By Rasika Jayakody –
This year’s Presidential election is tipped to be one of the most dramatic national elections in Sri Lanka—and for no other reason but for the possibility that Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be the Presidential candidate of the SLPP-led alliance.
In anticipation, the Rajapaksa camp is seen vigorously promoting Gotabaya, whose dual citizenship with the US has proved an impediment to any ambitions of the presidency. But an English language newspaper owned by a businessman closely affiliated with the Rajapaksa camp reported last week, that the former Secretary to the Ministry of Defence had on March 6 submitted an application to the US Embassy in Colombo to renounce his US citizenship.
Another leading Sinhala language newspaper, whose editor is a close associate of the Rajapaksa family reported last week that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, after extensive consultations with other members of his family, had decided to nominate his brother Gotabaya as the SLPP’s Presidential candidate. As the Rajapaksa family constitutes the politburo of the SLPP, no less, the decision has been widely accepted by the party’s rank and file, including the likes of Vasudewa Nanayakkara, who were initially averse to Gotabaya’s candidacy.
The act of filing an application, however, does not mean that the former Defence Secretary citizenship will be revoked successfully, allowing him to run for the Presidency this year. His application has to be reviewed by the US government, which has the last say in the matter. There is already a strong lobby in the US, exerting pressure on the US government to dismiss Rajapaksa’s application to renounce citizenship.
If the former Defence Secretary manages to get the all-clear in time, he will be the most preferred Presidential candidate within the SLPP-led alliance. And although he has confidently claimed there is “nothing to worry” about, the matter still hangs in the balance. He is also expected to fly to the US next month for a personal matter, but sources close to him indicated that he would discuss the matter with US authorities during the visit, seeking to clear the conflict over his citizenship within the next two months.
The possibility that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s will run for President also surfaced at the UNP Working Committee meeting last Thursday (21). Many of party seniors are convinced the SLPP will field the former Defence Secretary, but several of them—these including Sajith Premadasa, Mangala Samaraweera and Navin Dissanayake have pointed out that defeating Gotabaya Rajapaksa would be easier than defeating any other Presidential candidate fielded by the SLPP.
Be that as it may, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who banks heavily on the Sinhala-Buddhist votes, will be a force to reckon with. He has already projected himself as a ‘disciplinarian’ committed to ensuring political stability in the country—at any cost— suggesting that he will have no qualms about ruling the country with an iron fist. Rajapaksa’s modus operandi during his ten-year tenure as the Defence Secretary also lends credence to the belief that he, as a President, will lean towards ultra-nationalism and authoritarianism, leaving little room for dissent, within and without the government.
But Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s role as the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence is marked with serious controversy. ‘White-van abductions’, extra-judicial killings and attacks on journalists took place under his watch. His name is also linked to several high-profile corruption cases that include the MiG deal and the construction of the D. A. Rajapaksa Museum in Hambantota, which is now before the Special High Court. His presidential campaign, therefore, will be dogged with controversy.
There is a school of thought within the UNP circles, that the party should field a candidate who can ‘match’ Gotabaya Rajapaksa who played an important role in the fallen Rajapaksa administration. The common idea is that the UNP should field a populist nationalist who can disrupt the traditional Rajapaksa voter-base. While the idea seems fancy on paper, the pertinent question remains whether the UNP is in a position to take that gamble — especially after their bitter experience with Maithripala Sirisena.
The UNP’s ideal Presidential candidate must bring to the table a ‘package’ that is diametrically ‘opposite’ to what the Rajapaksa’s will field, leading people to believe that Rajapaksa-style governance will only lead to chaos in the country. The UNP candidate must have a proven track record in safeguarding the rights of all ethnic and religious communities, and should not in any way, be ultra-nationalist.
In oppositions to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s instincts, the UNP candidate should have unwavering faith in parliamentary democracy. He or she should be a mature and resilient leader, with an ability to work with people holding diverse opinions. This should also come with a long-term vision for sustainable and inclusive socio-economic development. The UNP candidate should be a person who can clearly articulate a vision for the country and not be a mere populist who will play to the gallery and seek to placate everyone.
Meanwhile, despite the President’s strained relations with the UNP, he has managed to cultivate a covert ‘Sirisena Chapter’ (Nikàya) at the top tier of the party leadership. They are the ones who speak in full praise of the President and unquestioningly support his every act undermining the duly appointed Cabinet. The reason for this strange affiliation must certainly be linked to business —tycoons that pull the strings from behind the scenes. It is no secret that these tycoons work closely with President Sirisena and the UNP’s ‘Sirisena Nikàya’, exercising enormous control over both sides.
It is then evident, that the UNP’s Presidential candidate should not be from the ‘Sirisena Nikàya’. Such a foolish gamble will turn the party into a toy in the hands of some notorious businessman and wheeler-dealers looking to consolidate their power by exploiting every opportunity. These pose a bigger threat to the UNP than any member of the Rajapaksa family.
It is important that the UNP makes a rational decision when it comes to selecting its Presidential candidate. While the party’s collective ‘emotional brain’ may fancy fielding a populist-nationalist, the final decision must come from the ‘logical brain’ of the party, having carefully analyzed the high stakes associated with this important election.