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    Making vibrant and functioning democracy, a reality

    November 14, 2019

    Years of political manoeuvring, months of dramatic behind the scenes activity and weeks of intense of campaigning will come to an end in three days when Sri Lankans go to the polls on Saturday to elect their seventh Executive President.A record number of thirty-five candidates are in the fray but in reality, the contest is between the United National Party (UNP)’s Sajith Premadasa who is contesting from the National Democratic Front (NDF) and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

    Of the other contestants only the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake and the National Peoples’ Party (NPP)’s Mahesh Senanayake have generated public interest. While the latter may attract some votes, the former, with a party vote base of about half a million votes has the potential to play a crucial role in the final outcome of the poll, in the event of a close contest.

    Among the two major party candidates, it was Gotabaya Rajapaksa who had the early momentum. Rajapaksa offered himself as a candidate in the immediate aftermath of the April 21 Easter Sunday attacks and was confirmed by his party a few months later. In fact, by setting up organisations such as the ‘Viyath Maga’ he was positioning himself for the candidacy, at least a year ago.

    Rajapaksa had significant obstacles in his path to the candidacy. Among them were a plethora of court cases against him in Sri Lanka. Another issue was his dual citizenship with the United States of America. Most of the cases have not been heard to a conclusion. Rajapaksa’s lawyers have been employing a tactic of citing technicalities and having the hearing of these cases postponed.

    Dual citizenship

    With regard to Rajapaksa’s dual citizenship, the controversy rages on. This week, Rajapaksa was compelled to publicly display documents purported to be those relating to the renunciation of his dual citizenship. However, some claims that were made - such as those documents being produced at the Elections Commission - have been formally denied.

    The SLPP too believed the issue relating to dual citizenship was serious enough a matter, so much so that it paid a deposit for Chamal Rajapaksa to contest the election, if Gotabaya Rajapaksa had been deemed ineligible by the Court of Appeal. However, the Court of Appeal ruling was favourable for Rajapaksa and the former Speaker was not required to fulfil his role as a ‘back up’.

    In recent weeks, Rajapaksa had another boost to his campaign. He was able to reach an accord with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) after months of negotiations. Now, officially at least, the vast majority of SLFP parliamentarians are supporting Rajapaksa and addressing his campaign rallies.

    President Maithripala Sirisena has officially declared that he would be ‘neutral’ during the election campaign. However, it is acknowledged that the SLFP’s accord with the SLPP had the President’s blessings, even if it was for the reason that the SLFP, short of public support and weakened at the grassroots level, had little choice but to join the party that broke away from it.

    Rajapaksa’s main rival, Minister Sajith Premadasa had a battle on his hands to even secure the UNP’s nomination. That was because Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, five times Prime Minister and twice presidential candidate but never the Executive President, was entertaining ambitions of becoming the party’s presidential candidate in what would be his last tilt at the highest political office.

    It was obvious that while Wickremesinghe would have had the support of those holding office within his party, grassroots support across the country resonated with Premadasa as UNPers and others alike yearned for a change in the party’s outlook from an elitist outfit to a people-centric political party.

    Premadasa had to force the issue, defying party edicts and holding a series of public meetings where he declared that he would ‘somehow’ run for President. Some party seniors such as Mangala Samaraweera and Malik Samarawickrema who were previously loyal to Wickremesinghe joined Premadasa in this campaign. That did the trick and, in the end, Wickremesinghe yielded to pressure.

    Since securing the UNP’s blessing for his candidacy, Premadasa has gone from strength to strength. His style of campaigning has been radically different to that of Rajapaksa. His platform has been a raft of election pledges aimed at the less fortunate sections of the population, perhaps taking a leaf out of the book of his father, the late Ranasinghe Premadasa, Sri Lanka’s second Executive President.

    Lack of experience in politics

    Premadasa’s personality has also been seen to be very different to Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa makes prepared speeches and, perhaps because of his lack of experience in politics, appears ill at ease when confronted with questions, when he turns to Mahinda Rajapaksa for support. His campaign appearances are carefully choreographed, with little room for spontaneity.

    On the contrary, Premadasa thrives on impromptu dealings with the public. He is visibly comfortable moving with the masses and is by far a better orator. Some of the issues he has raised - such as promising free sanitary products for females, and the offer being subsequently ridiculed by SLPP campaigners - has won him the admiration of many as a person willing to take on challenges.

    Premadasa also had two significant boosts to his campaign recently. That was when the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) endorsed his candidature. With interest in the presidential election running high in the North and East, the TNA’s support will be a critical factor as Premadasa is expected to record a landslide in those regions, thereby offsetting any potential drawbacks in the deep South.

    The second endorsement came from former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Heading an organisation called ‘Api Sri Lanka’ the former SLFP leader was categorical in her condemnation of the SLPP. Joining her was Kumara Welgama, former Minister of Transport who has been consistent in his criticism of Gotabaya Rajapaksa when the latter’s presidential ambitions became known.

    Boosted by these developments, Premadasa added a masterstroke to his campaign in the past week. That was to declare that should he become President, the country would have a new, first-time Prime Minister. This was to quell any voter doubts, which were being fuelled by SLPP campaigners, that in the event of a Premadasa victory, Ranil Wickremesinghe would still be Premier.

    Thus, if the initial momentum in the election campaign was with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, developments in the last few weeks have decisively generated a swing towards Premadasa. As the gruelling campaign now comes to an end, the two strategies adopted by the SLPP and the NDF in the past few weeks also comes into sharper focus.

    The SLPP, in its attempt to market a former soldier and bureaucrat with no experience in holding public office, has resorted to his strength as a military man and as the Defence Secretary who supervised the prosecution of the Eelam war. However, in doing so, they have trespassed on dangerous ground: this strategy went to the extent of isolating and vilifying minority communities.

    Hate speech

    While preaching the mantra of a safe and secure Sri Lanka, the main campaign speakers of the SLPP resorted to hate speech on many occasions, harping on the fact that this is a Sinhala country and should be preserved as such, a cry that echoed not only from election platforms but from social media as well. Needless to say, this antagonised minority communities who are shying away from the party.

    The SLPP’s strategy was based on the fact that, with Gotabaya Rajapaksa as its candidate, it would never be able to win the minority vote. Therefore, it relied on securing very high percentages of votes in the deep South to counter that. However, in over reaching its brief, it has lost even the little support it enjoyed with the minority communities, a factor that could be costly in the final outcome.

    Premadasa in contrast has campaigned on a platform of inclusiveness. The major Tamil and Muslim political parties are with him. He has eschewed the temptation to play to the gallery and, as a result, many ‘floating voters’ are impressed by being true to his ideals and the ‘swing’ towards him is tangible.

    It must be noted that at the last election, President Maithripala Sirisena’s majority was less than half a million votes which is about what the JVP’s vote base is. Therefore, there have been arguments that, with the JVP contesting separately, no candidate will be able to secure a win on the first round.

    If that is the case, Premadasa would be at a definite advantage as the JVP has publicly declared that while the first preference should be marked against it, the second preference should not go to Rajapaksa, a thinly veiled reference suggesting that it should be marked for Premadasa.

    There is no doubt that the contest still is a close one. There are imponderables in this election: the voter turnout in the North and East, whether most voters would opt to mark a preference and what impact, if any, the Easter attacks will have on voting patterns. That is why offering a prediction appears to be at best, a naïve exercise.

    The redeeming feature of the election however is that, despite the mudslinging from platforms and social media, the campaign has been free of violence. It is a sign that Sri Lanka is maturing as a democracy and it is hoped that this will be sustained in the last few days leading up to the election as well as in the post-election period, regardless of whoever the victor is.

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