By 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.
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.