendment and on the lines of the recommendations of the committees formed to formulate a new constitution. The Tamil National Alliance would insist on the establishment of accountability mechanisms to address issues of human rights and alleged war crimes. The Muslim parties would demand stern action to curb Islamophobia among the Sinhalese majority. Firm commitments in these matters may adversely affect his prospects among the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. The minority parties prefer Wickremesinghe to Sajith, but would accept Sajith if he turns a new leaf.
Sajith and Wickremesinghe are expected to meet again. It is not clear if this will happen soon. The suspense thus continues.
The JVP is in the “also ran” category. But it can take away some Sinhala-nationalist voters who are alienated from the non-performing mainstream parties. One Muslim leader even said a section of Muslims might vote for JVP’ s Anura Kumara Dissanayaka as a mark of protest against the SLFP, SLPP and UNP.