Kumar Welgama, Member of Parliament from Kalutara is a colouful personality. Recently, he is in the limelight due to a revelation by the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) that 18 buses which had been given to the Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) had gone missing during his tenure as the Minister of Transport. Earlier, he was indicted in a separate case of financial misappropriation for allegedly creating a non- existent position of vice chairman at the SLTB in order to employ a crony and paying Rupees 3.2 million to him as salaries.
However, Mr. Welgama is also making waves due to a different reason: his persistent opposition to the presidential bid of Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Interestingly, despite being a loyalist of ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa, Mr. Welgama made his opposition known even while Gotabaya was testing waters through a showpiece event of Viyath Maga.
Now that the former defence secretary has publicly announced his desire to run for the presidency, Mr. Welgama’s protestations are getting louder and also more pinpointed. Recently, the Kalutara MP argued that political parties should not promote as presidential candidates individuals who would kill everyone who disagrees with him or her.
Whether Mr. Welgama’s opposition to Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is driven by principles or by self- interest is open to question. (He is reportedly nursing presidential ambitions, some say). Whatever his motives, he has a point: the prospect of Gotabaya’s presidency is alarming. It does not necessarily mean that former defence secretary would reign from a skull island. But, even a milder form of Gotabaya styled government is bound to reverse current democratic gains.
Some tend to view Gotabaya’s highhandedness and militarization of the state apparatus with a sense of nostalgia. However modernizing and diversifying the economy of a country, of which export basket has not changed since 1990s requires a lot more than jackboots. That brain power, ideological clarity and dispensation are lacking in the Gotabaya camp. He will end up with ‘yes men’ and charlatans, the kind of people his elder brother , ex -president Mahinda Rajapaksa found more comfortable to have around.
Still, former defence secretary is a formidable contender for presidency. His prospective opponent from the UNP, most likely Prime Minister Wickremesinghe still finds it hard to make a serious impression on the conservative Sinhalese Buddhist vote base.
It is sad that the UNP has failed to exploit an opening that was given by the aborted constitutional coup. Also, despite his commitment to democracy and good governance, and identification of the long neglected micro and macro-economic reforms, which are mandatory for the country to leapfrog from the current lower- middle income level of the economy, Mr Wickremesinghe is a poor implementer of economic policy. If his government was able to proactively undertake large development and investment projects, it could have added probably an additional one per cent to GDP growth.
Mr. Wickremesinghe’s detractors want Sajith Premadasa to be the presidential candidate. Mr. Premadasa is an untested populist backed by a controversial media mogul. Mr. Premadasa’s trademark program, ‘Udagamas’, aka, building free houses from other people’s tax money, does not necessarily reflect social and economic priorities in a resource scarce society. Such populist measures undertaken in places like Brazil and Venezuela effectively ran their respective economies to the ground. Youthful Mr. Premadasa can also wait for his time.
Then, others want Karu Jayasuriya, one of the last remaining gentleman-politician. However, Mr. Jayasuriya at 78 is perhaps a bit too old.
All that points to an extremely narrow pool of individuals, who rule the roost and are not willing to accommodate a more competitive set up of politics.
That constrained political competition tends to perpetuate a culture of political delay and erosion of public trust in political institutions. Those conditions in turn allow unrelenting despots to encroach the political space with the promise of revitalizing the system. A desperate populace fall prey.
Gotabaya’s presidential bid, and support he enjoys from certain quarters highlight the popular frustration towards incompetent, self- serving traditional political elites. Ex-defence secretary dupes the gullible with the lie that he has a quick fix for all that ail the country. His quick fix, i.e. white vans and militarization of civilian space, has very limited utility other than when it is about removing squatters from Kompanna Veediya or deploying soldiers to clean canals.
But, governing the country with respect to its institutions, and fixing its economy in a sustainable manner requires a lot more than brute force of the state’s coercive organs.
Probably, Gota will not win his election gamble. By pardoning controversial Buddhist monk Galabodaatte Gnanasara thera on the independence day, President Sirisena for one more time, would inadvertently help Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to rally minority votes around him. Still, the prospect of wolves in sheep clothing hijacking the pinnacle of political institutions is a real threat, and would remain so as long as internal party democracy and political competition are suppressed in Sri Lanka’s political system.