By Jehan Perera –
There are 35 presidential candidates at this election but as the presidential election campaign comes to its close, only two of them, the NDF’s Sajith Premadasa and the SLPP’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa, have a realistic expectation of winning. As in the case of all national elections in Sri Lanka, this one will be important in determining the direction the country will take. In the context of SrI Lanka’s polarized polity, the electorate is being presented with two polar opposites. While both candidates promise a plethora of economic benefits and subsidies, the NDF campaign focuses its attack on the human rights violations that took place during place in the period prior to 2015, while the SLPP campaign focuses on the post 2015 national security failures.
The two main candidates have two contrasting visions. The ruling party candidate Sajith Premadasa promises social welfare in economic policies, with an emphasis on nurturing the poor, pluralism in dealing with ethnic and religious differences, and adherence to international norms supported by the West. By contrast, opposition candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa emphasizes high tech development that will cater to the upwardly mobile segment of the country, centralized governance to unify the country, and rejection of international interference on human rights issues.
The government is generally appreciated for restoring space to other groups to engage in politics of their own even in opposition to it. This can be seen at this ongoing election where there is freedom of media to the greatest extent with no quarter being spared to any candidate. However, this opening of space was uncontrolled and often chaotic. During the past five years, Sri Lanka has been experiencing the slowest economic growth ever and this has led to widespread disillusionment with the current government. Opposition candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa is receiving open support from the corporate sector which sees him as a strong leader who will bring in order and offer one-stop solutions. On the other hand, Sajith Premadasa’s track record of social service to the poor is likely to be more persuasive to them.
In the first four years following their formation of a coalition government in 2015, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe chartered a new direction by strengthening institutions such as the judiciary and promoting inter-ethnic reconciliation. However, the Easter bomb attack that targeted three Christian churches and three leading hotels and killed more than 250 and injured another 500 dealt the government a body blow from which it could not recover. The six simultaneous suicide attacks undermined the government’s credibility in ensuring national security. It was also the key factor that opened the path to Gotabaya Rajapaksa to obtain the presidential candidacy from the SLPP and from his brother, the former president, who seemed initially reluctant to do so.
After the bombing, the national interest became synonymous with national security, and this made Gotabaya Rajapaksa unstoppable. The Easter Sunday disaster enabled him to project himself to the country at large as the leader-in-waiting and best able to protect the country’s national interest by focusing on national security to the exclusion of all other matters. Despite his lack of political experience, the younger Rajapaksa who was defense secretary during the war years had been able to lay claim to the credit for the war victory that saw the crushing the three decade long campaign of the LTTE in three years of ruthless combat. As a result he has credibility with the Sinhalese majority as a strong leader who will restore national security and national pride which took a beating during the past five years, and especially in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attack. At the beginning of his campaign he made a controversial pledge that no sooner he is elected he would release war heroes who were in custody, because he believed the charges against them were baseless or absurd. This would be of concern
However, the presidential election campaign has posed two unexpected challenges to the SLPP presidential candidate. These have been the entry former army commando and army commander General Mahesh Senanayake into the fray as the unlikely but worthy candidate of a civil society coalition. The other development was the decision of the DNF presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa to confirm that another army commander, and the army commander who led the troops to victory in the war against the LTTE, as his Defence Minister. The presence of both these war heroes on the presidential campaign trail has eroded the position of the SLPP candidate whose main strength has been in addressing national security level issues rather than in other matters that are required for governance.
There is a further problem that the SLPP candidate has faced. The presidential election is one in which the entire country becomes one electorate. It is unlike a general election in which there are 22 electoral districts. In a general election it is possible to have an election campaign that focuses on the insecurity of one community vis-à-vis another and win the majority in that electoral district. Promoting ethnic nationalism can win not only individual districts but also the majority of parliamentary seats to form a strong majority in parliament. However, in a presidential election there is a need to win support from all parts of the country, and this includes both majority and minority communities. In the post Easter bombing context, addressing the security concerns of the Sinhalese majority and focusing on them has meant aggravating the fears of the Tamil and Muslim minorities.
Both the Tamil and Muslim communities have experienced security operations as being inimical to them. These security operations have by and large been conducted in their midst owing to the involvement of members of their communities in rebellions and terrorism directed against the state and in which civilians have been victims. While the security operations that affected the Tamil community ended a decade ago with the defeat of the LTTE, the security operations that have affected the Muslim community in the post-April period are still fresh in their minds. By focusing his election campaign on national security as his main theme Gotabaya Rajapaksa has restricted his appeal to those of the Sinhalese majority who see security threats emanating from the ethnic minorities.
Sajith Premadasa presents a contrast with that of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He started his campaign as the underdog. But as the election campaign hots up and the human rights issues of the not-so-distant past are brought up, he has been closing the gap. As housing minister he focused his attention on building houses for the poor and on social welfare and steered clear of the macro political controversies of the day. This has given him a social and political base that cannot be taken away unlike in the case of Gotabaya Rajapaksa whose success in national security is being shared with his political rivals. Sajith Premadasa has also demonstrated a comprehensive grasp of social and economic policies that goes much beyond housing issues, so that his appeal is more broad-based, with national security being one of many priorities rather than the main one.