The space for presidential contenders in Sri Lanka’s election on November 16 is crowding. The hopefuls are from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the breakaway faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)’s Anura Kumara Dissanayaka and United National Party (UNP)’s leaders — Ranil Wickremesinghe; deputy leader, Sajith Premadasa; Speaker of Parliament Karu Jayasuriya — and even Democratic Party leader Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, who fought and lost to Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2009. Tomorrow’s secret ballot will determine the UNP candidate. The bets are on the youthful Premadasa to give a fight to Gota, former Army Colonel and Defence Secretary under his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was the key architect of victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). His image as a do-er/disciplinarian under the shadow of 21/4 Easter Sunday bombings makes him electable. The most striking headline of a possible outcome of an election is Rajapaksa redux and democracy in peril.
At present, national security tops the election agenda, which includes the fragile economy, abolition of the executive presidency and arresting and rolling back the anger against Muslims. Like in previous elections, the vote of the minorities — Christians, Muslims and Tamils — will be the clincher. In the last elections, a unity candidate of the SLFP and UNP, incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa. This time around, a grand alliance is unlikely. Its signal achievement was the opening up of the democratic space, the passage of 19 and 20 Amendments and tinkering with Constitutional reform. The Rajapaksas swept the local polls in 2018, marking its rise due to the collective failure of the National Unity Government — failure to mend the economy and press as promised corruption charges against the Rajapaksas.
Gota, a former American citizen, has an edge at present as he commands the support of a majority Sinhalese (76 per cent) in urban areas and among civil and military bureaucracies. He is feared as much as he is admired as a tested war leader; his aura though tainted with “white van” disappearances, allegations of human rights violations and a litany of corruption charges that he says are being “managed.” Gota’s choice as President has, according to the grapevine, introduced a rift in the ambitious Rajapaksa clan. While presenting Gota as a presidential suitor, Mahinda promptly proposed his own name as the future Prime Minister. In an interview to a Tamil newspaper, he said the real power, thanks to the 19th Amendment, will be with the Prime Minister. He is Gota’s shadow in his election rallies and closed-door meetings with SLPP youth wing and other Muslim and Tamil minorities. Gota is explaining that discipline and military rule are not the same thing.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe cohabitation failed miserably. In the UNP, the perennial question of younger leadership has been blocked by Wickremesinghe, who has twice before lost presidential elections and will be no match for Gota a third time. He lacks charisma. Fifty-nine-year-old Premadasa, the Minister for Housing and Reconstruction, has like his father, former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, done great work in rural areas, building homes and caring for the underprivileged. Fonseka, a former Army Commander during the Eelam war, has said that if national security is the lead issue, he is the right man for the job. But only Premadasa can give a fight to Gota. JVP’s Dissanayake will eat into around five to six lakh Sinhalese votes. This campaign will be about Gota securing minority support and Sajith Premadasa winning additional Sinhalese votes. The Rajapaksas have never won over the minorities though this time they are working overtime.
The ruling combine has made some progress in reconciliation and transitional justice in the north by returning 75 per cent of the land occupied by the Army and establishing the Office of Missing Persons. But no progress was recorded in the investigation of 65,000 complaints of “the missing.” Sirisena visited Jaffna on August 30 and reiterated his promise to the Tamils. They are disillusioned with Mahinda Rajapaksa, who first replaced devolution with development but later, at India’s insistence, pledged the implementation of 13A plus, the plus being an upper house. The Tamils are divided. A number of new parties has sprouted like the Tamli Peoples Party (TPP) and the Social Democratic Party of Tamils (SDPT). The mainstay, Tamil National Alliance (TNA), remains aligned with UNP while the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) plus some smaller parties will support the Rajapaksas. Rizakh Badruddin of All Ceylon Peoples Congress (ACPC) party is a Muslim. Some Muslims have been returning to the north in Mannar — after they were hounded out of the north by the LTTE. The TNA is the kingmaker in Government formation and has invariably shunned the Rajapaksas.
The most pragmatic Muslims are united and better organised in the east. In Batticaloa and Ampara districts, Muslims constitute 22 per cent of the population (population division in the east, including Trincomalee district, is roughly one-third each of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims). The evergreen Rauff Hakeem of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) has kept his flock together as for his party there are no untouchables. After the 21/4 bombings, Muslims have self-moderated and 10 of its Ministers resigned from the Government so that investigations against them could be held freely and fairly. Anti-Muslim sentiment across the country is high but dormant, especially among Sinhalese and Tamils in the east.
Gota hopes to receive 47 per cent of the Muslim votes though his association with the Bodu Bala Sena in the riots in Amparai, Kandy and Kalmunai has not been forgotten. In Beruwala last month, accompanied by Mahinda, he attended a civic reception by 10,000 Muslims at a mosque. Christians traditionally vote for the UNP. So the battle for the minority vote, crucial for Gota, is in full swing though UNP is the usual beneficiary (the minority vote is even more critical during the parliamentary elections due on August 2020). Together, the north and the east make up 29 seats in the 225-member Parliament. The much-promised electoral reforms are critical for stability.
The shock of the Colombo bombings by local internally radicalised Muslims inspired by the Islamic State (IS) has shattered the confidence Sri Lankans achieved after subduing the deadly LTTE following a three-decade-long war. The risk of growing polarisation in society has to be contained and rolled back. This makes internal security the main concern of the people and Gota, therefore, the frontrunner with attendant dangers of over-securitisation. If UNP and its candidate can switch the electoral agenda to economy, livelihood and democracy while keeping national security in place, can be a close race — too close to call. The return of the Rajapaksas will cause some anxiety for New Delhi. Three retired Sri Lankan professors along with Colombo’s Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute carried out an election survey in August. It showed Gota ahead. But six weeks is a long time in elections, especially if it is Gota vs Sajith. (Ashok K Mehta)
(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the revamped Integrated Defence Staff)