By Rajan Philips –
It would be a mistake to dismiss Sri Lanka’s problems as pinpricks. At the same time, it might be useful to see them for what they are in comparison to everything that is going on elsewhere. From Brexit to Kashmir and slowdown of the Indian economy, Trump to Hong Kong, and Putin to Duterte, countries far and near are grappling with political tornedos and economic uncertainties. Seen in a global perspective, we are dealing with tea-cup storms in Sri Lanka. We have to be mindful, however, that little storms can blow up on our faces. But it would be a mistake to prepare for a tsunami when we have to only deal with thunderstorms. Overkills and overcorrections will not only be costly, but they can also create additional and unanticipated problems. National security could become a binding tsunami generating overkill consequences in a future Rajapaksa presidency. A State predicated on security usually entails the security of the powerful and the insecurity of their opponents. The second term of the Rajapaksa first coming was a perfect but painful illustration of this. What would it be like if there is a second coming?
The 2015 presidential election was a referendum on the corruption and abuse of power of the Rajapaksas. Nearly five years after their defeat, the Rajapaksas are framing the 2019 election as a referendum on national security, specifically exploiting the spectacular failure of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe dysfunctional dyarchy to prevent the Easter Sunday bombings. The real reason for privileging national security is because ‘national security’ is the best and the only rationale for the candidacy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. After deciding on the middle brother as their next candidate, the Rajapaksa family and political party have had to find a national problem that is commensurate with Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s abilities and experience as a former military man. National security foots the bill and the Easter Sunday bombings are a huge bonus. So, they have found a problem to suit the candidate, rather than finding a candidate who can measure up to the whole host of Sri Lanka’s national problems, and not just national security.
On the other side of the political divide, the former common opposition forces are now a divided bunch and are fighting among themselves. Maithripala Sirisena is a politically dead man alive. The UNP is in a horrible pickle. It doesn’t want its irremovable leader to be its presidential candidate, and its favoured candidate is not the favourite of the leader’s Working Committee and his alliance partners. What is even more horrible is what Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has done to irredeemably tarnish the 20th Amendment. What divine political judgement would have prompted Mr. Wickremesinghe to permit someone like Ravi Karunanayake to publicly undertake the eleventh-hour championing of the 20th Amendment?
If President Sirisena thought that this could be the last straw for him to grasp at, his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa was too quick to shred it off. Even the JVP found it laughable that the Prime Minister and his bond pal would canvas support for the 20th Amendment only when their political jobs are on the line, and after publicly ignoring it for so long. The proven pair brought laughter not only on themselves, but also on Colombo’s diplomats who ill-advisedly attended a publicized political dinner with the two men instead of diplomatically declining the invitation. What we are seeing is the political isolation of Ranil Wickremesinghe and that he can count only on the loyalties of foreign diplomats and the disgraced former Finance Minister.
Constituencies and campaigns
Mr. Wickremesinghe’s woes aside, his undercutter and apparently the most likely UNP/DNF candidate Sajith Premadasa will find the presidential campaign much harder than his candidature campaign. For starters, Mr. Premadasa will become an easy target for all the criticisms against the yahapalanaya failures. And he will not be able to secure any compensatory benefit by mobilizing the yahapalanaya forces behind him, because he is not a believer in them, in general, and he has not espoused any one of them in particular. He is even opposed to the 20th Amendment, let alone abolishing the executive presidency. Mr. Premadasa might also end up spearheading a divided party into the campaign and runs the real of risk of having Wickremesinghe loyalists openly or secretively sabotage his campaign.
Mr. Premadasa is also not going to take the totality of the JVP and the minority votes that benefited the common opposition candidate in 2015. With Anura Kumara Dissanayake in the ring, Premadasa will automatically lose the JVP share of the Sirisena vote. If the known antipathy between Premadasa and the JVP is also infecting their supporters, the more JVPers among those voting for Mr. Dissanayake may not cast their second-best votes to Sajith Premadasa. In 2015, the common opposition candidate got almost the entirety of the Tamil and Muslim votes. That sweep is not going to be repeated this time. Given the present government’s patchy record on its promises to the minority political parties, the Rajapaksas will make a pitch to garner as many Tamil and Muslim votes as they can. In a more likely outcome, significant numbers among them may opt not to vote at all and that would hurt more than help Sajith Premadasa.
What Mr. Premadasa has going in his favour as opposed to Gotabaya Rajapaksa is that there is no “anyone but Premadasa” mindset or campaign against him. There is clearly such a constituency – avowing “anyone but Gotabaya” targeting Gotabaya Rajapaksa. How or whether that constituency will transform into a campaign remains to be seen. It was this dynamic that Ranil Wickremesinghe was trying to use to get internal support within the UNP for his candidacy. It did not quite work that way for Mr. Wickremesinghe. Premadasa has been the beneficiary of an “anyone but Ranil” movement within the UNP. Now he will have to get the help of Ranil Wickremesinghe to get going with an “anyone but Gotabaya” campaign outside the UNP for the presidential election.
With the JVP washing its hands off the 20th Amendment, the next presidential election will be the first one in 25 years and after five elections in which abolishment of the executive presidency will be neither an issue nor a promise. That does not mean the presidential system has sunk stable roots and the tree JR Jayewardene planted is bearing fruitful results. Far from it. What is clear this time is that the system has run dry of generating lively contests in terms of ideas, individuals and political platforms, and has produced accidental candidates with neither deep roots nor bold vistas. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a parachuted candidate and his candidacy is viable only because of the presidential system.
Sajith Premadasa is understandably not enamoured becoming a Prime Minister to anybody after what President Jayewardene and his cabinet did to his father, the late R. Premadasa, who became the first (“name board”) Prime Minister under the presidential system. But so far Sajith Premadasa has not articulated any central theme, or themes, of his campaign and his bid for candidacy is solely based on the claim by him and others that he (Sajith) is more popular than Ranil Wickremesinghe. Popularity may still be a factor in Premadasa’s contest with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but it is still early to say what factors will go into play and how they will shake out in garnering votes. As central themes go, the Rajapaksa campaign will all be about national security, although what might have worked against Ranil Wickremesinghe or Maithripala Sirisena on security may not work against Premadasa.
All in all, a Rajapaksa vs. Premadasa contest will likely turn out to be a vigorous contest to win a majority among the Sinhalese voters, as neither candidate can bank on a solid support among the minorities. It will be intriguing to see how Catholic Action, in its new Sri Lankan incarnation, will play in the election. Now unheard of, Catholic Action began as a movement of the laity (non-clerics) in the context of the secularization of the State in 19th century Europe. For totally different reasons, the term gained notoriety in Sri Lanka in the 1960s when the official Church was seen as a bulwark of the UNP against the SLFP. Felix Dias Bandaranaike, the Anglican who was a thirty-year old minister in the first Sirima Bandaranaike government, vowed to bring the “Catholics to their knees.” I do not have to describe in detail how the tables have turned nearly fifty years later. It is common gossip that what I am calling (tongue-in-cheek) Catholic Action in Colombo is well disposed to the Rajapaksas and to Ravi Karunanayake of the UNP. Mr. Premadasa may have to work on his father’s old Josephian ties to counter both the Rajapaksas and Ravi Karunanayake.
It is remarkable that the two leading contenders have little or nothing to say about the regional and global context in which they are competing for presidential power. Neither of them has anything remarkable in their background to suggest that one of them is reasonably well equipped to steer Sri Lanka on even keel through global currents for the next five years. The global tumults vary from country to country, but there is no one pre-occupied with national security. In any event, national security does not mean that military officials should become commanders in chief. That would be like making security guards school principals because there have been recurrent break-ins and burglaries in schools.