The 2019 presidential election, rather predictably is shaping up politically, very similar to its precedent in 2015. On that occasion, the then ruling Rajapakses’ sought an unprecedented third term and was rebuffed at the polls. In 2019, the Rajapakses’ are essentially seeking a third term, with the personalities changed. The message though from the Rajapakse camp has not changed, only increased in intensity. The message that the Sinhala people are under threat both from within and without and require an authoritarian saviour.
Opposing this narrative, rather late in the day and through through no fault of his own, is Sajith Premadasa, the charismatic relatively young deputy leader of the UNP, whose political task and challenge is to recreate the politics of 2015 in 2019, with himself as a new standard-bearer and with a fresh political vision and message.
Sajith picking up momentum
Sajith Premadasa’s election rallies around the country have been well attended with enthusiastic crowds. Gota is certainly not outperforming Sajith in grassroots mobilization. It is however in the political discourse and in setting the political agenda, that Sajith has succeeded at seriously eroding Gota’s ability to define the issues. With a distinctive political message, which is resonating, Gotabaya has struggled to respond to Sajith. The SLPP sought to craft the campaign along ethno-social and security lines and on anti-incumbency. A campaign designed against Ranil.
However, Sajith came on the scene, adroitly co-opted Field Marshal Fonseka as his security buffer and anchor and took the charge to the Rajapaksa’s on their weakest wicket, that of governance and economic management. The Achilles heel of the Rajapaksa’s is that a sufficient number of Sinhala voters are unimpressed with their economic and political governance performance, especially in their second term. Now in all probability, there is a clear anti-incumbency factor against the current government, but it is in recognition of this fact, that neither the current president nor prime minister are candidates for president, though both, right up to the nominations, sought it.
However, Sri Lanka has a sophisticated electorate which understands, that non-delivery is different from bad delivery. Would the swing voters of 2015, forget or ignore, the sacking of a chief justice, jailing your presidential election opponent, a respected army commander to boot, swinging maritime security to a private firm, white van abductions and rampant nepotism. Sajith while campaigning has successfully occupied the moral high ground. It is to his credit that he has reached the apex of the political ladder, as a main party candidate for president with very limited or no significant negatives as political demerits. This is likely to be reflected in the voting patterns of new, young and currently undecided voters, of whom there are many and who likely will be the deciding factor in this election.
The CBK leadership to an anti-Rajapakse SLFP
The Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha election results last month, which seemingly warmed the cockles of SLPP insiders’ hearts should however to the contrary, raise a strong caution for them as well. It is very similar to the Monaragala district results of the Uva Provincial Council elections of October 2014, which the UPFA won and then went on to lose the presidency. There the UPFA polled 56%, about what it polled in Elpitiya and went on to lose the presidential election, though it won in the Monaragala District. For the Rajapakses’ in 2015 and indeed in 2019, 56% of the Sinhala vote is insufficient to carry the country as a whole, when they exclusively target a mono-ethnic Sinhala vote. Of equal importance is the 12% of the Elpitiya electorate which voted for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). This hardcore SLFP voter clearly refused to heed the headlong dash of its parliamentary group towards the SLPP and vote Rajapakse. It remains SLFP, left of centre, socially conservative and likely much more attracted to a message of social and political democracy and justice than it is to the allures of the Chinese model of a national security state. It is to this constituency that former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga seeks to give leadership and direction. The prior decision of President Sirisena to remain neutral in the presidential election and not get on the political platform of Gotabaya Rajapakse is also a tribute and credit to the political acumen and coalition-building skills of Sajith Premadasa, who successfully weaned away Sirisena from supporting Gotabaya and subsequently also secured CBK’s overt support.
A Political challenge for Gota
The political challenge for Gotabaya Rajapakse is significant. The SLPP and the Rajapakse campaign has struggled to extend its base beyond its core Sinhala nationalist constituency. The campaign and the candidate excites, energizes and creates passion among its core support base but is clearly struggling to reach beyond the Sinhala nationalist constituency. An uninspiring orator and unfamiliar with policy nuances outside of security issues, he has failed to take up the challenge of a candidate’s debate with Sajith Premadasa, a feature in many democracies, including his second home of the USA. The SLPP is failing to sufficiently tap into the anti-incumbency sentiment of the electorate, both due to the association of Gotabaya with the worst excesses of the Rajapakse regime’s past track record and also because contrary to expectations and miraculously, the UNP working committee accomplished the near-impossible and nominated a fresh face, a younger but experienced leader and an authentic grassroots politician untainted by corruption and generally not associated as part of the inner circle of a less than sterling performance in governance during the past five years. Slowly but surely, support is coalescing around Sajith Premadasa. The JVP is feeling the heat and recognizing that they are losing the floating voter to Sajith, hence their increased attempts to associate him with the current regime. But Sajith played his hand well during the past five years, furiously building houses throughout the country while making no attempt to be seen as close to Ranil. In fact, to the contrary, he cleverly kept the required distance from the centre of power. Gota, on the other hand, needs to bask in his brother’s glory for his political legitimacy and that asset though is also his drawback. Premadasa looking ahead and casting a fresh vision, is slowly but surely consolidating and creating the ground for a surprising come from behind victory.