After severe hiccups on both sides of the political divide, the principal candidates in the Sri Lankan Presidential election (to be held on November 16 ) have now begun their campaigns in right earnest.
The hiccups were political in the case of the candidate of the ruling United National Party (UNP), Sajith Premadasa, and legal in the case of the candidate of the opposition Sri Lanka Podujana Permuna (SSLP) Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Sajith, as Premadasa is popularly known, had to resort to pressure tactics to force party leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to nominate him as the UNP’s candidate. As part of this, he had to project himself as the party candidate with posters, hoardings and mass rallies.
Gotabaya, as Rajapaksa is generally known, had been slow and tentative all this while because there were legal objections to his candidacy. The American official lists of persons who had renounced US citizenship did not have Gotabaya’s name. Further, his Lankan citizenship was the subject matter of litigation in the Court of Appeal. It was only last Friday, that the court ruled in his favor.
The petition, filed by two leading civil society activists, had charged that Gotabaya had, in 2005, unlawfully obtained a Dual Citizenship Certificate and subsequently a Sri Lankan passport and identity card. His brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had just then become President of Sri Lanka, had signed on the Dual Citizen Certificate by-passing the concerned Minister and the Ministerial Secretary. The issuance of the certificate was thus unlawful, it was argued.
But the defense said that, at the time when the certificate was issued, there was no Cabinet of Ministers and no Ministerial Secretaries either. They had all resigned to enable the newly elected President Mahinda Rajapaksa to appoint people of his choice. During the week or ten days between the swearing in of the new President and the formation of his cabinet and appointment of Ministerial Secretaries, the President exercises all the powers of the executive. Called “plenary powers”, these existed in 2005. .
After four days of arguments, the Court of Appeal unanimously endorsed the argument of the defendants and dismissed the petition, thus enabling Gotabaya to contest the election.
Out of the 41 candidates who had filed nominations , only Sajith and Gotabaya can be taken seriously. And now to assess their strengths and weakness: With Ranil Wickremesinghe giving up his Presidential ambitions and accepting the younger and non-elite Sajith as the candidate, the UNP is exceptionally united and charged up. It has, at long last, found a candidate with a “common touch” after putting up with an elitist and distant leader like Ranil Wickremesinghe.
However, right from the start, political pundits had been considering Gotabaya of the SLPP (founded and led by the charismatic former President Mahinda Rajapaksa) as the front-runner in the Presidential race.
As Defense Secretary during the war, and as the Urban Development Secretary also after the war, Gotabaya had distinguished himself as a creative and dynamic official, though he also had an unsavory reputation for using strong arm methods to silence trenchant critics.
Following the April 21, 2019 multiple suicide attacks by a bunch of Jihadis and the utter failure of the UNP government to act on accurate prior intelligence given by India, the majority of Lankans, especially of the Sinhala-Buddhist and Christian communities, have been yearning for a strong national security oriented government. It is felt that under the circumstances, only Gotabaya can provide security.
Having passed the critical legal test, Gotabaya now has to kick start his campaign. All he has done so far is to meet clutches of interest groups behind closed doors to expound his philosophy of planned, purposeful and time-bound development which Sri Lanka has been lacking since the Rajapaksas quit office in January 2015.
He has so far addressed only two public meetings, which were not rallies with mass participation. But Sajith has addressed massive rallies. Unlike Sajith, who has held many press conferences, Gotabaya is yet to address one. He has also not granted a single one-to- one interview. While Sajith’s banners, hoardings and posters are all over the place, there is hardly any of Gotabaya’s.
However, SLPP leaders are unfazed. “We still have more than a month to go. We should keep our powder dry for the final assault,” one of them said.
It is noted that that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), led by President Maithripala Sirisena is most likely to support Gotabaya. After several rounds of talks between the SLFP and SLPP, there was agreement on almost all issues except the election symbol. However, the SLFP is likely to give in on this matter. The SLFP has now been reduced to a minor party with little bargaining power.
The SLPP and the SLFP are natural allies. Both are against the neo liberal economic policies of the ruling UNP.
The ruling UNP alleges that the Rajapaksas had no strategic plan on how to retrieve the country from indebtedness to China and other international agencies. It claims that it is the Rajapaksa regime pursued projects such as the Mahinda Rajapaksa Mattala airport aimed only at promoting a personality cult, without a thought for revenue generation. But Gotabaya’s argument is that during the 2005-2014, the Tamil terrorists were defeated and valuable infrastructural assets like a container terminal in Colombo, a new port in Hambantota , an airport in Mattala, and several roads were built. But the successor government did not work out business models to make use of these assets, with the result, losses kept piling up.
Under the leadership of SLPP’s National Organizer, Basil Rajapaksa, the party has conducted a survey of the felt needs of every village in Sri Lanka and has worked out a blueprint to address the needs with the help of specialists.
Old Wine In A New Bottle
Sajith, on the other hand, has no such research-based documents for him to implement. All he has voiced till now is a series of wishes for the poor of Sri Lanka in terms of modern amenities.
Going by the people around him (all of them from the existing regime), the prospects are none too bright. What can be expected is only more of the same thing, or, as the SLPP President Prof.G.L.Peiris put it: “Old wine in a new bottle.”