Ever since the name of Gotabaya Rajapaksa began to be bandied about as a potential candidate at the Sri Lankan presidential elections, doubts have been raised as to whether the former defence ministry secretary could win at the hustings. This skepticism has intensified in recent times after former president Mahinda Rajapaksa formally announced his brother’s candidacy at the Sri Lanka Podujana Party(SLPP) Convention on August 7th this year.
Earlier there was much pessimism about Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s eligibility to contest as a dual citizen holding US citizenship. It was strongly believed that Gota would not be allowed to relinquish his US citizenship on time to contest presidential elections and would be disbarred from contesting as a dual citizen in terms of the 19th Constitutional amendment. These misgivings seem to have somewhat diminished after Gota produced documents as proof of having lost his US Nationality.
However Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s prospects for success at the presidential elections continues to be a topic of discussion or matter for speculation at various levels. Gota’s supporters are confident that he would romp home the winner because the country at large wants a “strong man”to combat terrorism and ensure the security of the nation in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings. Given his track record in defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) after protracted conflict, Gota’s fans feel that there tremendous support for him among the majority of the Sinhala Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka.
This assessment is faulted by others. They opine that Sinhala Buddhist votes alone are not sufficient to guarantee victory and that the votes of the numerical minorities are also necessary. The Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims and Up-country Tamils of recent Indian origin together comprise 25% of the Island population.The argument is that Gotabaya Rajapaksa would not be able to attract the votes of these ethnic groups. It is pointed out that even Mahinda Rajapaksa who got more “Sinhala” votes than Maithripala Sirisena at the 2015 elections lost in the end because the ultimate victor obtained an overwhelming number of Tamil and Muslim votes. It is said that Gota would fare even more badly as he does not have a positive image among the minority communities.
Pan – Sinhala, Pro-Gota Wave.
The Gotabaya Rajapaksa electoral camp is aware of this situation but seems supremely overconfident that the fall -out from the Easter bombings would be sufficient to mobilise enough votes from the Sinhala community itself. The orchestrated campaign to promote anti-Muslim feelings among the majority community will lead to a Pan- Sinhala , Pro-Gota wave at the polls it is opined. Even the traditionally pro-UNP “Cathoic Belt” is expected to vote for Gota this time. Given this situation, the Gota camp is optimistic about winning on the Sinhala vote alone. Some say even Mahinda Rajapaksa who was doubtful earlier about Gota being able to win changed his mind later because he was convinced of his brother’s success after witnessing the change of mood in the country after the Easter explosions.
Nevertheless the Pro- Gota campaigners will not openly admit that they are relying on the Sinhala vote only and that the non – Sinhala vote is not needed. No political party or grouping hoping to form a Government can afford to say so openly. Besides even if Sinhala votes are adequate for victory, there is nothing lost by wooing the minority community votes also.
It must also be said in fairness to Gotabaya Rajapaksa that despite the criticism levelled by his detractors, the presidential candidate has been appealing to all ethnicities in Sri Lanka and has not confined his ‘message”to the Sinhala majority alone. In fact Gota has been taking extra care to convey the news about his campaign and his viewpoints in the Sinhala, Tamil and English languages via Social media. This is not done by even the big parties like the UNP, SLFP or SLPP. Gota has also been meeting representative gatherings of minority community members and re-iterating that he stands for an “inclusive” society.
These overtures by Gota have had a mixed response from the minorities. While definite declarations of support have not been forthcoming, there have been no negative expressions of opposition either by the chief representatives of the Muslim or Up country Tamil communities. Displaying their usual political pragmatism these leaders and representatives are guarded at this point of time without committing themselves either way. They are keeping their options open at least now. More importantly whatever their final stance, they have not been critical of Gota up to this time.
Tamil National Alliance
But not so the Sri Lankan Tamils. The premier political organization of the Sri Lankan Tamils is the configuration known as the Tamil National Alliance(TNA). The TNA contested polls in 2015 under the house symbolof itc chief constituent the “Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi”(ITAK) and obtained 16 seats. With two MP’s drawing away from the TNA subsequently the tally is now 14. The TNA too has taken up the official position of waiting for Presidential elections to be announced before deciding on whom to support or not support.The TNA says that it would meet the respective candidates and hold discussions before taking a final decision. In spite of this professed approach, the TNA has already revealed what kind of stance the party would adopt.
The TNA has been strongly supportive of the UNP -led Government and Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe during crucial votes in Parliament . On more than one occasion, the TNA provided the support necessary for the Govt to demonstrate it has a viable majority in the house. The TNA has justified this stance as being supportive of democracy rather than of the Government.There is some validity in this and credit must be given to the TNA for this position particularly during the October 26th “Backdoor Power Grab ”.
Unfortunately the TNA gives the game away by the intemperate utterances of their senior leaders. When questioned by sections of the media, TNA leaders say that if they did not support the present government then the Rajapaksas would return to power. The describe the Rajapaksas as “Varakkoodaathavargal” (Those who should not come). They also state that the Sri Lankan Tamil people on the whole would never ever support any of the Rajapaksas. Thus notwithstanding the TNA claim that they would take a decision in due course, it is clear that they would not support Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the presidential elections.
In the case of Gotabaya Rajapaksa the impression sought to be conveyed by dominant sections of the Tamil political class and media is that the Tamils would not vote for Gota in the presidential election as the former Defence secretary was allegedly responsible for the loss of so many Tamil lives during the war. Again this viewpoint sounds hollow in the light of the 2010 and 2015 presidential elections.
Fonseka and Sirisena “Ganders”
In 2010 the TNA supported former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka and a very large number of Tamils did vote for him despite his war record. In 2015 Maithripala Sirisena was supported by the TNA and Tamils voted overwhelmingly for him. Again Maithripala Sirisena was a key member of the Rajapaksa regime and served as acting defence minister several times. In fact Sirisena in a newspaper interview given in the first week of January 2015 boasted that he had been in charge during the final weeks of war (It was then that many lives were allegedly lost) as acting defence minister. Hence it is blatantly clear that double standards are being applied here.What is sauce for the Fonseka and Sirisena “ganders” is not sauce for the Rajapaksa “geese”.
In that context it seems very obvious that strong moves are afoot to create or promote an environment where Sri Lankan Tamils would not vote or be encouraged to vote for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Illustrating this vividly is a news item appearing in the “Thenee” web site where former Northern chief minister C.V.Wigneswaran had reportedly stated that no Tamil should vote for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Similar views have been expressed by other lesser known Tamil political personalities too. It is being propagated that Sri Lankan Tamils would not vote for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Expressing any form of support to Gota by a Sri Lankan Tamil is being depicted as a treacherous act. There is every chance that the TNA too would campaign in this mode after elections are announced.
Against this backdrop the general impression was that no reputed Sri Lankan Tamil political leader or party would have the courage to go against this line of thought and extend support to Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This however was proved wrong by a significant event two weeks ago.
Eelam Peoples Democratic Party
On August 19th a four -member delegation of the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) led by its Secretary -General and Jaffna district MP Douglas Devananda met with Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Colombo. The other members of the delegation were ex-parliamentarian and former Northern Provincial council leader of the opposition Sinnathurai Thavarajah, Former Jaffna Mayor Ms. Yogeswari Patkunarajah and Devananda’s brother cum secretary Kathiravelu Dayananda.
The EPDP submitted a memorandum which was patiently read in full by Gota. Thereafter a related conversation followed. Several issues were discussed. It is learnt that Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave three broad assurances to the EPDP. The first was that he would facilitate and ensure the smooth functioning of the Northern and Eastern Provincial councils. The second was that he would focus on the economic development of the regions where Tamils were concentrated and would provide employment opportunities. The third was that he would examine and review the problems affecting the day to day life of Tamils and devise speedy solutions as far as possible. When the meeting concluded and the EPDP was about to depart , Gota thumped Douglas affectionately on the back and said “ You will get a powerful ministry through which you could develop the areas and provide youths with lots of jobs”.
Extremely satisfied with the Gota meeting, Douglas Devananda issued a statement on behalf of the EPDP saying the party would support Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the presidential elections. He said the meeting with Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave him hope and confidence. Devananda followed it up by conducting a media conference at the EPDP party office in Jaffna one week later. Associated with Devananda at the press conference was the EPDP National organizer Pasupathy Seevaratnam and Kilinochchi district EPDP organizer and ex – Provincial councilor Y. Thavanathan.
Douglas Devananda re-iterated that the EPDP would support Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the forthcoming presidential elections. He pointed out that he had been able to do much development work as a minister in the government headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa and was confident of continuing in the same manner in a new dispensation too. Devananda outlined some of the matters discussed with Gotabaya Rajapaksa and promised speedy action on them. He particularly emphasized that his priority would be to provide employment opportunities for 100,000 youths. Devananda asked the Tamil people to trust him and vote for Gota so that he could implement his pledges to the Tamil people. Douglas also said that the victory of Gotabaya was certain and that the Tamils by voting for Gota should be participants instead of being onlookers.
Two -Part “Pull-Push”Strategy.
Douglas Devananda’s approach in the presidential poll seems to be a two- part “Pull -Push”strategy. The “pull” is that of mobilizing the EPDP vote bank into voting for Gota.For this Devananda relies on what he perceives to be the EPDP track record of engaging in resettlement, rehabilitation and development work. The EPDP vote bank consists to a great extent of the marginalized sections of society in socio-cultural and economic terms. Hence this constituency depends a very great deal on state – sponsored and state -initiated projects.
There have been many shortcoming and flaws in the EPDP’s past performance to help usher in development . Yet there is a feeling now in Jaffna – not entirely without merit – that the EPDP’s performance in developing the North when Devananda was a minister was far better than that of the TNA during the past four years. This in spite of the TNA running the provincial council for five years. Many opine that if Devananda was Northern chief minister, the North may have been well off economically as opposed to the “Irunda Kaalam” (Dark Period) of Wigneswaran as chief minister. It may be recalled that when Devananda’s appointment as Minister of Resettlement, Rehabilitation, Northern Development and Hindu Religious Affairs in the short -lived cabinet of Mahinda Rajapaksa last year was welcomed by many Northern residents.
While planning to pull its vote base into supporting Gota, the EPDP hopes to “push” segments of the population non- supportive of the party also into supporting Gota. For this Devananda has his own version of the carrot and stick approach. The “stick “ is in making the Tamil people somewhat insecure and anxious about the advent of Gota. Douglas tells the Tamils that Gota is definitely going to win and that they would lose out if they do not prepare for it by voting for Gotabaya.This in a way is reminiscent of Christian evangelists preaching “Jesus is coming. Are you ready? There is also an implicit warning that if Gota is elected without Tamil votes , it may have consequences for the community.
Sword -Wielding Youngsters
The “carrot”is the promise of economic development and employment. There is acute unemployment in the Tamil areas. There are some types of jobs or employment available but the young people do not want them. They want certain kinds of jobs only. The younger generation does not favour engagement in the traditional spheres of agriculture , fisheries , construction or toddy – tapping. As a result many youths are idling. An idle mind , they say, is the devil’s workshop. Morbid symptoms of this tendency are the phenomena of sword -wielding youngsters on motor cycles engaging in violence and crime. The Police conveniently label all of them as “Aavaa” gangsters.
It is in this situation therefore that Devananda hopes to provide jobs widely and rapidly under a new Rajapaksa regime. He seems hopeful that traditionally non – EPDP new votes could be garnered in favour of Gota by the lure of jobs.
Interestingly enough Devananda’s approach in this is rather dicey and somewhat double-edged. On the one hand he secures the envisaged patronage of Gotabaya Rajapaksa by promising to deliver Tamil votes to him. In return Devananda wants development and employment for Tamils. On the other hand, Devananda woos Tamils by saying that he could give them jobs and development if they vote for Gota. The pledge to provide employment and better economic prospects is predicated on the Tamils voting for Gota. Thus Douglas Devananda is like a shrewd “middleman” who hopes to clinch a business deal through a risky gamble without having either the product nor the finance in hand.
What therefore is the EPDP’s political strength in terms of votes? Douglas Devananda himself has been an MP continuously since 1994. He celebrated his silver jubilee as a parliamentarian last month. The EPDP has had its up’s and down’s over the years. The party’s base is Jaffna. In the August 2015 Parliamentary election the EPDP polled only 33,481 votes .Devananda was the solitary EPDP parliamentarian to get elected. Barely 30 months later in the February 2018 local authority elections the EPDP did much better and obtained 74,128 votes. This enabled the party to get 41 directly elected representatives from wards and 57 indirectly elected under PR thereby making a total of 98. The EPDP also won two Pradeshiya Sabhas.
The Call By Douglas Devananda
How much of its vote bank and how many new votes can the EPDP mobilise in favour of Gotabaya Rajapaksa? Will it exceed the number of votes the EPDP got in the local authority poll or will it be below that number? Will the Tamil voter heed the call by Douglas Devananda and vote in sufficient numbers for Gota or will they reject Rajapaksa en masse at the presidential poll?
The answers to these questions may unfold as the election is announced and intensive campaigning gets underway but nothing can be conclusive until the votes are finally counted. One thing however is certain. By boldly extending support at a time when Sri Lankan Tamils are being pressured to keep away from the Rajapaksas, Devananda has endeared himself politically to Gotabaya. Whether Douglas would be successful in getting enough Tamils to vote for Gota or not is only of secondary importance.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This Article was written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of September 9, 2019. It can be accessed here-