“Those who seek power at any price detect a societal weakness, a fear that they can ride into office.” Carl Sagan (The Demon-haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark)
One point four million extra votes – that is what Gotabaya Rajapaksa needs to achieve his burning desire to become the next president of Sri Lanka.
The number of registered voters currently is around 16 million. If, as in 2015, the turnout is 82% (and rejected votes don’t exceed 2%), this would mean a total valid vote of 12.8 million. To win outright, a candidate would have to gain around 6.4 million votes.
The SLPP won the 2018 Local Government election polling 5 million votes. To win the next presidential election outright, Gotabaya Rajapaksa will have to top those 5 million votes with 1.4 million extra votes.
Politically, mathematically, that could be a bridge almost too far.
True, the challenge before the UNP is way more daunting. It has a far greater distance to cover, 2.8 million votes over and above its dismal tally of 3.6 million at the 2018 LG polls. That is assuming it regains its collective sanity before nominations begin. Currently Sajith Premadasa and Ranil Wickremesinghe are fully occupied with trying to kill the elephant, one with fire and the other with ice. Such infantile conduct would have appalled Ranasinghe Premadasa and JR Jayewardene who always placed party-unity above their personal ambitions. But sons and nephews are not made of the same clay as fathers and uncles. Sajith Premadasa’s vainglory and Ranil Wickremesinghe’s obduracy are threatening the electoral prospects of the UNP, and far more pertinently, the very survival of Lankan democracy.
The hype around the SLPP’s 2018 victory served to hide a far more nebulous mathematical reality. The party’s average vote did not exceed the all important 50% mark. Not even close. It won just 40% of the vote (way ahead of the UNP at 29.4%; incidentally the UNP scored even more dismally in Hambantota – 25.5%). Had that election been a parliamentary election, the SLPP would not have been able to form a government on its own. Had that election been a presidential election, there would have been no outright victor; to find a winner, second and third preferences would have had to be counted.
So though Gotabaya Rajapaksa is currently the frontrunner, the final outcome is far from being a done deal. 1.4 million extra-votes – that is no easy target. Given the nature of the SLPP and Gotabaya’s own character and record, he will have to seek these extra million plus votes from among the Sinhalese almost exclusively.
The infusion of multiple third party candidates can become another headache for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They can’t cause even a splinter in the SLPP’s near monolithic base vote, and are more likely to take votes away from the UNP. But they can attract disillusioned anti-Rajapaksa voters back into the electoral contest. This would mean an increase in the voter turnout and a corresponding increase in the number of extra votes Gotabaya Rajapaksa needs for an outright win.
The picture can turn even more problematic for him, if key third party candidates ask their supporters to cast second and third preferences. Since these voters would be of anti-Rajapaksa persuasion mostly, their second and third preferences will not be for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This opens the possibility of Gotabaya Rajapaksa winning a plurality in the first count, but losing the overall election in second or third counts.
The argument that Gotabaya Rajapaksa can win outright by attracting most of the first time voters is a specious one. There aren’t enough first time voters to bridge the 1.4 million gap; and some of those voters would be non-Sinhalese.
Still, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has three paths to an outright victory.
The first one is gaining the support of the SLFP. But will Maithripala Sirisena give up his demand for premiership, and will the SLFP consent to contest under the SLPP symbol? Currently both prospects seem remote. The Rajapaksas can win over some of the 1.5 million voters who voted for the SLFP/UPFA in 2018, but not enough to make up 1.4 million.
The second path consists of a UNP broken both in spirit and in structure. This would require Ranil Wickremesinghe contesting from the UNP and Sajith Premdasa contesting from a third party, each tearing the other apart instead of taking on the Rajapaksas. Such a disaster is not impossible, but can Gotabaya Rajapaksa depend on it?
The third path requires hiking anti-minority phobia stratospherically, thereby convincing an absolute majority of Sinhalese that they face an existential threat from which only a President Gotabaya can save them.
A Threatened Saviour in an Endangered Land
Soon after his anointment as the SLPP’s presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa wrote to President Sirisena claiming that his intelligence services (how many intelligence services does Sri Lanka have?) had informed him of a threat to his life. A special weapon had been brought down from Malaysia, he claimed, with the intention of assassinating him as well as Douglas Devananda and Karuna Amman.
A few days later, the TID arrested a doctor attached to the Palai hospital on suspicion of trying to revive the LTTE. The SLPP propagandists went into overdrive, tying this arrest to the Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s assassination story with a thousand apocryphal chords.
For instance, a key pro-Gotabaya website, Lanka c news, in a post captioned, Many gunmen deployed to assassinate Gota… Killinocchi terror doctor in custody reveals, even claimed that the arrested doctor begged the TID to provide Gotabaya Rajapaksa with extra security. Eventually the police was compelled to issue an official statement explaining that neither the detained doctor nor any other detainee had made such revelations. The story that the detained doctor was part of a Tamil Diaspora-driven conspiracy to murder Gotabaya Rajapaksa was nothing but a deliberate lie.
Once the police issued its statement, that particular story died. But other stories are sprouting, all of them aimed at exacerbating Sinhala fears. Like the mythic Hydra, the moment one story is debunked, several more spring in its place.
Take, for example, the sudden outpouring of interest in the fate of the Muhudu Maha Viharaya in Pottuvil. Last month, a story claiming that Muslim extremists have toppled a number of statues in the ancient temple spread suddenly over the internet. One of the Facebook posts claimed that the vandalised statues, depicting the Buddha’s eighty great disciples, were built by the Rajapaksa administration in 2013, and were razed to the ground by Muslim extremists in 2019. The post then went on to warn that if the current government is re-elected the same fate will befall the Samadhi statue, the Tholuwila statue and the statues in Gal Viharaya. The incendiary nature of these claims and their political intent need no belabouring.
The story had since being exposed as a total lie by Pathum Kerner (a medical doctor and an author) who visited the temple and provided video evidence, and by the AFP. The construction of the statues had begun in 2017 and is still continuing. Some of the statues are lying on the ground, because they are yet to be raised.https://factcheck.afp.com/these-statues-sri-lanka-were-laid-their-side-due-heritage-restrictions-temple-they-were-not-attacked.
Anything and everything is grist to this cannibalistic rumour mill. An unknown animal welfare organisation (National Collective for Non-Violence towards Animals) led by an equally unknown Dr. Tikiri Bandara Atipola issued a press release claiming that hundreds of cows (including pregnant cows, sick cows and calves) were being bludgeoned or hacked to death illegally to feed the participants at the recent convention of the Dawoodi Borah community. Once again there wasn’t a shred of evidence. The aim was to spread fear, revulsion and hate.
Last week, the notorious saffron-robed rabble-rouser Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara broke his self-imposed silence, claiming that there is a plan by Islamic extremists to carry out more attacks in Sri Lanka. In pro-Gotabaya websites, every unusual sound in the North is reported as a deadly explosion carried out by a resurgent LTTE. A military exercise at foiling a potential attack on the Victoria dam was reported by a Sinhala newspaper in such a way as to give the impression of an actual attack. The purpose of all these diverse efforts is one – to make enough Sinhalese believe that the survival of their race and religion is being threatened by Tamils and Muslims.
There are two dangers in this deliberate and systematic stoking of Sinhala insecurities and fears. Words can spark fires, as we know. The anti-Muslim violence of last May was ignited by the inane misinterpretation of an ignorant Facebook post. But the greater peril lies in possible deliberate efforts ignite ethno-religious fires.
Another outburst of anti-minority violence can impact on the presidential election in two ways. It can terrify the minorities into not voting; and it can persuade enough Sinhala voters that only a Hitler-like saviour can bring about stability and security.
A recent statement by parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa reveals the lengths to which the SLPP and its allies might go to terrify minorities into submission. Speaking at a public meeting in Piliyandala, parliamentarian Weerawansa claimed, “The current government helped and encouraged Tamil and Muslim extremists in the last four and a half years. As a result ordinary Tamil and Muslim people have become unprotected. If you want a secure country where a Sinhala man will come to your shop (kade) to buy something, I ask peace-loving Muslims to vote for Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who can build such a country.” (Wimal tells Muslims traders how to attract Sinhala people to their shops – Lanka c news – 2.9.2019 emphasis mine). If a Gotabaya victory can end the boycotting of Muslim shops, isn’t it logical to surmise that Camp Gotabaya had a hand in igniting the boycott in the first place? Is this the road to stability and prosperity or its opposite?
On July 11th, the Economist Intelligence Unit published a report titled, What would a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency look like? The conclusion was that a Gotabaya presidency is likely to result in social instability, and economic weakening. Here are a few relevant points:
“If he wins, as we expect, the elevation of Mr. Rajapaksa to the presidency is likely to have a damaging impact on social stability… With a rise in Sinhalese nationalism, there is likely to be a further increase in anti-minority sentiment across the country, where social unrest arising out of ethnic and religious tensions already poses a major risk to political stability.
The rise in communal tension and clashes that we would expect to characterize Mr Rajapaksa’s presidency would also have a negative effect on the country’s economically important tourism sector, which is already suffering following the terrorist attacks in April. Further damage could weaken both export earnings and economic growth…
Combined with the weakening of press freedoms and civil liberties that we would expect under a Gotabaya presidency, this is likely to be detrimental to long-term political stability. As a result, the country’s economic prospects look set to darken.” http://country.eiu.com/article.aspx?articleid=1818220365&Country=Sri%20Lanka&topic=Politics
Business leaders colluding with would-be despots in the hope of maximizing profits at minimal risk is a phenomenon not unique to Sri Lanka. If such global entrepreneurial giants like Alfred Krupp and Fritz Thyssen could take that inglorious path, why not a Sumal Perera or an Ashok Pathirage? Their support for Gotabaya Rajapaksa doesn’t surprise; that business leaders are even more myopic than politicians is a standard lesson of history.
Far more inexplicable is the role of media, especially the Sinhala language media, including the print media. Any news item that is favourable to Gotabaya Rajapaksa is given prominence while anything that reflects badly on him either goes unreported or is given negligible exposure. For instance, most of the Sinhala media accorded little prominence to the rejection by the Supreme Court of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s appeal against the hearing of the Medamulana museum case. It was the biggest story of the day, and it was treated like trivia.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is trying to use his presidential candidacy to get a California court to dismiss the case filed against him by Ahimsa Wickremetunga, the daughter of Lasantha Wickremetunga. Will he try the same tactic here, asking the Supreme Court to delay the trial until the presidential election is over? Did he insist on being anointed as the SLPP presidential candidate long before the election was announced as a way of evading justice? After all, once he is president which judge would dare to rule against him, given the fate of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake or of Justice Manjula Tilakaratne – pistol whipped on a Sunday morning as he waited in his car outside his son’s school in Mt. Lavinia?