13 November, 2019

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A New Cast Of Presidential Candidates & The Long Shadow Of 2015 

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

In what may well be their final act that led to Thursday’s emergency cabinet meeting, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe took their abolishment promise to a comical end. The two men received a rude rebuke from their own ministers for their attempt to abolish the presidency when the date for the next presidential election has already been announced. This was not a fulfilment of their 2015 promise, but a last minute act of desperation to serve distinctly different purposes. The real outcome of the exercise may well be that Sajith Premadasa would be confirmed next week as the UNP’s presidential candidate, an outcome that would indirectly achieve Sirisena’s longstanding objective of disposing Ranil Wickremesinghe, while torpedoing Wickremesinghe’s aim of making one last attempt to become Sri Lanka’s President. Equally, after surviving a relentless campaign of no confidence motions against him in parliament, Ranil Wickremesinghe is nearing his day of reckoning within his own Party in the middle of next week. Julius Caesar was betrayed by one Brutus. Ranil Wickremesinghe is being undone by a whole dozen of them. And Ravi Karunanayake is not anyone’s idea of a Mark Antony.   

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the looming contest between Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa. The intervening period has provided some clues not only about the nature of this contest, but also about the limitations of the candidates and their campaigns. It would seem that the Rajapaksa campaign has not generated the broad wave of acclaim that was generally anticipated by his sponsors and a few political pundits. His style of campaign so far has been centered on a lonely lectern on the middle of a stage, facing a captive audience remarkable more for its sartorial uniformity than political curiosity, and speaking monotonously to a prepared text with neither passion nor imagination. This is the stuff of duties of a formal Head of State and not the mode of campaign for a presidential candidate in a country that is known for being passionate about the cut and thrust of political debate. Elected officials are different animals from non-elected officials – be they civilian bureaucrats or military brass. Successful leaders inspirationally mediate between the people and the state and political communication is a different art than delivering speeches from prepared texts.    

Mr. Rajapaksa’s mode of campaign will of course of change as the election season gets into full flow, but his style so far would suggest that he may not be quite at home in the heat of the hustings. I am not suggesting that this is a disqualification for a presidential candidate, never mind that there are plenty of others who allege about his more serious disqualifications, except that when one is not comfortable with civilian crowds it would be rather difficult to generate a political wave. Perhaps no one can match Chandrika Kumaratunga’s charm offensive in 1994. Mahinda Rajapaksa is also a gifted mass campaigner. And who can forget the aplomb with which Maithripala Sirisena hit the campaign trail in 2014/15, looking so presidential – and who would have thought he would unwind so disastrously after year one of his presidency. 

The campaign and presidential experience of each of them is a good lesson that it is one thing to campaign and quite another thing to govern. At the same time, you cannot win if you are not a good campaigner.  Although it is the UNP is that is soaking the media with blood from its internal hara-kiri, it is not all harmony inside the Rajapaksa camp either. It might be too late now for second thoughts but the limitations of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a political campaigner has always been a concern for Mahinda Rajapaksa.  

It is not only the lack of campaign charm that might be the reason for the missing Rajapaksa wave. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is also the first candidate ever to be the subject of court cases, and just as he has a passionate following behind him, he has an equally passionate crowd against him. He is again the first candidate in presidential election history to motivate an ‘anyone but Gota’ counter campaign. The court cases and the ‘anyone but Gota’ clamour are legacies from the previous Rajapaksa regime and carryovers from the 2015 election campaign. 

Scientific 2015

So, it was somewhat odd to hear Sajith Premadasa assert to the media last week that the world has moved on after 2015? Really? The world indeed has, but not Sri Lankan politics from the undertakings of 2015 and the hugely unfinished business thereafter. Mr. Premadasa dropped another sweet gem on the same occasion, that he has not come across any ‘scientific survey’ about the opinion among the people regarding the executive presidency. What is so unscientific about the 6.2 million votes that Maithripala Sirisena garnered in 2015? Mr. Premadasa may justifiably claim that he was not personally a party to any of the UNP’s and the common candidate’s promises in 2015. His only claim to dubious fame in the now defunct government is that he is the only UNPer to show a soft corner for Maithripala Sirisena when he began publicly undermining his own cabinet and government. 

But the more prominent of Premadasa’s current backers, especially Mangala Samaraweera, will have a lot to answer to the 79 or so civil society organizations who did all the legwork to pull off a stunning victory for the common candidate in 2015.  Sajith Premadasa has every right to vie for his Party’s nomination as the next presidential candidate. Those who support him have every justification to break Ranil Wickremesinghe’s stranglehold on the UNP’s decision making. But do they have to jettison what they stood for in 2015, to get rid of Ranil Wickremesinghe, or to get the nomination for Sajith Premadasa? Why cannot they do either or both without betraying what they promised in 2015?

History would appear to be repeating itself here rather disturbingly. When Mangala Samaraweera abandoned Chandrika Kumaratunga and joined Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005, they (Mahinda and Mangala) also abandoned the Chandrika government’s positions on the constitution and national reconciliation. Later Mangala Samaraweera left the Rajapaksas for the UNP, and no one knows how much of the departure was due to principle and how much was it because he did not get his coveted premiership. The talk now is that Mangala Samaraweera is again gearing up to become Prime Minister with Sajith Premadasa as President. There is nothing wrong in chasing his dream, especially after the 19th Amendment, but why does the chase have to involve abandoning the positions he took in 2015? It may be that a more nuanced Premadasa position will emerge next week as a result of the internal compromises in securing the Party’s nomination. But why could not have such a position been articulated forthrightly and pre-emptively last week, without the silly clichés about ‘scientific surveys’ and the ‘world moving past 2015’? 

Whether they like it or not, neither Gotabaya Rajapaksa nor Sajith Premadasa can walk out of the shadow of 2015. For Mr. Rajapaksa, it is a necessary condition of his candidacy that he should ignore the issues of 2015, because it was because of them Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in 2015. And there will have to be a spectacular a surge of support in the south, for him to reverse the verdict of 2015. There is no such surge, or wave, in sight; at least, not yet. In the case of Mr. Premadasa, there is no path to victory unless he manages to recreate much of the coalition that propelled Maithripala Sirisena to victory in 2015. The 2015 winning coalition is already broken up. And there is no way Sajith Premadasa is going to get more ‘SLFP’ votes 2019 than what Maithripala Sirisena did in 2015, to compensate for the broken 2015 coalition.  

The third candidate

In the case of both Rajapaksa and Premadasa, the forces that helped them to win nomination as candidates may not be able to help them win votes in the national election. It is no secret that different business houses and media money powers have managed to force the SLPP and the UNP to give their nominations to Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa, respectively. In the absence of a strong third candidate, the contest between the two men could have been a decisively straightforward one. The emergence of the JVP’s and the NPP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake as a strong third candidate, however, could make the election something more than a simple two-way contest.     

With the UNP hara-kiri monopolizing media coverage, the JVP/NPP campaign has not been getting the coverage it deserves in the media. In any event, the media money power is not going align itself behind Anura Kumara Dissanayake the way it would behind Gotabaya Rajapaksa or Sajith Premadasa. That could be a blessing in disguise for what is driving the Dissanayake candidacy is not money power but people’s power. Mr. Dissanayake is also a more gifted and inspirational campaigner than either Gotabaya Rajapaksa or Sajith Premadasa. And the JVP/NPP movement is not the JVP of old in its platform and its followings. Its support among the professional, academic and even business classes is being considered a very striking new development. And they are in for a cause – the cause of serving the public interest, unlike the professional and supporters of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who are mostly identifiable as beneficiaries of the Rajapaksa regime. 

The Gotabaya supporters want the restoration of the old order that would once again reek with corruption and nepotism. The JVP supporters, on the other hand, want a system change – to a corruption free government and administration. A full 30 of the 79 civil society organizations who rallied behind Maithripala Sirisena are now supporting Anura Kumara Dissanayake. If Sajith Premadasa continues to disparage the legacy of 2015, the mantle of 2015 will fall on the shoulders of Anura Kumara Dissanayake. If the Premadasa campaign falters and the JVP/NPP campaign picks up momentum, the competition for the anti-Rajapaksa votes will shift to a different level. The JVP/NPP is already poised to make gains among minority voters. Any gathering momentum in its favour could further enhance its appeal not only among the minority voters but also among the disaffected UNP voters. 

It is this risk that Ranil Wickremesinghe wanted to avoid for the UNP and in his assessment he is the candidate who is best suited to accomplish it. Second best, in his view, is Karu Jayasuriya and not Sajith Premadasa. But Ranil Wickremesinghe waited too long without taking any initiative and when he chose to act, as is being seen now, it has proved to be too little and too late. Now, as is being increasingly expected, Sajith Premadasa ends up being the UNP candidate, it will be his responsibility to stop the UNP hemorrhage that Ranil Wickremesinghe feared would happen. The challenge for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, on the other hand, would be to expand on the core base of support that stood by them in 2015 to pass the 50% threshold for victory. For Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD), the challenge is to demonstrate a significant increase in voter support that would give the JVP/NPP movement a good platform for the parliamentary election. The coming weeks will show which way the momentum is shifting.    

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Latest comments

  • 2
    1

    Quite an interesting and objective analysis at the beginning, and then his own subjective ‘abolition’ priority spoiling the view. 2019 is not 2015 to play the same music. Perhaps Rajan is influenced by the 50 civil society organizations. Even AKD is not giving much priority to the abolition, as yet. He may change if the remaining 50 supports him. Then Gotabaya could be the easy winner, unless AKD agrees for second preference. In my view, stopping Rajapaksa (this time a much worse man) and promising to correct the past errors 2015-2019 may enthuse the masses. Consideration of ‘abolition’ can come in that context, but not as a clear promise. Why not? An elected President can be a ‘check and balance’ on corruption and abuse of power, and a promoter of national unity and reconciliation. Abolish
    executive presidency, but retain an elected president.

    • 0
      0

      Laksiri,
      I was about to raise the same point! Thanks to many achievements in civil administration including “taming” the police by the UNP Gvt It appears that the abolition of EP, despite its technical relevance, has lost its pre-2015 appeal. Instead, national security & elimination of corruption has taken the prominence.

      Rajan is correct on GoRa’s campaign style of keeping himself to confined reading pre-written texts.As I pointed ou earlier, there may be three reasons – all of them are glaring weaknesses – for the plan: 1. Lack of clear grasp on complex socio, political and economic issues.
      2. His criminal history.
      3. His tendency to “explode” if pressed hard with difficult questions. Most SLPP suporters won’t care much about the first two as many of SLPP politicians do have the same background but the third is unique and it could ruin the whole election campaign. The bad effect can affect even the parliamentary election.

      However, I have to disagree with Raj on putting NKD as an equal level challenger with Sajith & GoRa. No doubt that NKD is an excellent speaker but they have been delivering such speeches – even better by Wijeweera – over a half a century without much results. Despite the huge number of heads at GF on Aug 18th, this time won’t be any different either. Once the election heat begin to rise, NPPM enthusiasm will fade away.

      • 0
        2

        D.P.
        “2. His criminal history.”

        What criminal history? Eliminating Demala terrorists is not a criminal act. That was a blessing for all the people in this country.

        • 1
          0

          E E,
          Were Lasanatha & Eknelligoda “Demala” terrorists? Among Demala, were all killed terrorists?

          What about 1 & 3? Can you deny them?

    • 0
      1

      Laksiri,
      *
      AKD as 1st preference third candidate would serve the country in the most democratic and equitable way possible. Same set of candidates for 2nd preference votes + 3rd tier of all other candidates would serve democracy very well. Electors, skewers of the voting process, will have to be dismissed…..make sure of no foreign interference, like Tony Blair for the UK-SL-minority as in the last election.
      *
      An even all-round 100% (each candidate to get an even 1-vote)….numbers will of course adjust according to the democratic need of the nation :

      1st tier : Gota 20% – Sajith 20% – AKD 20%

      2nd tier : Gota 10% – Sajith 10% – AKD 10%

      3rd tier : X 3.33% – Y 3.33% – Z 3.33%

      If for example AKD-GOTA show the highest voting number, then an AKD- x/y/z coalition will have to be formed (the highest possibility as masses favor country sovereignty). Best is AKD-AKD-x/y/z!

  • 3
    0

    It is a dog eat dog world, in Sri Lankan politics. It is the Sri Lankan citizen that pays the price. These politicians look out only for themselves, and their selfish interests, and to hell with the people and country. Whoever finally wins, the people always lose.
    We have a bunch of clowns vying to become ring leader.

  • 3
    4

    In 2015 it was a massive deception. It was a political coup. People were led to believe that we would go back to the pure Westminster model as existed before. It was later revealed that the intentions of abolishing was to create an Executive Primeminister in Ranil Wickramasinghe which would have definitely happened if not several clauses in the 19A were not blocked by the Supreme Court. Objective of this abolishion exercise is to break up the Sri Lankan state into federal blocks by removing presidential oversight over provincial councils. With all the idiocyncracies of Sirisenaa we wouldn’t have been aware of the magnitude and extent of massive financial frauds like the bond scam and wholesale trading of national assets would have proceeded unabated. If not for the 52 day drama by now we would have gone some irreversible distance in that direction.
    .
    What did the 52 day drama teach us? The defeated side (President) is not necessary and must be removed? NO, IT SHOWED THAT ALL THREE EXECUTIVE, LEGISLATURE AND JUDICIARY ARE ESSENTIAL COMPONENTS OF THE MACHINE. IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL PLAY OF CHECKS AND BALANCES.
    .
    SINHALESE MUST REALISE THAT MASSIVE FORCES ARE MOVING UNDERGROUND TOWARDS ULTIMATE BREAKUP OF THE SRI LANKAN STATE . WHY SHOULD WE PREVENT IT AT ANY COST? BECAUSE THAT IS THE BEGINNING OF THE ULTIMATE BLOODSHED.
    .
    AT THIS STAGE WE MUST RETAIN THE EXECUTIVE PRESIDENCY SELECTED DIRECTLY BY THE MAJORITY.

    Soma

    • 3
      1

      soman

      “SINHALESE MUST REALISE THAT MASSIVE FORCES ARE MOVING UNDERGROUND TOWARDS ULTIMATE BREAKUP OF THE SRI LANKAN STATE . “

      It must be your tummy which is rumbling.
      Either you visit your optician or a Vedamahātayā වෙදමහාතයා.
      Maybe a tsunami.

  • 0
    0

    Thanks, Rajan Philips,
    .
    I’ve skimmed through this only, but can find little to comfort me. Nor can I expect you to perform miracles. How can as a minority man help us undo this mess that we have created?
    .
    Your alternatives stop with the JVP. I’m wondering what effect Nagananda & co can have. Especially Dr Ajith Colonne.
    .
    I will try to elaborate later.

  • 2
    4

    I think that a number of prominent supporters of Sajith Premadasa will turn towards Ranil Wickremasinghe and support him again. The evil motive of Maithripala Srisena to oust Ranil Wickremasinghe and to demolish the UNP will be exposed soon. People will never forget the atrocities committed during Mahinda Rajapakse’s regime. Even Maithripala was not genuine and had demonstrated his selfish attitude. Sajith Premadasa has yet to realize how he was misled and still a stupid. The TULF will remain steady and will support Ranil Wickremasinghe who knows the real aspirations of the Tamils. As usual Muslim politicians are opportunist and Rauff Hakim has also called Ranil Wickremasinghe as a traitor. It is time that Ranil Wickremasinghe will realize his genuine supporters. However, it is Ranil Wickremasinghe who will be chosen by the UNP and even Malik Samarawickrema with other prominent figures finally support him.

    • 0
      2

      Ayathuray Rajasingam,
      “The TULF will remain steady and will support Ranil Wickremasinghe who knows the real aspirations of the Tamils.”

      What is the ‘REAL ASPIRATION’ of Tamils? A Separate State? A Federal System?

      Demalu tried to grab land in this country from 3rd Century BC but failed. The latest attempt was by Prabhakaran. Native Sinhalayo shed their blood and sacrificed their lives to protect this country from ‘Para’ Demala, ‘Para’ Portuguese, ‘Para’ Dutch and ‘Para’ British invaders. Descendants of collies brought from Malabar have no right to demand special status in this country. Either they learn to live like citizens of this country enjoying the same rights as others or get lost.

  • 5
    2

    Rajan: It is clear that Ranil was given instructions by his American handlers, the Biggest Rogue state in the world which with Saudi Arabia set up, own and operate IS to get rid of the Executive Presidency in Sri Lanka, which has blocked the US SOFA and the MCC projects- to turn Lanka into a military base, for which Saudi and US Special Operations Forces (SOF) staged the Easter attacks using local Muslims. This is the reason the the Provincial Councils were also debilitated by Bondscam Ranil on instructions from Wasington; PCs for rejected the MCC Development Special Provisions Bill and the Land Grab bills.

    Meanwhile like Rail Managla the financially illiterate finance minister of Banana Republic must be impeached for treason. Mangy has been crashing the rupee on the instructions of IMF and pushing MCC land grab and debilitation of all oversight institutions like the Customs and Immigration Dept. so the garbage from Diego Garcia military bases can be imported to Sri Lanka by Haleys who funds a callow youth with connections to be “advisor” to Mangala the Moron beloved of Sam Power.

    Sajith may be unloveable, and must dump Mangy, but at least he is not part of this corrupt doddering GENERATION and the future belongs to the Youth of Lanka.
    Finally, hats off to Yemen and Iran for speaking truth to power and doing what non of the cowardly politicians in Sri Lanka have done – telling the US-Saudi terrorists to go to hell!

  • 2
    0

    It’s natural becoming grapevine fully functional in the face of an election.

    If another one is added;

    AKD is now the 2nd choice for the average voter & his ability to pierce through the membrane that separates 1st & 2nd choices, may make another history in Sri Lanka.

    Come on JVP, address the wise among the suffering masses without uttering Marxism.

    AKD’s success lies on that.

  • 0
    0

    As the excitement reaches dizzy heights so does our temptations to speculate. The man / woman who gets elected will be gazed by everyone. But what is our choice? There are some with some experience but they are intolerant with any other point of view to varying degrees. They are quite capable of invoking out of the box solutions which may not necessarily be legal and to the extent of saying human rights are a real pain in the neck. The others are amateurs. What promise do they hold to get us out of the mess that so called experienced have put us into? That is the reality I believe in.

  • 5
    0

    MS and RW promised to abolish the Executive Presidency and bring in Good Governance in 2015. They did neither! After doing nothing about the E.P. for four and a half years, at the very last minute and after the presidential election was announced they made a clumsy attempt to abolish it but failed and made fools of themselves.

    I don’t think any country in the world would have suffered such a misfortune as to have a pair of political buffoons occupying the post of executive president and prime minister at the same time.

  • 1
    0

    It was Ranil who created current issue for Unp and 2015 mandate. He should have kept close association with sirisena even after presidential election. He should have created a senior leader position for my3 or kept the swan alliance with my3 as leader..so that he wouldnt have taken the defeated force upfa leadership. This is the biggest mistake that lead to current problem.
    It is over for Ranil now..
    The game will be between Sajith and Gota. Anura may not make much difference as people don’t see jvp force as a genuine team to govern a country ( they only knows is to forcefully ask things from governments and organize strikes . General public hate this attitude ).
    Ajith Kollonne’s team also does not seem to make much difference but if they put former army commander Mahesh Senanayake as their candidate.
    It may be the strongest third candidate . Sometime he may be able to outperform sajith and old gota as well

  • 1
    0

    Can you imagine a “Campaign Committee” of FIVE consisting of: (1) Wimal Weerawanse (2) Gammanpila (3) Dilan Perera (4) S. B. Dissanayake and (5) Johnston Fernando carrying on the campaign to win Gotabaya Rajapakse? What a “Winner” Sri Lanka will have, if he wins?

  • 0
    0

    After Galleon Ravi called Keselwatta Kid an OL Drop Out and demanded the KId to bring his School Leaving Papers to Srikotha, how can Keselwatta Preme generate a Wave even in UNP Elite , Anglican & Vellala Stronghold in Colombo?..

    After insulting the Buddhist Monks, Mangala Samare won’t get even his own Caste Vote this time according to a solid UNP family in Matara..

    Those 30 Civies must have taken cue from Galleon Ravi to join the JVP..
    But then it can change when Dr Ranil pulls out the Rabbit next week..

    Other 49 must be sitting on the Fence like the pro Pirahaparan Party the TNA..
    Anyway I don’t think those Civies can change the anti Mangala Vote in Matara.

    Even if all those 79 Civies back JVP Prince, will the UNP in Colombo vote for JVP”.
    Unless JVP Prince does a deal to make Dr Ranil the PM, which may make a small Wave for the JVP..

    Brutus Mallika looks like has done a back flip in to Dr Ranil’s Camp according to the latest news from Colombo.
    I am not sure whether it is a pointer to Dr Ranil’s Rabbit which is supposed to come out next week.

    If that is the case UNP will lose not only Brutus Harin but also Brutus Dr Harsha .

    Wonder whether Brutus Sujeeva has already got the sack?..

  • 2
    1

    KASmaalam K.A.Sumanasekera

    I am sorry, what is your point if there is one?
    Day by day you are growing into a boring moron worse than Bandula Jayasekara.

    • 0
      0

      Dear Native,

      Reading about the Shit Fight in the UNP Hierarchy gives some relief to my worries about the Mother Country.

      I am now confident that the Eelaam Dream of the Homeland to be run from Cinnamon Gardens will disappear along with Dr Ranil ,sooner than later.

      UNP’s Dog eats Dog mentally and Culture has finally come to the fore and exposed what a bunch of crooked , money hungry Politicians who run the country according to the wishes of the West and the NGOs and sell every Public Assets to make money.

      Last Emergency Cabinet Meet which was called by Dr Ranil to nail Keselwatta Kid was a classic example of what a pathetic lot these are..

      How pathetic is Dr Ranil to say he called the UNP Cabinet meeting to present a Paper which was prepared by a couple of Civil Societies demanding that Dr Ranil get the Cabinet to Demolish the Presidency.

      This is while Dr Ranil is fighting tooth and nail to stop Keselwatta kid getting the Candidacy..

      I wonder whether Keselwatta Kid reads those reports of Civil Society Dudes?.
      And how many Keselwatta Kid’s supporters are members of those Societies?..

  • 0
    1

    Mangala is BrutusK and Kabir Cassius. Don’t bother India will ensure Gota’s victory. Subramaniam swamy will see to that.

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