The case for a Sajith Premadasa candidacy is different from the case for a Sajith Premadasa Presidency. It is arguable that even those who prefer a Gotabhaya Presidency could opt for a Sajith candidacy if it leads to a stronger UNP showing, and results in a stronger balancing factor in Sri Lankan politics which would act as a safeguard for democracy.
What is a candidacy about? It is about winning the largest number of votes for one’s side. How one chooses the candidate from the available alternatives should be based on who is most likely to generate the most votes for one’s side. That would depend on the context in the country when the election is due to be held, the nature of the opponent, and the profiles of the contenders on one’s side.
The case for a Sajith Premadasa presidency is that he is logically the best legatee of the Premadasa model of development which in turn is demonstrably the best the island has ever experienced in that it was a combination of rapid growth, a stock market that took off, increased foreign investment, a dramatic reduction of inequality, the spread of industry to the rural areas, and the reduction of absolute and relative poverty. It can also be argued that the late President Premadasa combined a multiethnic, multicultural, multireligious, multilingual pluralism with a robust patriotism, and that his son would be the closest approximation of a non-ethnocratic, pluralist, inclusionary nationalism; a nationalism that heals rather than an aggressive one that dominates and imposes, or a cosmopolitanism that rejects patriotism or nationalism.
On the question of national security and the current threat of ISIS terrorism that the country faces, a pluralist approach to minorities would be a far better “soft power” accompaniment of a counterterrorist campaign against Islamist jihadism; one capable of winning over the middle ground, than a tougher ultranationalist approach which would be far more polarizing and eventually counterproductive.
However, all of that is part of a debate for the last quarter of this year; not the third quarter in which the issue is who the contest should be held between.
The Economist Intelligence Unit (UK) has already predicted a Gotabhaya victory quite explicitly in its recent position paper ‘What would a Gotabhaya Presidency look like?’ It pessimistically argues though that the Gotabhaya camp’s strident ethnoreligious majoritarian attitude to minorities would trigger a major crisis which would eventually undermine both national political stability as well as economic stability over the long term, i.e. that the stability his Presidency brings will not prove sustainable because the fault-lines will widen. Several months earlier, the Heritage Foundation, closely associated with the US Republican party, predicted not only a victory of the camp led by Mahinda Rajapaksa but also said that the UNP would not get more than 30%. In their view, the UNP is way behind in the race.
A recent public opinion poll carried out by a leading newspaper on the issue of SOFA shows a NO vote, i.e. a vote against it, which hovers around 60% and a YES vote, i.e. a vote in favor, which is in the very low 30% range. That is a true reflection of the pro-Western camp and the patriotic or nationalist camp in Sri Lankan society and politics today. Indeed, the actual situation may be even more dramatic. If only 32% of the cosmopolitan readers of an English language approve of SOFA and 60% oppose it, one may imagine what the real balance of sentiment may be among the Sinhala language readers who are considerably more numerous. These figures give an indication of what the balance of opinion is in favor of and against the perspective and ideology of the UNP Establishment which is associated with the attempt to sign the agreement, and the degree to which the latter is alienated from the people and society at large.
In such a situation a cosmopolitan neoliberal candidate is unlikely take the UNP below 30%. It is hard to imagine any senior Establishment figure would be able to take the UNP above 30% when there is a swing against the pro-Western UNP Establishment as in 1956 and 1970.
Apart from Sajith Premadasa that leaves Sarath Fonseka, Champika Ranawaka and Navin Dissanayake. Fonseka’s national security credentials are matched by Gotabhaya who offers more in the macro-managerial realm. Especially with the garbage collection crisis underway, Ranawaka has little to offer except aspirations in a field that Gotabhaya can point to actual large-scale achievement. He may also alienate minority votes.
Navin Dissanayake has demonstrated electoral success but with heavy minority support, but his ability to break into the nationalist-populist Sinhala Buddhist vote has not yet been proven. Unlike Sajith, it is not likely that he could compete effectively with the front runner, Gotabhaya, on his own social terrain.
The UNP has shrunk so much under its quarter century long leadership, that even the full mobilization of the party and its base vote cannot easily win an election especially after the past few years of total lack of constructive achievement and the stigma of the Central Bank Bond scam. It needs someone from its own ranks who can rally all its troops for an election campaign and rekindle enthusiasm. Who is most likely to revive the UNP, to give it hope?
The answer is very plain. At the UNP’s May Day plus Indoor Convention of two years ago, one speaker got a sustained ovation from the faithful, including from those standing outside complaining that they could not get in—and that was Sajith Premadasa. There were the two ‘flash’ mobilizations in Colombo in the last quarter of last year, against the Prime Ministership of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. and the only one who evoked sustained, near-hysterical applause and whistles, before, during and after his speech, was Sajith Premadasa. At the recent rally in Badulla too, the enthusiasm of his respectably-sized audience was considerable.
Sajith is the only UNPer who has the bitter battle experiences of fighting the popular and powerful Rajapaksa clan on their own home turf, the patriotic Ruhuna. He has lost some and won some battles, but he is the only one who has gone head-to-head and survived while preserving his own electoral space there. He has sustained a long political war.
The Opposition’s candidate, Gotabhaya, can break into, and doubtless has already broken into the UNP’s middle class urban vote by profiling himself as a better, more managerial-technocratic, militaristic and stronger version of the UNP itself. Does the UNP have anyone who can go beyond the UNP’s base vote and break into the Opposition vote base or the swing vote? Ranasinghe Premadasa did so in 1988. The secret formula is to bring something to the table other than the party’s base vote. That means to bring to the party a value addition –while being able to revive and mobilize its own base.
The comparative advantage within the UNP belongs to Sajith, because he has a far better “story”, a better narrative, than the others. He has a developmental, social, emotional and symbolic inheritance, namely the advantage of being the son of a former President who had an exceptional track record of socially uplifting development. Every beneficiary of his father’s many projects, multiplied by their family members, is a potential support base. If that social support base, is not activated at this upcoming election, it will never be available for the UNP because the memory of Premadasa will fade as the generation disappears. This is the vote that Premadasa built and brought to the UNP. It stands or falls with his programs and the resonance, some might say chemistry, of his name and memory.
The last time the UNP succeeded in winning an election for the country’s leadership was thirty years ago. That leader was Ranasinghe Premadasa who took oaths as President on January 2nd 1989. The UNP’s main rival the SLFP has retained the Presidency for a quarter century. If the UNP is to succeed in electing another leader to the highest office in the land, it is almost certain that it will have to be with the mandate of implementing the Premadasa model of growth with equity and patriotism with pluralism, and under a banner bearing his visage.