Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) convincingly won the Lankan Presidential election held on November 16. Gotabaya got 52.25 % of the valid votes while his principal rival, Sajith Premadasa, got 41.99%, as per figures available in the evening of Sunday. Sajith conceded defeat in a statement released in the afternoon.
During the campaign, the contest was expected to be close, and the end a photo finish. And perhaps for the first time, there was even speculation about a second round taking place if none of the candidates got 50% of the valid votes plus one.
Such a delicate and uncertain scenario gained currency because both principal candidates were not top order politicians. Gotabaya was an army officer turned top level government official turned politician. But he became a politician only after the election was announced. His political experience was therefore nil.
Sajith, on the other hand, was a career politician but a colorless and undistinguished one. He was nominally Deputy Leader of the United National Party (UNP) but he had no role in shaping the policies of the party, a role which was performed by the Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and his select circle. Sajith hardly spoke about national issues and seemed satisfied with his work in his chosen district of Hambantota.
Since the result of the election could not be predicted, there was talk of a narrow win and a second round.
Key role of Issues
However, the two candidates did make an impact going by the high percentage of polling in most districts barring Jaffna and other districts in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Clearly , the voters had felt the need to vote as there were pressing issues facing them. However, the concerns varied from class to class, region to region and ethnic group to ethnic group. Voters had a clear idea of what they wanted from the government and the candidates, and what they did not want. Clearly they also had a fair idea of what the candidates were capable of.
It is because of certain pressing concerns that even in the Tamil-majority Northern Province, where people were initially contemplating an unofficial boycott, people voted though not as massively as in the Sinhala-speaking districts in the South, West and Central Sri Lanka.
Issues Addressed by Gota
Gotabaya won handsomely because he addressed the concerns of the Sinhala Buddhists and Christians who are the majority in Sri Lanka (70%). And in order to consolidate this constituency he downplayed issues agitating the minority Tamils and Muslims.
Although risky, this strategy of restricting one’s focus to the Sinhalese majority paid off. High polling for Gotabaya even in UNP strongholds like Colombo and Kandy, shows the success of this strategy. Sajith was so irrelevant to the Sinhalese that he could not swing his own district of Hambantota.
Gotabaya addressed the two main concerns of the Sinhalese majority: Firstly, the need for a functioning, cohesive and purposeful government in place of a slothful one; and secondly, the need to ensure national security against the revival of terrorism. The danger of the latter happening having been brought home by the April 21, Eastern Sunday attacks by a group of local Muslim radicals.
In the Easter Sunday case, the UNP regime, of which Sajith was part, had failed miserably to act on timely intelligence, a failure which resulted in nearly 300 deaths.
Gotabaya, on the other hand, had hands-on experience in ensuring security against militants having directed both a conventional and an unconventional war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Therefore, when Gotabaya pledged to ensure security, there was a ring of authenticity in what he said.
The elite of Sri Lanka, including civil society and the media, however, feared a return to the hard measures taken during the war if Gotabaya were to win. This class used the social media to create a scare about the return of abductions in While Vans. But this campaign made no impact on the masses who placed security above the off chance of being arrested or abducted.
The masses, who are the bulk of the voters, wanted a strong government which will implement its decisions and not waver or countermand its own decisions as the Sirisena-Wickeremesinghe government did for most of its tenure. The masses saw Gotabaya as a doer as he not only defeated the LTTE and killed its leader the dreaded Pabhakaran but also rebuilt Colombo and other towns as Secretary Urban Development.
The economic and infrastructural development of Sri Lanka which had been halted for 30 years because of the war, re-started only with the coming of the Rajapaksas. China and India re-built railways, roads and harbors during his second term after the war.
On the contrary, Sajith had precious little to show, except houses built with India’s help. He branded himself as a grassroots man, but had little to show by way of work at the grassroots level. He talked about the Premadasa legacy but he had nothing to demonstrate its existence.
The promises Sajith made were out of sync with the needs of a developing Sri Lankan society, especially in the Sinhalese South. People in the Sinhalese South do look for government assistance to get a job or to do business. But freebees don’t impress them. They are a proud people who spurned the British offer of jobs in the plantations, forcing the British tea, coffee and rubber companies to import almost a million workers from poverty stricken India.
Sajith became a laughing stock when he offered free sanitary pads to women without knowing that Sri Lankan women are not so poor that they cannot afford them.
The votes that Sajith got in the Sinhala south were the committed UNP votes and elements in the population which feared the return of dictatorship or disliked the family rule of the Rajapaksas.
Issues in Tamil and Muslim Areas
The Northern and Eastern Provinces were a different kettle fish. In these two provinces, the Tamils and Muslims had their own issues different from those of the Sinhalese. The Tamils feared a return to a harsh war-time rule with Gotabaya at the helm surrounded by retired Generals who won laurels in the war, and who were associated with the alleged massacre of civilians in Mulliwaikkal.
Motivated by the last minute appeal by the Tamil National Alliance, the Tamils were determined to defeat Gotabaya. They had little or no faith in the promises made by Sajith, but a vote for him was considered a vote against Gotabaya.
They did not want to waste their vote, which is why they ignored M.K.Shivajilingam, an ex-militant and a blood relation of Prabhakaran’s from the same village Vavettithhurai.
In the Eastern Province too, the Tamils opted for Sajith because they did not want Gotabaya. The Tamils even buried the hatchet vis-à-vis the Muslims, and joined them in voting for Sajith.
Though Sajith had not endeared himself to the Muslims by speaking up for them when they were in trouble, the Muslims did not associate Sajith with any anti-Muslim actions. Gotabaya, on the other hand, had been associated with the Bodu Bala Sena and such other radical Buddhist organizations which fomented riots in Aluthgama and Kandy.
With everyone talking about a close fight and resort to a second round of counting, Gotabaya developed cold feet in the final stages of the campaign and hurriedly started having meetings with Muslim opinion leaders with the help of his attorney, Ali Sabry. But clearly this made no impact.
In conclusion, one could say that Gotabaya won because he addressed and had a solution for the concerns of the majority Sinhalese while Sajith did not. Gotabaya did not answer the needs of the Tamils and Muslims, but Sajith did. But the Sinhalese are 70% of the population. Looking at it strategically, Gotabaya did a sensible thing by catering to the majority Sinhalese. Additionally, the percentage of polling in the Sinhalese areas was appreciably more than in the Tamil and Muslim areas. This helped tilt the balance in favour of Gotabaya.