By Uditha Jayasinghe and Nuwan Senaratne
Amidst much spectacle, deafening cheers, and countrywide fireworks, Gotabaya Rajapaksa yesterday accepted the Presidential candidacy of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), pledging to be a leader who will walk the talk and deliver development to a united and secure Sri Lanka.
The maiden SLPP National Convention on Sunday received the younger Rajapaksa with a standing ovation at the packed Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium after he was announced as the Presidential candidate by newly-crowned SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa. Hundreds of party supporters and party front-liners cheered as Rajapaksa entered the stage, enthusiastically waving posters emblazoned with his face, and sang along to his official campaign song.
The thunderous applause continued as Rajapaksa stooped to obtain the blessings of his brother and was embraced by him, and moved on to receive the well-wishes of the rest of the SLPP senior members. Videos chronicling the achievements of Gotabaya Rajapaksa were played on screen ahead of his ascent to the podium, to deliver his first speech as the official Presidential hopeful of the SLPP.
“At this historic conference that marks a decisive juncture in our nation’s politics, I am deeply honoured and humbled to accept the nomination made by the 5th President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, for me to represent the common aspiration of many political parties, independent groups, and organisations, led by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, as their candidate at the forthcoming Presidential Election. I consider this nomination as a noble mission entrusted to me by people-oriented, progressive forces, that are destined to create a political revolution in this country,” Rajapaksa said.
In his inaugural speech, Rajapaksa strove to strike a conciliatory tone, touching on the importance of inclusivity, unity, working with other countries, respecting diversity, and championing Sri Lankan values to build a prosperous country.
“I love my country. I am proud of my country. I have a vision for the future of my country. I consider it a tremendous privilege to have been given this opportunity to work towards the peace, wellbeing, and prosperity of my country.”
He also pledged to be a leader that will not be limited by traditional boundaries and limitations set by his position, but go “above and beyond the call of duty” in carrying out his affairs as the next President, should he be elected.
“I have always discharged every responsibility that has been entrusted to me to the best of my ability, and I assure you that I am fully prepared to provide the leadership needed to succeed in this challenge as we go forward. During my 20 years of active military service, and nearly 10 years of service as a Government official, I successfully discharged all the responsibilities entrusted to me. I always make every effort to deliver results that go above and beyond expectations.”
Introducing his policies for the economy, Rajapaksa said he will give priority to local companies, but will also encourage entrepreneurship, investment, technological innovation, and create space for younger people to achieve skills that are in demand in the job market. Rajapaksa also said he would take a hands-off approach with the public service, allowing them to be independent so they could carry out their services to the public, and assist in developing the country without fearing any legal backlash. He also said digitisation of government services will be encouraged, to support the private sector and reduce corruption. Rapid improvement of transport, internet services, and technology infusion into agriculture and fisheries, would also provide assistance to thousands of people engaged in these sectors.
“Our economic principles will support domestic industries, whilst encouraging them to explore new market opportunities in the global economy. Nearly one-third of our population is engaged in the agriculture and fisheries sector. We can use technology as well as the experiences gained from other countries to improve the productivity of these sectors, and improve the economic status of those engaged in them.”
Rajapaksa focused on national security, the challenge of not just drawing up policies but implementing them, and achieving the aspirations of the people, especially youth, in his speech.
“What the country requires today is leadership that has a vision for the future, plans to develop the country, and the ability to execute those plans. The public expects disciplined, corruption-free, people-oriented and patriotic leadership from its President. I trust that I have proven my ability to provide this leadership through my actions, and the results I have delivered.”
“If entrusted with the stewardship of this country by the people, my first task will be to ensure complete safety and security throughout the nation. I have complete confidence that we will once again be able to make Sri Lanka one of the most peaceful, secure, and safe countries in the world. I will accept responsibility for your safety, and the safety of your children and your loved ones.”
He also pledged to be tough on extremism and terrorism, but to work to resolve issues of the Tamil minority, as well as respect the unique cultural identities of different communities in Sri Lanka. The Presidential hopeful also focused on the environment, saying that he hopes to protect existing forests and introduce reforestation campaigns. He ended the speech with a special appeal to all party members, to conduct the campaign free of plastic and polythene, and more importantly, to refrain from mud-slinging and divisive action that would increase acrimonious sentiments among political parties.
“Instead of focusing on personal objectives, we will act to engage likeminded patriotic, creative, and intelligent groups to work towards our common objectives. The forthcoming Presidential Election will be a decisive one for the country and its future.I hope that the people of this country will think of what is best for future generations at this moment, without being confined to divisions of race, religion, or political party.”
“I would also like to make a special request from you on this important day. What we are commencing today is another new journey in our nation’s history.This is a dignified objective, and I believe we must conduct our election campaign in the same spirit of dignity. We must behave in the same manner now, as we would in governing once we are elected. As such, we must ensure that the entire election campaign will be a disciplined, law-abiding, and dignified one.”
He also cautioned supporters to “change the prevailing political culture of attacking political opponents, taking personal revenge, and misleading the public with lies. I request you to respond to our opponents’ false allegations with reasoned and logical truths.”
The convention, filled with spectacle, dancers, and drummers, revolved entirely around the two Rajapaksa brothers, with SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris making a short announcement that Mahinda Rajapaksa had been elected as the SLPP leader according to the party constitution, before Rajapaksa took to the stage to deliver an extensive speech, where he outlined the challenges the Rajapaksa family and its supporters had faced over the last four years. He emphasised that despite the numerous legal and other battles faced, they were able to form the SLPP, win the Local Government Elections decisively, and establish the party as a major political movement, in the space of two-and-a-half short years.
Rajapaksa pulled no punches in his eviscerating condemnation of the Government, especially on national security, introduction of the 19th Amendment, which he saw as an attempt to keep his family from politics, selling State assets, signing controversial agreements with ‘imperialist forces’, and mismanaging the economy. He claimed that the appeal for him to re-enter active politics increased with every “wrong step of this Government. The more they did these things, the more people remembered us.”
He noted that it was in answer to this call that the SLPP was born, and thanked his other brother Basil Rajapaksa for spearheading the effort amidst many challenges. The eventual progress of the party led to the decision to field a Presidential candidate, he said, pointing out “the time of this Government is coming to an end (cheers).”
“The Government attempted to stop us every step of the way. They created special Courts, they changed the Constitution, and even postponed elections, but we never sacrificed the freedoms of the nation for our freedom. Even though we faced much insults, we will never allow Sri Lanka to face any shame. They said we were racists and nationalists, but we have never done anything of the sort. But this Government has attacked every religion, from the MahaNayakas to the Cardinal, this Government respected no one. This vengeful politics has come to an end. Many people think we will seek revenge, but there is nothing for me to win by seeking revenge.”
“We have not come to take revenge on our enemies. We are looking at the people who love us. We have always fought against the imperialist-aligned UNP.”
At his oratorical best, Rajapaksa’s statements were met with much applause, with audience members even interjecting between statements. The interruptions were taken in stride by Rajapaksa, who interacted with the audience to set an electric entrance for his brother.
“My selection is not important to me, it is the country’s choice that matters to me. Whether I choose or not, he has become your brother, he has won your heart. They tried to stop him with the Constitution. They tried to send him to prison, but the religious leaders and the people protected him. From my brother, I give him to you. That is Gotabaya. Gota never asked to be made President. He is coming to strengthen the hands of the people. My first, second, and third priority is the country, and it should be the same for you, Gota. This is the start of your victory.”