With Gotabhaya Rajapaksa being declared the SLPP candidate for the Presidential Election and Anura Kumara Dissanayake, from an alliance led by the JVP also nominated, the Presidential race has started to warm up. With the tug of war taking place within the UNP-led configuration to decide whether it is Ranil, Karu or Sajith who would be their candidate, the suspense that is related to the Presidential Election has reached fever pitch. While the SLFP, despite the Executive President of the country being the Chairman of the Party, is at a dilemma as to what to do and running the risk of ignominy of not even coming at least third in the race, if a candidate was fielded and the UNP thus in turmoil, for the first time in the history of Presidential Election, both the two traditional main parties are facing a crisis cometh the all important election day.
With some uncertainty hanging over whether Gotabhaya could contest given the fact that his name does not appear in the second quarterly list issued by the US Department of State, enlisting the names of those whose US citizenship has been renounced, the intricacies and intrigues, which in any event is part and parcel of Sri Lankan politics, are assuming very complicated and intense proportions. With Sajith Premadasa insisting that he will contest for Presidency, the insinuation being that if not from UNP, then either as an independent candidate or even from the SLFP, the entire traditional party dynamics that has been in play when it comes to Presidential elections has been turned on their head. While the SLPP looks more like a structure based on something akin to serfdom revolving around family rule, the UNP too is struggling to keep the party forces together with Prime Minister and party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe trying every trick in the book to keep the reins in his hands.
Traditional partly lines
Traditionally the UNP has represented open economy and free market-friendly neo-liberal tendencies underpinned by liberal democratic political lines while the SLFP-led alliances have been of a social democratic hue with agriculture and local business oriented policies- at least until Mahinda Rajapaksa took the reins. Yet, what has now transpired is that the top two candidates, who, in every likelihood, might eventually face up to each other, namely Gota and Sajith, are unknown entities in terms of policies. Despite a speech delivered by Gotabhaya as to what he would do if elected, on the day he was declared by the SLPP, the main thrust of his appeal seems to be strengthening national security, which in reality, something a state leader, is compelled to do in any event. National security is hardly something to do with policies, rather one based on imperatives associated with the seat of Executive Presidency.
When it comes to Sajith Premadasa, almost nothing is known in terms of his economic policy , his standing in terms of the ethnic issue as well as foreign policy etc. In fact as the TNA which had been hitherto a guaranteed a vote base for UNP and any alliances it has setup in Presidential Elections in particular, has lamented the almost non existent policy declaration on his part when it comes to issues such as the ethnic question, which, obviously remains the main issue as far as the TNA is concerned.
The popular nationalist agenda seems to be the one that is being promoted by Gotabhaya and the security state model that he is wont to be following seems to be in demand yet again, after the Easter Sunday attacks
Post 19th Amendment
The uncertainty which is there as to what part of the party policies the main two contenders would adhere to seems to be a big question mark. This reflects in general a loss of confidence among the general public in-party politics and politicians. As much as it is beyond debate that party politics has been the bane of the Sri Lankan society and to that extent there is a general anticipation that an apolitical figure is the need of the hour, one should not lose sight of the fact that the Executive Presidency is not the same untouchable ‘leviathan’ it used to be before the 19th Amendment to the constitution, which was brought about by the Yahapalana government which,by the way remains one of the very few salutary achievements of that government. Despite the seemingly apolitical stances both the two top candidates are taking up, the reality remains that they will need a strong and functioning party structure to back their policies and to implement them now that much of the coercive teeth of the seat has been blunted.
Democracy whether liberal or social, is in retreat world over; globally there is a tendency to rely on nationalist and populist leaders as has been shown in US, Turkey, India, even China etc. The popular nationalist agenda seems to be the one that is being promoted by Gotabhaya and the security state model that he is wont to be following seems to be in demand yet again, after the Easter Sunday attacks. With his scant regard to a party mechanism and little else to rein in his perceived ‘iron fist’ style or ruling , there are apprehensions expressed by many including stalwarts within the UPFA. When it comes to Sajith he has already vowed that he does not believe in the liberal economic model, that has been traditionally the path trodden by the UNP, Ranil in particular. Besides, although there is strong support for candidacy of Sajith in the party, his stance is entirely based on him contesting, even if it is to be at the party’s expense. In short neither of them are good party players.
Therefore the conventional party lines associated with the main two political forces and promoted by them in every election seems not be as steadfast as they have been in the past. On the other hand, with powers of the President now curtailed by the 19th Amendment, it would be difficult for whoever grabs the coveted seat to have a stranglehold on his party mechanism as has been the case prior to that. With dissident voices already ringing out in all three camps, a defeat for one of their candidates could lead to deep reaching crises within their parties and alliances. The situation would be more complicated if the now more powerful Prime Minister were to come from an opposing party, leading to another tug-of -war as we are used to seeing in the last two years of the yahapalana government.
Therefore for the first time the post of the Prime Minister is figuring large at the time when possible candidates for Presidency are being promoted and this is giving rise to all sorts of deals, intrigues, betrayals and loose footings. Policies and party lines are being pushed to the back seat while individual charisma seems to be the determining factor of victory.