“The city has to elect me in full freedom… What I demand is one unanimous and joyful ‘Yes’… And in passing let me add: if anyone’s not for me he’s against me and has only himself to blame for anything that happens.”
– Brecht (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui)
It was a moment of civility in a season of vitriol. All major presidential contenders met on one stage on October 5 to present their ideas and answer questions. All but one; the current frontrunner Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised to attend but didn’t.
At Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s inaugural media conference, a journalist asked why. His response was characteristic of both the man and of the president he will be if his resistible rise is not resisted. “I have presented my policy proposals on many occasions,” he said, followed by his signature laugh. “Therefore it’s not necessary to go to a place where there are about ten opponents, and one is isolated.”
Mr. Rajapaksa went on to say that he doesn’t like debates and discussions. All he wants is to work. Yet when he was asked how he would finance his expensive promises (such as free fertiliser) and how he would handle the debt problem, he turned his confused gaze towards his older brother. Mahinda Rajapaksa had no real answers either, but managed to deflect the danger with empty assertions.
Ever since he was named the SLPP’s presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been shackled to a teleprompter. He avoids the media on the campaign trail. Even at election rallies, he reads from a prepared script. His performance at his first media conference demonstrated the correctness of this unusual practice. He managed reasonably well when the questions were banal. He floundered when questions were even marginally probing and evaded most of the follow up queries.
His level of ignorance (real or pretended) on a range of disparate subjects was staggering. He was unaware of the binding nature of international agreements. The name Paranagama Commission seemed as Greek to him, and he seemed unaware that the Commission in its report gave details of surrenderers who ‘disappeared’ while in military custody. Asked about reconciliation and accountability, he meandered in endless circles. A question on extremism left him stranded; he smiled and made circular motions with his hand for several long seconds.
No wonder the man prefers choreographed events. A firefly needs the darkness of the night to shine.
So a teleprompter is a sensible choice, even a wise one. It enables Gotabaya Rajapaksa to don the mantle of sagacity. Since the prepared scripts would have been vetted by the candidate and the heavyweights in his camp, their contents need to be taken seriously by us, the voters. These are not off-the-cuff remarks, made in the heat of the moment only to be forgotten in saner aftermaths. These are statements of intent.
Take, for instance, the following pledge by Mr. Rajapaksa’s at his inaugural election rally: “A large number of war heroes are in jails on trumped up charges. At this moment I’d like to say by the morning of the 17th all of them would be absolved of all charges and freed.”
When Mr. Rajapaksa was reminded of this pledge at the media conference and asked how many military personnel are in jail currently, he offered no answer. Was it because he didn’t know the exact figure or the exact figure would make a mockery of his exaggerated claims and fantastic innuendoes? In reality only 48 military personnel were arrested by the CID since 2/15 and 41 of them have been bailed out. Only seven remain in remand prison. Contrary to Mr. Rajapaksa’s assertion, the arrests were made not on the basis of trumped-up charges but on the basis of real actual crimes – murdering Lasantha Wickremetunga, killing unarmed protestors at Ratupaswala, kidnapping 11 youths for ransom and disappearing them, abducting and disappearing Prageeth Ekneligoda, assaulting Upali Tennakoon and his wife…
A president has the power to pardon a convicted criminal, but he/she cannot acquit an accused. That can be done only by the courts. Therefore Gotabaya Rajapaksa intends to begin his presidency by violating the constitution, breaking the law and subverting the judiciary. His first act as president-elect would be to absolve men accused of heinous crimes, starting with murder. If any judge or lawyer tries to resist this gross constitutional violation, he/she would probably be accused of treason and locked up, if not worse.
Disorder is discipline; lawlessness is law; impunity is justice
The story began when Anton Sugath Nishantha Fernando of Negombo filed a complaint in the Bribery Commission against a police inspector. The commission investigated the complaint, found it good, and filed a case in the High Court. Soon afterwards, Mr. Fernando, his wife and their two children were assaulted allegedly by the Negombo Police. Mr. Fernando then turned to the Supreme Court for justice. He was reportedly threatened, but refused to withdraw the case. On September 20t, , 2008, he was shot dead at Dalupotha junction in Negombo, in the presence of his 11-year old son.
Four months later, the office of his lawyer Amitha Ariyaratne at Templers Road, Mt. Lavinia was burnt down. Days before that act of arson, “on the 27th January 2009, Mr. Ariyaratne was threatened inside the Negombo Police Station in front of several officers by an officer named Bandara who struck him on the shoulder and threatened him with death three times” (The Mindanao Examiner – 31/1/2009).
Just one example of law and order, Rajapaksa style.
Discipline is Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s deity, his mantra. Yet, it was in his disciplined paradise that a gang led by a favoured parliamentarian attacked an out-of-favour presidential advisor on a suburban road, Chicago style, causing four deaths, a Pradesheeya Sabha chairman and his henchmen hacked a British tourist to death and gang-raped his fiancée, a minister tied a public official to a tree and the ministerial brat assaulted a military intelligence officer in a five star hotel. Duminda Silva, Samptah Chandrapushpa Widanapathirana, Mervyn Silva, Malaka Silva, these were the pillars of discipline and order in the lost Rajapaksa utopia. (Incidentally, when Malaka Silva assaulted Major Chandana Pradeep of the Military Intelligence, the self-appointed godfather of all war-heroes, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa threw that particular war hero under the bus. He saved the ministerial brat by criminalising the major, accusing him of “acting as a personal bodyguard of an individual, which is beyond his duties.” Sri Lanka News – 14.9.2012).
During the media conference, Mr. Rajapaksa was questioned about ACSA and SOFS two agreements Sri Lanka signed with the US under the presidency of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and renewed under the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
When the two agreements came up for renewal this year, the SLPP went into a patriotic frenzy, accusing Ranil Wickremesinghe of turning the island into an American military base, the Guantanamo of the Indian Ocean. The SLPP patriots even formed an organisation, STOP USA, to defeat this ‘great betrayal’.
“If Sri Lanka does not take a stand against the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and the Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA) immediately, there will be no turning back,” Parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa proclaimed. (Ceylon Today – 26.6.2019). His partner in hysteria, parliamentarian Udaya Gammanpila said, “The time has come for us to find allies that will not intervene in our internal affairs. Even if this agreement was for a certain time period, what happens when the time period is over and if the US refuses to leave?” (Ibid). Mr. Rajapaksa, who until recently was a Sri Lankan-American, remained silent as his supporters screamed about an imminent American invasion.
When asked about how ACSA and SOFA would impact on Sri Lanka’s non-aligned status, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s reply was they didn’t. “The agreement we signed went on for ten years.” He said, and laughed. “Nothing actually happened with that. The benefit was for us. Not for them.” Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila both actively participated in the media conference, but remained silent as their candidate gave the lie to their fiery campaign of last several months.
The entire episode is a classic case of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, and an example of Rajapaksa politics. The brothers would use anything in order to gain and hold power. Thanks to the Rajapaksa mandated STOP USA campaign, President Sirisena deferred the renewal of the Millennium Challenge Corporation grant by six months. As a result, Sri Lanka stands to lose (if not already lost) a grant of US$ 480 million. A price worth paying for the triumphant return of the Rajapaksas, at least in the eyes of the Rajapaksas.
Spiritual Leaders and Electoral Predictions
Sri Lanka has a new spiritual leader. He is none other than Mahinda Rajapaksa – at least according to Basil Rajapaksa. “No matter who our candidate or our president is, our leader (Mahinda Rajapaksa) will be the head of the government (as PM). So this arrangement suits us well. He is our leader and he is the spiritual leader of our country” (The Hindu – 13.10.2019 – emphasis mine).
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s elevation from the secular to the sacred plane, from High King (maharajano) to spiritual leader is but the logical conclusion of the Rajapaksas’ boundless self-veneration. But it might come as unwelcome news to at least one member of the family, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Candidate Rajapaksa clearly has little knowledge and even less interest in constitutional provisions. He sees post-19th Amendment presidency not as it is – a weakened institution sans many of its powers – but as it never was – an omnipotent position that will make him an uncrowned king, not a constitutional monarch, but an absolutist one, the head of all three branches of government including the judiciary.
Is a Gotabaya Rajapaka victory inevitable? The answer is yes, according to Basil Rajapaksa who believes that the SLPP already owns all the votes cast for the SLFP/UPFA at the last LG election. The SLPP’s 40% together with the SLFP’s 12% will push Gotabaya Rajapaksa well beyond the 50%+1 mark, Brother Basil claims.
That is one possibility in a range of possibilities. A percentage of the 2018 SLFP vote will go to the SLPP, but how much that would be is and would remain unknowable until after the election. There is a real possibility that a majority of those who voted for the SLFP in 2018 will not vote for the SLPP in 2019. The pro-Rajapaksa SLFPers are no longer in the SLFP.
Those who remain are more likely to be Bandaranaike supporters or left-of-centre voters with a more modernist outlook and therefore uncomfortable with the extreme brand of familial politics practiced by the Rajapaksas. They are far more likely to vote for the UNP, the JVP or some other ‘third party’ candidate than the SLPP.
Currently Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the frontrunner. Yet, given the nature of the man and his politics, his path to victory, while short, is also extremely narrow. He can never win anything other than a sliver of the minority vote. If he fails to win the SLFP vote in near-entirety, he cannot win outright. If he fails to win a majority of the SLFP vote (50% or above) he can lose.
Sajith Premadasa has a greater distance to cover, but his path to victory, though longer is also wider. He has a chance of winning a sizeable chunk of Tamil and Muslim votes, and a sizeable chunk of the SLFP vote.
To win outright, Gotabaya Rajapaksa needs to gain 80% to 100% of the SLFP vote, which seems a political impossibility. To win in the second round he must gain 50%-66% of the SLFP vote, which is possible but by no means assured.
If Sajith Premadasa can gain more than 75% of the SLFP vote and more than 75% of the N/E minority vote (as Maithripala Sirisena did in 2015), he can defeat Gotabaya Rajapaksa, if not outright, then in the second round. His chances will improve considerably if he can persuade those who vote for the third party candidates to give him the second preference, as the only way to stop a Gotabaya-victory.
The election is wide open still. There is no clear winner the way there was in 2015 or 2010, yet. The victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa is still resistible, if we are disposed to face facts. When the contest is between a man who praises his own tail and a man who is wedded to violent intolerance, the choice might be cringe-worthy, but also clear.