Sri Lanka: Who can defeat the Gota Cult?

There is a possibility of Sajith Premadasa modernizing the policies of the UNP, giving priority to the national economy and the country’s defense and overhauling the leadership structures to utilize the young talents without discarding altogether the appropriate wisdom of old leaders like Ranil Wickremasinghe.

by Laksiri Fernando

By the time of nominations for the presidential election, the contest appeared to move in a multipolar direction, although the SLFP declared not contesting. The reason was that apart from JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake as a left candidate and Mahesh Senanayake from the civil society, a Tamil candidate (M. K. Shivajilingam) and a Muslim candidate (M. L. A. M. Hizbullah) also were contesting. Altogether, there were and still are 35 candidates. Political polarization, uncertainty and confusion were the main reasons for the situation.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa at an election rally 

This was fundamentally different to January 2015 election which was primarily a bipolar contest, although there were 13 other small party and independent contestants. It was because of this bipolar nature that a winner could be selected from the first count. Therefore, it was assumed or predicted that the evolving multipolar nature of the contest this time would not allow, none of the two main candidates, Gotabaya Rajapaksa or Sajith Premadasa, to obtain more than 50% of the votes.

From Multipolar to Bipolar?

This might still be the case. But it appears that the contest is not that diffused as earlier thought and the situation is fast moving in a bipolar direction although none of the main two candidates would still not reach 50%, although one might come closer. Hence, still is the importance of preferential voting or withdrawal from the contest, and campaigning for both and achieving the desired objectives.

However, if there is a second or preferential count, there can be much confusion and controversy. This is one reason why the Election Commission should not only be independent, but also appear to be independent, along with their officials. They should also be efficient. These are of paramount importance for the sake of democracy, and free and fair election. All Commission members and officials should commit to these principles and objectives. The ballot paper this time might be more than two feet!

More importantly, given much stakes at the election, there is much merit in voters selecting the preferred or the less offensive candidate outright, among the main two, without going in rigmarole fashion, first voting to a third party (left or civil society), and then giving the preference to the ‘best among the worst’ two candidates. These are few things that I would advocate at this election at this moment. Others are my objective and indifferent assessments of different situations, issues and trajectories.

What is Desirable?

One indication of a mature democracy is that people should not feel or experience a major calamity or difference, whatever the party that comes into power after an election. However, this should be understood or achieved in a positive sense, but not in a negative manner. If there is no difference in corruption or abuse, or repression, for example, whoever comes into power, that is negative. If there is no major worsening or cuts in welfare, economic benefits or people’s security or freedom, whatever the governmental change, that is positive.

What could still be there in such a situation at election between political parties and contestants, allowing the people to make rational choices and decisions, are policy differences between them on how to improve such an equilibrium for gradual and progressive changes in the economy, polity and society. People should benefit ultimately. This is what in place for example in countries like Australia. In such countries of democratic maturity, there is much ‘give and take’ between political parties and leaders , and also ‘bipartisan’ initiatives and policies.

However, Sri Lanka is still far from achieving such a situation, although not completely hopeless, in my opinion. As a result, there are still major stakes or risks at elections, and these have to be assessed without much exaggeration or undue alarm in voting and selecting candidates to vote.

What is at Stake?

I have already explained in an uncertain manner that, if GR is elected, there is much at stake in terms of democracy, personal liberties, independence of the judiciary and independence of other state/public services and commissions. I have expressed so by analyzing his so-called vision (“Gotabaya Rajapaksa at Viyathmaga: Vision with an Authoritarian Zeal,” Colombo Telegraph and Sri Lanka Guardian, 13 September and Daily Financial Times, 16 September). This was appreciatively translated into Sinhala by Gamini Viyangoda or their outfit ‘Yahapalanaya 2015.’ Unfortunately, the Island newspaper did not publish it, although it was sent to them straightaway.

This cautioning was made not only because of Gotabaya Rajapaksa per se, but because of his family oligarchy and archaic and rightwing cum communalist groups behind him. At GR’s inaugural campaign rally at Anuradhapura, he repeatedly used the term ‘Rajapaksa-Veru’ to mean ‘the nobles of Rajapaksa family’ several times.

It is unfortunate that the traditional left parties (the LSSP, CP and also MEP) are still with this GR, on the basis of the obsolete theory of anti-UNP or anti-imperialist (American) struggle. They have to realize however that they are supporting a person who has just ‘abandoned’ his American citizenship. He is still maintaining his links and contacts. There should be some efforts therefore to win over the rank and file of these left parties as their leaders are just impossible morons. Who should undertake this task is the question? It is on more or less the same ‘theory’ that the democratic wing of the SLFP also has joined the GR’s campaign, although President Sirisena has opted to remain independent.

Different Options?

However, in my opinion, even if GR wins the election, the people and the political parties should be able to work within the democratic framework and parliamentary system. It would be a terrible mistake to advocate ‘people’s power’ or ‘extra-parliamentary action’ under such a situation that might give an excuse for him (GR) and others to suppress the opposition and democratic initiatives. That is another possible future stake. The JVP could be extremely vulnerable and be careful. Therefore, the best option for the democratic forces is to consolidate and consider all the possibilities and work out a strategy to defeat GR at election. This is still not too late even after the Elpitiya local government election results.

This also does not mean that the UNP or the present National Democratic Front (NDF) is/was all hunky-dory and all policies and practices of the Rajapaksas are/were wrong and should be rejected or condemned altogether. Most of the matters in relation to democracy and elections are of relative merits, but in addition in the case of Sri Lanka at present there could be much at stake for democracy itself, if GR wins the forthcoming election. Therefore, he should best be defeated on a policy and a strategic basis.

Sajith as a Reasonable Option?

Although the delay in selecting the UNP/NDF candidate, Sajith Premadasa, did create much uncertainty and confusion within the democratic or the anti-Rajapaksa camp, after the selection, there appears much progress in his campaign and in the campaign for the defense of democracy. The inaugural rally at Galle Face on 10 October is partial testimony to this trend. The four rallies that SP mobilized prior to that selection, were also testimony to his internal strength within the UNP constituency.

The best comparison between the two main candidates came from Harin Fernando at the Bulathsinhala rally. 52 and 70; 25 and 0, he said. The first comparison was about the age and the second about the political experience. Gotabaya may be a good soldier or even a good Secretary of Defense, but could he be a good President? The most distasteful in terms of democracy is that he was nominated almost unilaterally by his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, from the SLPP which was formed by his other brother, Basil Rajapaksa, almost completely destroying a good democratic party, the SLFP. Sri Lanka undoubtedly deserves something better than an archaic family rule in this 21st century.

It is difficult to give a first-rate character certificate to Sajith Premadasa or anyone in politics in Sri Lanka. Maithripala Sirisena is a recent unsuccessful (flunked) example. However Sajith’s age and background are some promising factors. He does not need to follow completely his father’s footsteps, intermixed with both positives and negatives during a difficult era. However, perhaps R. Premadasa’s past roots in the Ceylon Labour Party or Sri Sucharitha Movement seem to have given some populist traits to Sajith Premadasa.

There is a possibility of Sajith Premadasa modernizing the policies of the UNP, giving priority to the national economy and the country’s defense and overhauling the leadership structures to utilize the young talents without discarding altogether the appropriate wisdom of old leaders like Ranil Wickremasinghe. At the Bulathsinhala rally he said ‘Sri Lanka First.’ At the same time he should emphasize ‘People First.’

Three Requirements?

Still there are several requirements if SP is to win and GR to be defeated. The first requirement is the NDF coming to a proper understanding with the TNA and other Northern Tamil parties as much as possible. (The SLMC and hill country Tamil parties are already within the NDF). This task could be given to Ranil Wickremesinghe and his services would be much required in a realistic manner, but not in an impractical fashion. The TNA and its constituents also should understand that a new constitution or extensive devolution requires bi-partisan consensus first in Parliament and then for a referendum. Therefore the strategy or the plan should be gradual, and defeating GR is the necessary immediate step.

The second requirement is still or again to approach the SLFP although the party has already agreed, though reluctantly, to support GR but not Pohottuwa as such. The stance is confusing and not clear. Or the approach this time could be to the UPFA. As the Elpitiya election results show, the UPFA has an independent constituency different to the SLPP which has obtained 12.7% of the popular vote. Although Premadasa met Sirisena in seeking some understanding or support leading to his nominations, those efforts were not conducted in a proper manner. The internal strife within the UNP at that time, and resistance to the SLFP within the UNP could be some reasons for the unsuccess. However, the situation has changed now. Approaching the UPFA could be assigned perhaps to a person like Champika Ranawaka on behalf of the NDF. There is a strong rank and file movement called ‘Protect SLFP’ that could be easily approached.

In 2015, Chandrika Kumaratunga played a decisive role in creating conditions for political change in uncertain manner, although later those became largely derailed. She should not be left idling this time, perhaps more important than 2015 in terms of defending democracy. She should be drawn into approaching the SLFP or the UPFA this time also. If the SLFP could withdraw support to GR, in some measure, it would be a decisive turn of the election situation and mood. The SLFP does not have any future with the SLPP or Rajapaksa family.

The third requirement is to approach the third party candidates like Anura Kumara Dissanayake or Mahesh Senanayake and their organizations to commit themselves for the Second Preference in uncertain manner in defense of democracy and in preventing GR coming into power. GR as President would be worse than MR as President. The JVP and the Jathika Jana Balawegaya (National People’s Drive) have completed a marvelous mission so far in highlighting the key national issues, people’s priorities and public policy changes that are required in the country. The NDF and Sajith Premadasa should take note of them for the future.

As the Elpitiya election results also reveal, although the JVP is strong in policies and determination, the votes that they can muster at the moment could be limited. If Anura Kumara could withdraw from the contest and extend support to the National Democratic Front (and not necessarily to SP or the UNP) or the democratic cause in general that could be a decisive change of events. They have done such tactical maneuvers in the past, and they can do it even at present.

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