By Rajan Philips –
The UNP made even heavier weather than the inter-monsoonal rains pouring on the island, before settling on Sajith Premadasa as the Party’s presidential candidate. Yet, the party leadership managed to end all the drama over the last three weeks without blood or casualty. The highly assorted UNP Working Committee decided unanimously on multiple resolutions to: nominate Sajith Premadasa as presidential candidate; retain Ranil Wickremesinghe as party leader, Prime Minister and candidate for PM at the next parliamentary election; honour Karu Jayasuriya for defending the rights of parliament against presidential overreaches; and extend to 2019 the UNP’s 2015 platform on changes to the presidential system and constitutional reforms. The Committee also decided that Sajith Premadasa would contest under the Swan symbol of the broad UNP alliance, and not the sentimental Elephant symbol of the grand old party.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, rather than being the elder statesman he could be and congratulate the new candidate, dismissed Sajith Premadasa’s chances of victory as “Mona Pissuda! What nonsense!” But the former President picked on the UNP for not giving Sajith the Elephant Symbol. Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena contested under the Swan symbol because they were non-UNPers contesting under UNP’s auspices, but Sajith Premadasa is the Deputy Leader of the UNP and he should have been given the party symbol. That is Mahinda Rajapaksa’s take on the matter. He seems quite sensitized to the business of symbols, which is not surprising given all the haggling over symbols between the SLFP and its matricidal offshoot, the SLPP.
There is more to the current political situation than party symbols. It is all about party leaders, who seem to be having, and are wanting to have, all the clout on party decisions, which by extension would also mean the country’s decisions under its current presidential system of government. After his come-from-nowhere election as Sri Lanka’s President in 2015, Maithripala Sirisena became obsessive about being the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, rather than being the elected President of Sri Lanka and fulfilling his promises. At the end of it all, Sirisena is counting the last days of a volatile presidency and is presiding over the death throes of his own party. In the tumultuous history of Sri Lanka’s presidential system, Maithripala Sirisena stands out as a unique variant of the President-Party Leader nexus. Verily, indeed, he will be a monument to the failure of Sri Lanka’s presidential system on the grave of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.
A second variant is Ranil Wickremesinghe. He too is unique, but for a different reason which is that Mr. Wickremesinghe has perfected the art of retaining party leadership without ever winning political office. Although he has been called by many, including yours truly, as a serial loser, the polling numbers in Mr. Wickremesinghe’s many electoral attempts present a somewhat redeeming picture. In 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga achieved the biggest turnaround in presidential elections, lifting the SLFP/PA vote to 62% from the earlier totals of 39% in 1982 and 45% in 1988. She crushed the UNP to 36% from the earlier 53% in 1982 and the razor thin 50.43% in 1988. So, when Ranil Wickremesinghe took over the party leadership after 1994, the UNP vote had been reduced to lower than where the SLFP was between 1977 and 1994.
In the two presidential election RW contested, the UNP vote increased by 7% to 43% in 1999, and again by more than 5% to 48.43% in 2005. On both occasions, the SLFP/PA/UPFA vote dropped by 11% to 51% in 1999, and again to 50.29% in 2005. RW lost both the elections, in 1999 against the incumbent president, and in 2005 to Mahinda Rajapaksa by a mere 180,786 votes and entirely due to the LTTE-imposed boycott in the Northern and Eastern provinces. The incumbency rule prevailed in 2010 when Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated the first common candidate Sarath Fonseka, although and despite the aura of running as the war-hero president, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s margin of victory (57.88%) in 2010 was lower than what Chandrika Kumaratunga (62.28%) had accomplished in 1994.
The tables were famously turned in 2015, when Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena combined forces to defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa and stop his illegitimate attempt for a third term as President. The defeat was historic because it was the first time an incumbent president suffered defeat. And more so, because it was just as significant as Chandrika Kumaratunga’s 1994 victory, breaking the UNP’s stranglehold on power after 17 years. In 2015, the Rajapaksas had been in power for only ten years, but they were heading towards taking a 99-year lease on the country. In between, in 2001, Ranil Wickremesinghe registered another unique achievement in leading the UNP to victory in the parliamentary elections against an SLFP/PA President and becoming the first Prime Minister to co-habit with the incumbent President of a different political party. As with the numerous other tests it has been failing, the presidential system true to form proved to be unhelpful in making the 2001-2004 political cohabitation a successful experience.
Going by the experience of the last four years, it is not unfair to say that Ranil Wickremesinghe produced his worst days after his two finest hours in political life. The first was his undeniable role in the January 2015 presidential election, and the second was his being the central figure in the people’s pushback against last year’s constitutional coup. Not only did he fail everyone who placed huge expectations on him, but more pertinently he failed himself. We can analyse Ranil Wickremesinghe till all the elephants come home, but we would be missing the main lesson in seeing him as another variant of the President-Party Leader nexus, if we do not recognize that the problem is more with the presidential system than it is with the man.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is in the same league as the other two, but has a special seat and is another variant of the President-Party Leader nexus. More than any other President, Mahinda Rajapaksa tried to transform the presidency in his own mould and to serve his own purposes and those of his family. He got a freehand to do what he and his family wanted to do after his government ruthlessly defeated the LTTE in its own ruthless game. The people stopped him in his tracks in 2015. But he is the supreme leader of the new SLPP which was created after the leadership of the SLFP was passed over to Maithripala Sirisena.
Sirisena has no following other than his own shadow and Ranil Wickremesinghe has managed to retain the party leadership after sacrificing the presidential candidacy. In contrast, and although re-disqualified (by 19A) to be a presidential candidate for a third term, Mahinda Rajapaksa is the real ‘boss’ of the SLPP and its presidential candidate. Sajith Premadasa objected to Ranil Wickremesinghe imposing conditions on his presidential candidacy. Mahinda Rajapaksa doesn’t have to impose conditions on anyone in the SLPP. He is the condition – for the SLPP’s being and that of its presidential candidate.
As a result, Gotabaya Rajapaksa who is projecting himself as the strongman candidate might be the most constrained of the three main presidential candidates. Despite Ranil Wickremesinghe’s ill advised public posture of imposing conditions on Sajith Premadasa, the latter has a base and a ring of advisers in the Party to push back on the leader. And they have succeeded in besting Ranil Wickremesinghe in one of his own long games.
Anura Kumara Dissanayake is the only candidate in the traditional mould of a political party leader and he is in the race not to satisfy any egotistical ambition but to advance the program of his political party and its broad alliance. It has also been suggested that he was initially advocating the choice of someone else to be the NPP candidate, but that he was persuaded to be the candidate to avoid any perception that the JVP is not serious about the National People’s Power movement. No such reluctance with either Premadasa or Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The constraints on Gotabaya Rajapaksa are real but mysterious. For all the controversies over his citizenship, no one knows if he is a member of the SLPP. He has no direct exposure to the issues and priorities among party members but can only articulate what is filtered and prepared for him. Unlike Anura Kumara Dissanayake, GR was not overwhelmingly requested by the SLPP and its allies to be a presidential candidate. And unlike Sajith Premadasa, GR did not assert or insist on being the candidate of the SLPP. All he did was to offer his readiness to be a candidate and was made to wait for months before Mahinda Rajapaksa could make up his mind. That process shows a pattern which would likely define his presidency, with Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister.
Last week, The Island (Tuesday, 24 September) carried two thought provoking articles on the (constitutional) ‘reform agenda’ (by CA Chandraprema) and on the ‘rotten judicial process’ and its differential treatments of the powerful and the powerless (by Usvatte-Aratchi). The two articles suggest, quite independent of political leanings, that the issues which figured prominently in 2015 are going to figure prominently again in 2019. Sajith Premadasa’s bland assertion that the world has moved on after 2015 does not apply to Sri Lanka.
Thanks to the UNP Working Committee’s resolution to extend the 2015 Platform for the 2019 election, Sajith Premadasa will have to campaign not only for building houses everywhere but also to address the question of the elected presidency and constitutional reform. Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s positions on these matters are quite well known and he will articulate them with eloquence throughout the campaign. Where does that leave Gotabaya Rajapaksa? Does he have any position on them? And what will be his preferred answer from the multiple drafts that would be prepared for him?
The SLPP is apparently keeping its candidate in a protective bubble and taking him around to make appropriately different promises to different interest groups. This is the slice and dice campaign approach of rightwing political parties that began in Australia and later migrated to the UK and the Americas. The cunning approach is to satisfy different voter groups differently and avoid the responsibility to identify and address the invariable contradictions between them. One would hope that as the campaign momentum picks up, the protective bubble around the candidate will get broken and the people will have opportunities to find out more about the candidates and their positions than they are being fed on.
For this reason, the initiative that is being taken by the March 12 Movement is most welcome. The movement is planning to hold a public dialogue between Presidential candidates and citizens on October 5th at the Sugathadasa Stadium. From what has been reported, the candidates will be given a set of questions before the event and they will be expected speak to those questions and participate in the ensuing discussion. The event will be held before a live audience of about 4,000 citizens and will reach out to the broader political community through electronic and social media.
It is also time that the more established television media started organizing TV debates among the main presidential candidates, in which candidates could be asked previously unshared questions on agreed upon topics by a panel of neutral moderators. There are plenty of TV debate formats available in the world, and it would be a pity if such debates could not be organized in Sri Lanka before the November presidential election. In an open democratic society, the voting public deserves to see political candidates spar with one another over political and policy issues in a civil and cordial manner, before deciding which candidate is going to get their vote.
Private TV media organizations dominate viewership in Sri Lanka, and some of them are known to have aggressively pushed for the selection of Sajith Premadasa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa as presidential candidates by their respective parties. Whether the same media organizations would agree to jointly organize candidate debates might depend on what confidence they have in their candidates’ ability to perform in such debates. Nor do we know if the state media would step in, or whether or not all of the main candidates would agree to participate in a common debate.
The upcoming elections are not a case of passing the torch or starting anew. Except in the unlikely event of an Anura Kumara Dissanayake victory, things will remain as same old, same old. The party leaders will make sure that things will remain so. Any expectation to the contrary can only be an illusion, especially in the case of a new Rajapaksa presidency because Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is raising himself out of the same old mould that was in power for ten years. He has not given any indication that he would be different or would force himself to be different. A public TV debate could be an opportunity for Mr. Rajapaksa to demonstrate that he will be different. The other candidates can challenge him on that to the benefit of the voting public.