When the UNP Presidential hopeful Sajith Premadasa and his backers bulldozed the former’s nomination as the party’s presidential candidate through the UNP executive committee -after a series of mass rallies and implicit threats of party division- their objective was just to have their man on the party ticket. It is unlikely that they thought beyond the nomination until that very moment.
The UNP’s depleting grassroots voters might have preferred Mr. Premadasa over the others, but he also had serious deficiencies in reaching out beyond them.
In the end, the dogged internecine campaign for Sajith’s presidential candidature forced the other probable contender, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to pull out. ( He was reportedly promised the post of prime minister if Sajith wins the presidency, though how that can be accomplished under the provisions of the 19th amendment, without the incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe voluntarily resigning – other than, short of ousting him from the party leadership through a inner-party coup – is open to question.)
Ranil Wickremesinghe who insisted on running for the presidency until the last moment was a poorer choice. His confidantes deserted him and the Executive committee members that he himself appointed dithered. He finally gave up, paving way for Sajith’s presidential candidature.
Sajith pulled off a mammoth inaugural rally in the Galle Face Green. More than a show of strength, that might have intended to reassure the public that the UNP or Sajith’s campaign still retains organizational capability for mass mobilization. However, the average Sri Lankan knows all too well that the crowd size is not a reflection of the final vote tally. Otherwise, the JVP, of which presidential candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake also held an equally impressive rally would have dominated Parliament.
Sajith and his backers in their haste to capture the party nomination ignored something crucial that could make or break the UNP’s even slim chance at the presidency. That is the basic electoral arithmetic. In recent times, the UNP has been trailing behind the SLPP, in even the most conservative estimates, by ten per cent.
Of course, the results of previous local government elections and the recent Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha poll are a lot starker, but in a national level election, the gap would be narrower, yet significant.
That is not a new predicament for the UNP. Its vote base had depleted over the last two decades, though the route could well have plateaued in recent years. The challenge the Grand Old Party faced in the last elections, and Sajith is confronted with now is to bridge this gulf.
But, so far Sajith has failed. In most accounts of ad hoc opinion polls, and by the admission of some of his lieutenants, he trails by the same margins as he began the campaign.
The only way he could overcome this widening gap is to build the largest possible alliance, pulling together political parties, civil society groups and personalities who loathe the return of the Rajapaksa rule, like the one that the UNP formed in 2015.
Alas, Sajith’s campaign has not reached out beyond the UNP’s captive vote.
In Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sajith faces both; a formidable contender, as well as someone with a lot of skeletons in the closet, that are liable to exposure.
Gotabaya is a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist who is now somewhat successfully reinventing himself as a Sri Lankan nationalist. He has a past track record of excesses and alleged human rights abuses, as well as that of an efficient administrator of policy, during the war, and later during his tenure as the secretary of the Urban Development Authority.
Unlike the leaders of the current administration, he shares with the majority of Sri Lankans a sense of urgency for economic development. He is advantaged by the seminal lack of a pro-active economic policy of the current administration and economic stagnation that it impacted upon the nation for the past four years.
Sri Lankans are increasingly inclined to overlook candidate Rajapaksa’s authoritarian tendencies and to bet on his sound managerial skills, primarily because, they see no alternative. Sajith should be able to capitalize on Gotabaya’s chequered past and present himself as a better choice for the fast track economic development, and defence of fundamental rights of the people.
However, Sajith’s approach is overly pedestrian, just like his regular campaign speeches are.
He sounds opportunistic and rambling, rather than being coherent and rational. He simply has no practical economic policy, instead, he offers a wide range of dole-outs; universal housing, universal higher education, free nurseries, pensions for Sri Lankans working abroad.
Those are all good policies, but welfairism is good only when implemented within our means. Why Sri Lanka’s social indicators have failed to match corresponding economic prosperity is exactly due to similar skewed policies followed historically.
Sri Lankans who consume daily reports of the pitiful state of the government finances know all too well these policies can not be implemented without incurring an excessive opportunity cost of other important elements.
On the other hand, Sajith is conspicuously silent on the key economic challenges that Sri Lanka is facing. To finance the welfare state, service foreign loans and to build infrastructure, Sri Lanka needs to modernize and enlarge its exports. To bring in foreign investment and build much-needed infrastructure, it needs to revamp both its antiquated state structure and laws.
To leapfrog economic growth, our policymakers should grab with both hands economic openings made available by China’s rise – before they fade away or move to other more welcoming places.
After eight decades of free education and even after the elevation to an upper middle income earning country, we are still relying disproportionately on remittance from our women toiling as housemaids in the Middle East. Before Sajith doles out pensions, a more economically coherent strategy would be retraining these women in various skills such as elderly care workers, for which there are better paid economic opportunities in fast ageing West and East Asia.
Sajith’s economic policies do not inspire the aspiring middle class, independent voters, or simply anyone other than the UNP’s captive audience. They are the floating voters who swung previous elections. They are this time not on the UNP’s side
Then there is the ethnic minority vote, which has historically favoured the UNP candidate. However, if the UNP is to make full use of that allegiance, it has to re-energize them, last time when the Maithripala Sirisena campaign managed to do so, he won the presidency.
Sajith and his coterie tend to think minority voters would vote him anyway because they loath Gotabaya. It does not necessarily happen that way. A good deal of them would stay home.
Sajith’s subconscious prejudices – or probably he is being over cautious not to be accused of pandering to minorities – is preventing him from actively reaching out to ethnic minority voters. The Tamil National Alliance has announced its support to Sajith. That may help, but a lot more needs to be done to inspire the Tamil voters. The UNP candidate is not doing much.
Elsewhere, Gotabaya is reaching out to the Muslim vote, more aggressively than Sajith. At the current rate, it would not be a surprise if the former Defence Secretary wins more Muslim votes, save those are hereditary UNP.
The estate votes are also split. The UNP can not win the presidency unless it wins at least 80% of minority votes, however, SajithPremadasa has already forfeited a decisive share of that vote.
He and his advisers should sit back and take stocks and ask themselves how far they have come since they kicked off the campaign. It seems not far. All this time, they have been singing to the choir, their captive vote base of the UNP. If they are to have the slightest chance at the presidency, they should do things a lot differently.