By Jehan Perera –
With the next presidential election due before the end of next year, and with a possibility that an early election might be called even by January next year, the question of who might be the next presidential candidates is getting to the fore. There has been speculation that the felicitation ceremony for Health Minister Dr Rajitha Senaratne on obtaining an international honour was a launching pad for his bid to be a presidential candidate from the government side. The opposition has not been without its share of contestation too. The statement issued by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office that he had not yet decided on who should be the opposition’s presidential candidate, and to disregard the claims that he had already selected his brother Gotabaya, is an indication of the tensions beneath the surface which are not limited only to the government.
On the government side President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appear to have worked out an accommodation, even though both of them are believed to be interested in contesting the next presidential election. Each of them is doing his utmost to garner public support but without attacking or discrediting one another. This is a positive development compared to the aftermath of the disastrous local government elections of February 2018 which saw the government parties receive a drubbing in many areas they had previously won. President Sirisena’s abortive attempts to remove Prime Minister Wickremesinghe from his position added to the negative impression of a government that was divided and unable to govern the country effectively.
In the past few days President Maithripala Sirisena has embarked on a programme to declare open a number of development projects under Pibidenu Polonnaruwa, (Blooming Polonnaruwa), his home district. He has said similar projects would be extended to other districts too. He has already asked SLFP members to organise their propaganda machinery. The UNP is following suit with a Gamperaliya (transition of villages) for development. The government is currently implementing three major accelerated development projects namely, ‘Enterprise Sri Lanka’, which is being spearheaded by Prime Minister Wicremesinghe, and the ‘Gamperaliya’ and ‘Grama shakthi’ with the aim to develop villages. However, this policy of coexistence between the government parties might not be sufficient to win the hearts and minds of the people.
The Sri Lankan ethos is to look to strong persons to solve problems rather than to institutions. Whenever people have a problem they will look for some contact they have within the system to whom they can appeal to, or bribe, rather than rely on the system to deliver. The common discourse today regarding politics is the need for a strong leader. The primary aspiration of a disillusioned population who vote for change in the hope of their betterment is that they are looking for stability and order and for a strong political direction that will not waver. To most of those people the current government has been a disappointment. As a coalition of two parties, each of which are going their own way, the government has only been able to move by fits and starts.
In addition to the general population, specific groups, such as the business community, also need stability and order if they are to risk their investment in an economic venture. However, with regard to investments in Sri Lanka, the evidence is not at all positive. Ministers make declarations of policy that are reversed in quick order by others in the government. Investors complain that there is no one-stop-shop in Sri Lanka, where there is no inordinate delay. If there is a one-stop-shop where there is no delay, investors would much prefer this, as they know how to factor in the additional cost into their projections of future earnings. The more successful local businesspersons are those who have been able to identify a powerful-enough minister and to work with him (or her) to get the project off the ground and running. The fascination with former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s possible candidacy comes from this sense of having a strong leader who will ensure that things get done without unnecessary delay.
The government appears to be mindful of these concerns of the electorate. President Sirisena’s declaration that he will reinstitute the death penalty serves to create the image of a strong leader. Public opinion is in favour of the death penalty and the president has sought to capitalize on this issue, while projecting himself to be a strong leader. Another opportunity that President Sirisena took up is the issue of a salary increase for parliamentarians. The party leaders in parliament had agreed with the view that as the salaries of parliamentarians were linked to those of members of the judiciary, and since the salaries of the judges had been increased substantially, the salaries of parliamentarians should likewise be raised. The president pointed out the contradiction in the fact that the party leaders, including those from the opposition, had made no objection to the proposals and has refused to approve the salary increase.
The president’s efforts to project himself as a strong leader who is willing to take tough decisions is likely to be intended to counter the opposition’s seeming monopoly on the possession of strong leaders. Both former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother former defense secretary Gotabaya are credited for being part of the triumvirate, along with Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka, who won the “unwinnable” war against the LTTE. The former defense secretary is widely seen as the most potent of the possible opposition candidates. This may explain why the meetings he summons are attended by wide swathes of the country’s business leaders and intelligentsia.
On the other hand, the government’s true strength, and which is in the national interest, is that the two party alliance of UNP and SLFP, and the further engagement with the ethnic minority parties, is essential if there is to be a political solution to the ethnic conflict which is the country’s long unresolved problem. Until this is solved, Sri Lanka will remain a divided polity, although united in territory by the strength of its military. The ground reality today is that the SLFP is only a shadow of its former self with the bulk of its active members now with the SLPP which is led by the former president. But it still can muster the support of a significant enough number of voters, which added to the UNP votes will give the two parties a strength that neither party can muster separately.
Although the public perception is that the government is ineffective and not doing much, this is not an accurate description of reality. Development projects are taking off with international support. The government has brought in a variety of new laws, the most important of which is the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. The 19th Amendment in particular could not have been passed if not for the current government alliance. This has given the space to those appointed to various state bodies to make their decisions free of political interference. The media is filled with statements by opposition leaders who are giving dire warnings about the betrayal of the country by the government. There continues to be pressure on Sri Lanka to follow international law in its internal affairs. Nevertheless, the best course for the government would be to continue with the existing partnerships.