By fielding Sajith Premadasa as its presidential candidate, the UNP has put its best foot forward. As a political party, it would not have been feasible to ignore the demonstrations that the Sajith camp put up to prove the fact that he was by far the preferred candidate of the UNP rank and file. For the past decade, the UNP’s style of electioneering was to come to an arrangement with like minded political parties to add the latter’s vote to the UNP’s base vote in contesting presidential elections and indeed even other elections. For instance, at the last local government elections held in February 2018, what appears as the ‘UNP’ vote includes the bloc vote of the SLMP, ACMC and the Tamil Progressive Alliance as well. In such a situation, the base vote of the UNP is all important.
Unless the candidate they put forward is able to galvanize and obtain the base vote of the UNP, the whole exercise will be doomed to failure. So the UNP had no option really from the time Sajith threw his hat into the ring. Neither did the UNP’s partners have any choice even though they may not have had as cosy a relationship with Sajith as they did with RW or even with Karu Jayasuriya. The elephant symbol has been ditched once again in favour of the swan. The JVP which had an issue with supporting a candidate contesting under the elephant symbol is no longer in the UNP led coalition and all the other parties that are now with the UNP have no issue with contesting under the elephant symbol.
The only reason for selecting the swan symbol this time as well appears to be to enable the TNA to channel votes to Sajith the way they did to the common candidate at the previous two presidential elections. By adopting the swan symbol, Sajith too can be portrayed as a common candidate of sorts in a situation where there would be a certain reticence among the Tamil voters of the north and east to explicitly vote for a southern political party. Perhaps there was also the fear that the elephant symbol would evoke certain bitter memories of the 1980s in the north and east and thereby act as a damperner on voter enthusiasm in those areas.
The common touch
Now that Sajith Premadasa has been made the candidate, it may be necessary to look at his pluses and minuses. As far as the pluses are concerned, he obviously has the support of the vast majority of the UNP rank and file. He is a hardworking politician and not a dilettante. Nobody can accuse him of not making an effort to serve his constituents. He takes politics seriously unlike his leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who seems to regard politics as one big ‘gon paat’. One of RW’s favourite pastimes is to set two people against one another and watch them fighting like cats and dogs for whatever he may have dangling before them. That is something that Sajith will never do. The latter also has a common touch which is not feigned. He genuinely seems to be more at at home among the hoi polloi living in remote areas than among the high society in Colombo.
The issues that he takes up also relate to the welfare of the rural poor. He also has a near obsession with welfare which would naturally endear him to a section of the population. He is also educated and intelligent and is able to understand issues when explained to him. Even though he came into politics because he is the son of a former president, he carved out a role for himself in his own right as a welfare-oriented rural politician of the UNP. Thus he is able to portray himself as the ordinary man’s politician in contrast to the elitist, Colombo centred, present leadership of the UNP.
Most importantly, he does not have the public relations issues that his leaderRanil Wickremesinghe is well known for. Sajith can get along with people. This is one reason why he was able to carry a much larger number of people’s representatives of the UNP with him than his leader. Ranil routinely ignores his party people even when he is on visits to their electorates or their villages. The hoi polloi present take note of the fact that the party leader, the ‘nayakathuma’ did not once even look at the face of the UNP people’s representative of the area much less talk to him. That undermines the political standing of that people’s representative in his area. Most UNP people’s representatives used to dread the thought of a visit by Ranil Wickremasinghe to their areas because it would only end with them losing face among their own constituents.
In Sajith, the long suffering UNP hoi polloi have got a ‘normal’ politician as a presidential candidate – not somebody who may have ended up in politics by accident and who was never cut out to be a politican in the first place. RW also had a coterie of friends whom he brought into politics and real power was concentrated in the hands of these cronies very few of whom had their feet on the ground. In Sajith’s case, the battle for the nomination may have resulted in a group of Sajith loyalists taking shape within the UNP – that was inevitable in the circumstances. Nevertheless, Sajith’s coterie are all hands on politicians with real vote bases and none of them have been picked up from the lounges of luxury hotels and Colombo mansions to hold political office.
Sajith Premadasa also has the rare distinction of being a politician who entered politics in 1994 and during a period of about 25 years rose to the position of deputy leader of the party and now as its presidential candidate without the help of his leader and indeed even against the resistence of his leader. Even his father R.Premadasa was able to make it to the position of cabinet minister, prime minister and deputy leader of the party only due to the patronage he got from Dudley Senanayake and J.R.Jayewardene. Even when it came to the presidential candidacy of 1988, R.Premadasa managed to become the presidential candidate only because of the support he got from an influential section of the UNP which included Ranjan Wijeratne and Ranil Wickremasinghe.
But Sajith was able to make it to the position of deputy leader and now the presidential candidate with no help at all from his long term leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. He has wrested this presidential candidacy from RW literally by force. This is a unique record in any major political party.
Welfare to the exclusion of everthing else
Some of these pluses that he has, directly translates into minuses. For instance, he gives the impression of being a welfarist to the exclusion of everything else. Thus the pledges he gives will appeal only to that segment of the population that is either welfare dependent or wishes to sponge off the state to the maximum extent possible. Any pledge that he makes is almost invariably about giving handouts. Its either shoes for school children, free meals, etc. One can try to portray these handouts as an ‘investment’ in the future of the younger generation but these are handouts nevertheless. When his father R.Premadasa became popular on a welfarist platform between 1977 and 1993, Sri Lanka was a poor country and the proportion of the population that would be dependent on such handouts was much larger than at present.
Today, with the reduction in the incidence of absolute poverty, the proportion of the population that may be influenced by such handouts has shrunk. In fact even during the Chandrika Kumaratunga years, from 1994 to 2001, the emphasis on welfare and handouts was reduced considerably. There is always a segment of the population that will be influenced by distribution of exercise books, roofing sheets, water filters, bags of cement etc and all political parties have made such distributions during election time. But Sajith’s appeal is directed only at this segment of the population. In his agenda, handouts take priority over alternative policies such as improving the rural economy.
Being a rural politician, it is quite remarkable that in all these years he has never been known for promoting any kind of rural upliftment or devising a way for his rual constituents to increase their household incomes. When G.G.Ponnabalam was the minister of industries in the first post-independence UNP government, he managed to set up some state own industries in the north and east such as the Paranthan chemicals factory and the Valachchenai paper factory. Sajith Premadasa has been in the Hambantota district for a quarter of a century, but nobody has heard of even a garment factory that Sajith Premadasa has introduced to that district even when he was a minister in the 2001 government and once again since 2015.
His politics seems to rely on having a large pool of welfare recipients who deliver votes in exchange for handouts. Throughout his quarter of a century in politics, Sajith has never appealed to any segment of the polutation other than this shrinking welfare dependent segment of the population. As such it represents a dangerous retrogression into the past. To be sure welfare is still sacred in this country, with handouts being welcomed even by people who are not in need of it. But the less one is in real need of it, the less the likelihood that such welfare measures will influence voter behavior. That is what the Rajapaksa government also found out in January 2015.
One thing about Sajth Premadasa that has been noticed and already commented upon is that his entire focus appears to be on building houses which have not changed in design or appearance since his father started building such houses for rural folk about 40 years ago. At that time many people lived in wattle and daub houses and even the small cement houses with asbestos roofing that Premadasa senior provided with his Udagam programme was a vast improvement over what they had at the time. Since then Sri Lanka has moved on, and the people have moved on and the housing stock in the country has improved dramatically. If we look at the quality of the middle class flats that were built for senior government servants and the like in the 1970s such as the Elvitigala Mawatha flats, today the flats being built for slum dwellers by the UDA are of much better quality.
When Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was in charge of the UDA, he set a standard and that had basically continued under the present government. But the houses being built by Sajith Premadasa are not very different to the Udagam houses that R.Premadasa built in the 1980s except that the former were mostly white and the houses being built at present are multicoloured. This is of course not to say that there are no people who need housing. One often sees stories in the media about families that are living in makeshift shacks. Providing houses for such families in a targeted manner is one thing, but this continuation with the same old Udagam concept without any change is questionable in today’s context.
Furthermore, when his father stated the Udagam concept Sri Lanka’s population may have been something like 12 million, so one could afford to build single houses on small plots of land in an expansive way. Today, the population is over 21 million and land use policies have to change to suit the present demographic reality. Yet we see nothing of the sort happening with regard to Sajith’s Udagam concept. Sajith is so hooked on welfare politics that he even stated in public that Sri Lanka is not getting foreign aid any more because the Rajapaksa government cooked the books and prepared bogus figures showing that the poverty levels in Sri Lanka had gone down and that Sri Lanka was no longer a poor country.
We do not know whether he actually believes this or whether he was only trying to play to the gallery like the former UNP politician who joined Chandrika Kumaratunga and said at the 2000 Parliamentary election “The UNP gave you only Rs. 50 for a Dollar, but we are giving you Rs. 75!” As soon as the yahapalana government came into power, they revised the Central Bank figures saying that the Rajapaksas had been overstating the growth figures. If Sri Lanka is still not a poor country even after the yahapalana government revised the figures then the party that should be blamed is the present government and not anyone else. As soon as the present government came into power, they could have declared that the per capita GDP as at the end of 2014 was not 3,821 USD as the Rajapaksas stated, but only 821 USD. That would have placed Sri Lanka in the category of countries eligible for all kinds of aid.
However, even in a situation of economic collapse under the yahapalana government with some of the biggest conglomerates in the country having lost more than a third of their value, the per capita GDP is over 4,000 USD and the World Bank has already classified Sri Lanka as an Upper Middle Income country. Sajith once even pledged that if elected to power, he would convene a donor conference and obtain aid for Sri Lanka. No donor conference will ever be convened for a country that has been classified as an upper middle income country by the World Bank. What makes Sajith’s welfare centered electioneering even more alarming is that Sri Lanka is already facing an unprecedented economic crisis in government finances due to the increase in salaries and reductions in the prices of fuel and food stuffs that they gave to win the 2015 parliamentary election.
The yahapalana government was depending on bribing the electorate in order to win votes even without Sajith calling the shots. The last thing that this country can afford is more handouts to win elections. In the Budget for 2019, the yahapalana government provided among other things, to increase the number of Samurdhi beneficiary families by 600,000, and to give a special allowance of Rs. 6,000 to the families of those who have disappeared until a bigger payment is made through the office of reparations. We have now reached breaking point. If Sajith gets elected on the basis of more hand outs and more welfare, that is going to be the end of this country. Even after giving all those handouts, we are still experiencing a wave of strikes demanding salary hikes which means that we have already got stuck in a wage push inflationary cycle.
Passive role in government
There is little doubt about the fact that Sajith Premadasa would be able to galvanize the UNP vote. Large numbers of people who left the UNP due to RW’s peculiar way of doing politics will rejoin the UNP. But there are doubts about Sajith’s ability to appeal to anyone outside the UNP. (The SLMC, ACMC and the TPA can be considered to be integral parts of the UNP.) At the last local government election, the UNP with all those allies got something like 1.3 million votes less than the SLPP. What reason would a floating voter or a new voter have to vote for Sajith? On the day that Sajith was declared the candidate, there was a crowd of party supporters outside Sirikotha chanting “Apita one anduwak, Sajith inna anduwak!” It appeared that the party supporters had forgotten that they already had that – there is a UNP government in power and Sajith is a part of that government.
One of the biggest disadvantages that Sajith Premadasa faces at this election, is the baggage that he will have to haul around with him. He is coming forward as the candidate of a failed government. This is a government that has many things to answer for including corruption and the mismanagement of the economy. There has been more disruption of public life under this government than under any previous government that we know of. The government in which Sajith’s father served as Prime Minister was also beset with problems. There was terrorism in the north and terrorism in the south. Yet there was this feeling in the country that after those problems are over the country will progress.
Today, that feeling is totally absent. Even the man on the street feels that the continuation of this government will only result in unending problems for the public. SLPP politicians have been asking Sajith what his position is on the Central Bank bond scam to which there is no real answer. In 1988, when his father R.Premadasa contested the Presidency, he was able to capitalize on the fact that he was a non elitist politician and the very opposite of J.R. Jayewardene. Sajith too is a people’s man in the UNP as we explained earlier, but he will not be able to disown his elitist leaders, the same way that his father was able to back in 1988. On the contrary he has to carry RW on his back as the designated Prime Ministerial candidate.
Throughout all the outrages committed by the yahapalana government, Sajith has at best been a passive spectator. As the deputy leader of the UNP, he never intervened to stop or at least criticize some of the most egregious depredations such as the jailing of monks and members of the armed services. In contrast to this, figures like Gamini Dissnayake had objected to the deprivation of Mrs Bandaranaike’s civic rights in 1980 even at the risk of antagonizing JRJ. During the Chandrika Kumaratunga government, Mahinda Rajapaksa also acted as a kind of ombudsman for those aggrieved by the actions of her government. Sajith however has never played such a role. The only thing that he has to his credit is that he has not been directly implicated in the egregious infractions committed by the UNP in the past five years. He has neither been involved in them nor has he opposed or criticized them.