The November 16, 2019 Sri Lankan Presidential election will go down in history for several firsts.
For the first time in the history of post-independence Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), a party of greats like Prime Ministers SWRD Bandaranaike and Sirima Bandaranaike, and Presidents like Chandrika Kumaratunga and Maithripala Sirisena, will not be fighting for the top post in the country, namely, the Executive Presidency.
The SLFP, which hived out of the United National Party (UNP) in the early 1950s on ideological grounds, and had been in power over long periods since then, is not contesting the November 16, 2019 Sri Lankan Presidential election.
Its present chairman, Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, was to contest the election but gave up the idea after he found that he had virtually no backers even within the SLFP, leave alone the general public.
His erratic conduct, Quixotic moves, brazen decisions and pronouncements, and inability to get on with his colleagues, won him few friends or supporters. Under his stewardship, the SLFP came a dismal third in the 2018 local government elections which were swept by the breakaway Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by former SLFP chief and Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Under the circumstances, Sirisena has been left with no option but to save the party from extinction by participating in the Presidential election as an ally of the SLPP.
But even this bid hit the rocks when he insisted that the SLPP should fight, not with its own symbol of Lotus Bud, but with a neutral symbol so that the SLPP would not walk away with the credit for winning the election.
However, given the power of the SLPP and the current weakness of the SLFP, the latter is set to eat humble pie at the end of the day.
The basic flaw with the current SLFP is that its lacks a dynamic and charismatic leader who gives the impression that he can deliver the goods and lead the people to a better future. Sirisena has not filled the bill as a leader in the way in which his predecessors, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Sirima Bandaranaike and SWARD Bandaranaike did in their time.
Sri Lankan politics, like politics in the rest of South Asia, revolves round charismatic leaders. Parties will therefore have to have charismatic leaders to win elections. Policies and programs are important but these have to be personified in the leader.
The UNP suffered the same fate under Ranil Wickremesinghe, who, despite his wide knowledge and long experience in parliament and party politics, could not ever win the Lankan Presidency. Wickremesinghe could not sell his policies by the force of his personality. He did not strike a chord with the masses.
The UNP’s chances of winning the Presidency has increased this time round because it has chosen Sajith Premadasa, a man who is believed to have rapport with the masses.
Second Distinguishing Feature
The November 16 Presidential election stands out also because for the first time, no sitting President or Prime Minister is contesting. The Leader of the Opposition is also not in the fray.
Neither President Sirisena nor Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is in the field. Both had opted out after failing to get party endorsement. The two principal candidates, Sajith and Gotabaya, are brand new.
Image Make Over
Again, interestingly, both the top Sri Lankan parties are trying to shed their worn out image and acquire a new one. But there is a difference between the SLFP and the UNP in this regard. While the SLFP has had to opt out of the political race to survive as a political entity and retain its image, the UNP is still in the race, but with a new face – Sajith Premadasa.
A record 35 candidates are in the field this time round, out of the 41 who had initially applied. But only three of them matter – the SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, UNP candidate Sajith Premadasa, and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake.
The high number in the field reflects the current openness of the electoral field. The latter arises from the fact that there are no dominant figures in the fray. Neither Sajith nor Gotabaya is a political colossus to frighten other aspirants away. Both are new and relatively inexperienced as compared to their predecessors. And both are untried and untested. While Sajith has held only minor portfolios in the government, Gotabaya has not even been a Member of Parliament. These aspects give hope to other aspirants.
There are a variety of reasons for a person to contest an important election like the one for the Presidency, even though chances of winning are slim or non-existent.
Some are “doubles” who fill the gap when the actually preferred candidate is out of the reckoning for some unforeseen reason like death or illness. Some are indirectly nominated by an established political party to cut into the votes of the opposition. It is alleged that a high profile Tamil candidate, M.K.Shivajilingam and a Muslim candidate MLAM Hisbullah have been put up by the SLPP to cut into the Tamil and Muslim vote base of the UNP in the Northern and Eastern provinces respectively.
It is also alleged that a retired military man Gen.Mahesh Senanayake has been put up to divide military votes which could go to Gotabaya, who was the war-winning Defense Secretary in the Mahinda Rajapaksa government.
Some candidates are put up to get more polling and counting agents into the polling and counting centers.
Then of course, there are parties and candidates who want to test or display their vote winning capability, which might help them in the coming parliamentary elections. The JVP, for example, would like to test the political waters ahead of the 2020 parliamentary elections in which they are aiming to get more seats than hitherto.
Some candidates, aspiring to get into party lists in the parliamentary elections, might like to display their political worth by getting a decent number of votes in the Presidential poll.
Then there are candidates who want to use the election to let people know of their views and prescriptions for the country as they will be interviewed by the media and given time over radio and TV to air their views. Former Secretary to the government and Professor of English Dr.Rajiv Wijesinghe and Rohan Pallewatta are in this category.
An outstanding feature of the candidates’ list this time is that after a 20-year gap, there is a female aspirant. She is Prof.Ajantha Wijesinghe Perera of Colombo University. The last time a woman candidate stood in a Presidential election was in 1999 when Chandrika Kumaratunga did.
The absence of women in the fray generally is strange in a country where half the population is female. Lankan women feel that politics is too dirty and violence-prone for women to put up with.
However, there are two Buddhist monks in the fray. But in Sri Lanka monks enjoy immunity from violence. In Sri Lanka, Buddhist monks are politically influential but are divided on party lines. Like laymen, they participate in street demonstrations both peaceful and violent.