This writer devoted several hours in the past fortnight to communicate with a cross-section of Sinhala media personnel in the Southern, Central, Sabaragamuwa, North Western and North Central Provinces of Sri Lanka. A few journalist colleagues in Colombohelped to put me in touch with them. Our discussions were focused on the upcoming presidential election and about how chief presidential candidates were likely to fare. I was very much interested in their assessment of the ground situation in predominantly Sinhala areas as opposed to those of the Colombo-based journalists.
Initially, I was somewhat doubtful as to whether they would share their thoughts freely with me. Happily, they were willing to do so and said they appreciated my efforts to obtain their views. To my utter delight, I found them extremely frank and forthcoming though none of them wished to be quoted explicitly by name and designation. I am very grateful for their helpful input and convey my thanks to them collectively here.
I do not know whether the persons I communicated with had their personal political preferences or not. Obviously, I did not ask them directly. A few on their own indicated that they were partial to one candidate or the other. However, I found most of them trying to be as objective as they could in making their views known. I value their opinion greatly as most of them are sons of the local soil with their ears to the ground.
What I learnt from the Sinhala provincial media persons in essence was that, as of now, the leading contender was Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Chilaw, Anuradhapura, Kurunegala, Kandy, Dambulla, Matale, Ratnapura, Kegalle, Galle and Matara – it was the same in all these places. According to the journalists, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was riding the crest of a popular wave. Gota who had started campaigning very early seems to be having a head start over the others. Following Gota as the next popular candidate is United National Party’s Sajith Premadasa. Sajith, contesting as the New Democratic Front (NDF) candidate, was comparatively at a disadvantage as he had begun campaigning late. Many opined that Sajith’s campaign could gather greater momentum after the release of his manifesto.
The ordinary people expect only two things from their rulers or government: Firstly, they want better economic prospects for themselves and their families. Secondly, they want security to live in peace without harm befalling them
Anura Kumara Dissanayake
Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake trails Gotabaya and Sajith as a distant third. Anura Kumara, contesting as the National People’s Power candidate, has absolutely no chance of winning but is expected to harvest an impressive number of votes throughout the country. Apart from the JVP vote bank, A.K. Dissanayake was likely to draw votes from constituencies that could have been cast for Premadasa. Likewise, ex-Army Chief Mahesh Senanayake is expected to attract votes that may have gone to Rajapaksa. It is felt that Mahesh Senanayake could have made a better showing had he entered the fray earlier.
While many analysts in Colombo speak of a neck-to-neck race between Gotabaya and Sajith and predict that neither of them would get 50% plus one on the first count, the provincial media wisdom was quite the opposite. These journalists felt that as of now, Gotabaya Rajapaksa would muster over 55% of the vote at first count. At the same time, they qualified this assertion by not ruling out the possibility of Sajith Premadasa’s campaign gaining ground in the days to come and transforming the situation in his favour. If that happened, the second and third preferences of voters could carry greater significance and importance.
What these journalists said about the candidacy of Sajith Premadasa was quite revealing. They said though Sajith was trying to project himself as being different to the present UNP-led government, it was not so acceptable in the eyes of the people. They saw him as one who was part and parcel of the ‘Yahapalanaya’ administration and who was now trying to dissociate himself from that past.
Moreover, Sajith was using his father’s name to promote himself politically. Sajith says he is Premadasa’s son and promises to bring back the era of his father. This gimmick has its pluses and minuses. Premadasa was a man from the common people and did much for them. But his rule was very ruthless and dictatorial. So when Sajith says “Premadasa era,” people are also suspicious, pointed out the journalists.
“Common man” credentials
Continuing further, the Sinhala media scribes were also doubtful of Sajith’s “common man” credentials when compared to his father. “Ranasinghe Premadasa was from the slums of Colombo and came up the hard way from grassroots level. But Sajith is not. When viewed realistically, it is clear that Sajith comes from the privileged classes because his father had moved up the social and economic ladder when the son was born. Sajith studied in top Colombo schools and later in England and America. So he is really from an upper-class background though he says he is for the common man. He may be genuinely saying that, but then, all the others like Gota and Anura too utter similar sentiments,” explained one journalist.
An interesting point made in relation to Sajith’s candidacy was very illuminating. While many in Colombo are praising Sajith for wresting the candidacy from Ranil Wickremesinghe, the outstation or provincial viewpoint was different. According to this perspective, the manner in which Sajith announced his candidacy on his own and threatened to break up the party if he were not made candidate was not a good thing. Whatever the case may be, Ranil was the party leader and Sajith should have respected that instead of behaving like a “chandiya” (thug), they opined. One journalist even compared and contrasted Sajith with Gota. “Even Mahinda was delaying the announcement of Gotabaya as candidate but Gota waited patiently till that happened. He did not do things like Sajith did,” he observed.
It was also felt by some that Sajith was making too many promises that could not be implemented. “By doing so, Sajith is showing that he is either totally insincere or knows fully well that he won’t win,” summed up one.
An important point emphasised by the scribes was that it was still too early to predict the final outcome as there were still more weeks to go. They said most voters make up their minds about whom to vote for only during the last three or four days before the poll. Some decide only on election day. Notwithstanding these realities, the provincial Sinhala media personnel opined that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the foremost favourite in the hearts of those living in the Sinhala heartland. This was very much due to the immense popularity of elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa too. If Sajith and his supporters effectively conduct a well-coordinated campaign, it may be possible to narrow the gap and even perhaps reverse matters, they said. But so far, Sajith’s campaign does not exude the confidence of a “winner.” Another ominous foreboding was that if another bomb exploded as in the case of Easter Sunday, then Gota would win handsomely.
It appears that minority community votes for Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the 2019 election would exceed what Mahinda obtained in 2015. If this happens, Gota’s victory at the hustings would be a certainty
People expect two things
A specific question I raised with them was about “Gotaphobia” (Gotabaya) and its potential impact on the voter. The answers varied according to each person, but there was an underlying common thread running through them all. What they said in essence was this: The ordinary people expect only two things from their rulers or government. Firstly, they want better economic prospects for themselves and their families. Secondly, they want security to live in peace without harm befalling them. Under the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government, the economic life of people in the provinces has deteriorated. After the April 21 bombings, their sense of insecurity has worsened. So many feel that Gotabaya in association with Mahinda can ensure their security as well as provide them with economic prosperity.
Therefore, they said, the ordinary people have no fear of Gota as is being portrayed by his political opponents. “Their fears are about other important things, not Gota fear,” one of them quipped. On a more serious note, many expressed the opinion that most of the harsh measures adopted by Gota were during the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). That war is now over so there is no need for Gota to do the same. These fears are baseless, they said. “But what if another security threat occurs”? I asked. “Then Gota will definitely act sternly and overcome the threat. He won’t be weak like Maithri and Ranil,” they answered. “What if Gota violates human rights in doing so?” I asked. The response was troubling. “That is not good but if the security of the people is protected, then it may be all right,” they replied. One person asked me bluntly: “So many human rights of the common people are being violated all the time, but no one seems bothered about them. So why ask about this only?”
Another insight I gained from these conversations was that family-based or dynastic politics was not an issue of any significance. When I queried about the dominance of the Rajapaksa family and the question of family-based politics, the response was somewhat lukewarm. “So what?” asked one journalist. “We have the Senanayakes. We have the Bandaranaikes. We have the Jayewardenes and Wickremesinghes. So let us have the Rajapaksas too,” he said. He went on to say that family members entering politics was acceptable and inevitable. “As long as they are elected democratically, it is all right,” he said. So many MPs in Parliament now were from political families, he said and pointed out that Sajith too was Ranasinghe Premadasa’s son.
Gota’s Colombo press conference
I also raised questions about the first campaign rally addressed by Gota in Anuradhapura and about his first press conference held in Colombo. I asked them specifically about Gota pledging in Anuradhapura to release all defence personnel being held in custody after becoming President. I also asked about Gota “advising” journalists at the Colombo press conference not to make queries about past incidents like the disappearance of LTTE surrendees and instead focus on the future.
Their answers, though truthfully stated, were worrying. They said most of the Sinhala people approved of Gota’s announcement that detained war heroes would be freed. Responding to my questions on war-related incidents, they said, “We know the war brought a lot of suffering and sorrow for Sri Lankans, particularly the Tamils. But it is over now. Ten years have passed. Let us stop digging into the past. Everyone knows that the armed forces and the LTTE did many horrible things. Let us now forget the past and look to the future as Gota has suggested,” they said.
Gotabaya who tossed his hat into the ring early is acknowledgedly the front-runner at this juncture but late entrant Sajith Premadasa could alter the situation if his campaign gathers momentum
Some of the views stated – particularly those relating to human rights violations – cause much concern. Yet, they were honestly expressed and had a ring of authenticity about them. The assessments made by the Sinhala media personnel were certainly not based on any acceptable scientific methodology. They are also not derived from any recognised opinion poll.
However, they were of great value to me in my efforts in trying to gauge Sinhala opinion regarding the forthcoming presidential poll. These are journalists who live in the provinces and interact greatly with people of different backgrounds. As such, I always feel they have a better grasp of prevailing political realities than their Colombo-based counterparts. Furthermore, they are better-equipped to reflect the actual situation far better than the hordes of foreign journalists who are likely to descend upon Sri Lanka as election day draws near.
Political strategy of “Gotaphobia”
Against this backdrop, what I inferred from conversations with the Sinhala media provincial journalists was that the political strategy of invoking “Gotaphobia” does not seem to have met with the desired results as far as the Sinhala polity at large is concerned. There is a highly vocal community of right-thinking people in Sri Lanka who are deeply concerned about human rights. They are apprehensive and concerned about the potential electoral victory of Gotabaya and consequential return of the Rajapaksas because they anticipate a return to the dark days of “white-vanning.” Many of the civil society activists bravely resisting the advent of Gota and return of the Rajapaksas are from the Sinhala community. They face many pressures and are likely to face more in the future. Still, they courageously continue with what they are doing. May their tribe increase!
Nevertheless, the impressions gleaned from my conversations with the provincial journalists drove home the salient truth that the possibility of a Gotabaya victory or return of the Rajapaksas is not a matter of great concern to the average Sinhala voter. In fact, a very large number eagerly await such a turn of events. The impression I got was that these journalists were telling me only what they felt from first-hand experience. It was not their personal viewpoint but merely a reflection of what they genuinely felt was the people’s opinion. If indeed their assessment is correct, one can only opine that the “Gota-baya” strategy seems to have backfired and may have even become counter-productive.
While conversing with the journalists, I had asked them about the various court cases against Gotabaya Rajapaksa and also about issues over his dual citizenship status. Their replies seemed illustrative of the prevailing mindset of the people. It appeared that many people accepted the charge made by the Rajapaksas that the 19th Constitutional Amendment was designed to target one single family. If Mahinda was not debarred then, he would have contested and there would have been no need for Gota to contest. Gota renounced his US citizenship to contest and they are now trying to prevent that through some court cases, was the general feeling. Much skepticism was expressed on the question of alleged corruption and abuse of power cases against Gota too.
People sympathetic towards Gota
According to Sinhala media journalists, the campaign to depict Gota as a “monster” and penalise him through court cases was not acceptable to many people. If they had been able to convict him on at least one case, the situation may have been different. But the failure to do so has made these efforts “suspect” in the eyes of the people. Besides, the present government has eroded much of its moral authority after the Central Bank treasury bond scandal. “What has happened is that repeated attempts to penalise Gota through court cases have only made many people sympathetic towards him,” observed a few journalists.
What I gathered from the views expressed by provincial Sinhala media journalists was that notwithstanding the “Gotaphobia” generated by his political adversaries, Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s political fortunes have not been greatly affected as far as the Sinhala voting constituency is concerned. In fact, it may even have increased support for him as many feel a tough, strong man is needed at the helm at this point of time. Sadly, all negative black marks against him pale into insignificance in this scenario.
Where political investment in “Gotaphobia” is likely to pay greater dividends is in the case of minority ethnicities, the Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils and the Muslims. Regardless of positions adopted by various political parties representing the minorities, people at large are more inclined to vote against Gota at this juncture. Even here, the demarcating lines are blurred. While parties such as the Tamil Progressive Alliance, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and All Ceylon Makkal Congress are supporting Sajith, other parties like the Ceylon Workers’ Congress, Eelam People’s Democratic Party, National Congress and United Peace Alliance are supporting Gota. An assortment of minor Tamil parties in the North and East are also supporting Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Tamil National Alliance is yet undecided but is more likely to support UNP’s Sajith Premadasa. Sajith’s manifesto indicates that he has positively responded to many of the resolutions passed by the five-party grouping in Jaffna.
Appealing to minority communities
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has also been reaching out to the minority communities in his own way. While ardently cultivating his core constituency of Sinhala Buddhists and being careful not to upset them in any manner, Gota is also appealing to the minority communities by asking them to trust him and promising to help them as much as he could. He does not hold out any minority-specific pledges but takes pains to point out that his economic vision would embrace all communities and regions equally. Gota has also been meeting non-political Muslim representatives and reassuring them.
All this does not mean Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to harvest the bulk of minority ethnicity votes. Most of those votes are likely to go to Sajith Premadasa and A.K. Dissanayake. There is however a very strong possibility of Gota garnering a substantial amount of votes from the Tamil and Muslim communities at this election. It may be recalled that even Mahinda Rajapaksa polled a certain quantum of votes from Tamil and Muslim communities at the 2015 presidential election. It appears that minority community votes for Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the 2019 election would exceed what Mahinda obtained in 2015. If this happens, Gota’s victory at the hustings would be a certainty.
However, this status quo could be ephemeral. There are two weeks more for the election. Gotabaya who tossed his hat into the ring early is acknowledgedly the front-runner at this juncture but late entrant Sajith Premadasa could alter the situation if his campaign gathers momentum. Sajith released his long-awaited manifesto on October 31. He has also been making a heap of election pledges in a bid to be “all things to all people.” What is discernible so far is Sajith’s appeal to the ethnic minorities and the underprivileged sections of the population. Sajith’s appeal is likely to resonate greatly with the marginalised non-Govigama segments of Sinhala society.
“Pad-Man” Sajith woos women voters
More importantly, Sajith appears to be focusing on a hitherto neglected area of “gender.” Women comprise 51.8% of Sri Lanka’s population according to an estimate taken in 2016. Sajith enthusiastically rushes into this area which “macho imaged” Gota fears to tread. Sajith Premadasa boldly announced that he would distribute sanitary pads free-of-charge to women. When this announcement evoked vulgar ridicule in Sri Lanka’s male-dominated society, Sajith published three related tweets on October 28 reiterating his stance. They were as follows:
“More than half of adolescent girls in Sri Lanka miss school when on their periods according to UNICEF, impacting girls’ education. Our government reduced a 100% levy on sanitary products to 63% but thousands of women still suffer stigma and put themselves at risk every month” (1/3)
“I will not shy away from this conversation. If we are serious about women’s empowerment, this is a basic place to begin. Until sustainable, cost-effective alternatives are found, I stand by my promise to provide sanitary hygiene products free-of-charge.” (2/3)
“I remain committed to women’s rights. I will wear the pad-man label proudly. In my view, it is certainly preferable to being the man with the van.” (3/3)
Sajith’s reference to “pad-man” is to the successful Hindi film “Pad Man” starring Akshay Kumar who played fictional character Lakshmikant Chauhan engaged in promoting the distribution of low-cost sanitary pads for women. The film was inspired by the true story of Tamil Nadu social activist Arunachalam Muruganantham who manufactured low-cost sanitary pads for women and was affectionately nicknamed “Pad Man.” The allusion to “man with the van” is of course a sly reference to Gota and white van notoriety.
Empowering women through charter
Sajith’s pledge about sanitary pads struck a responsive chord with many women and males sensitive to gender issues. Premadasa continued with his efforts at women empowerment by devising a women’s charter of rights promising equality and justice. He has also said 25% of national list seats in Parliament would be for women. It could be seen therefore that Sajith Premadasa is making a determined bid to woo the votes of women. How successful he would be remains to be seen but right now there are positive signs of him reaping a bountiful harvest in this respect.
This two-part article about “Gotaphobia” and electoral prospects of Gotabaya Rajapaksa has stated that the political strategy of demonising Gota and undermining his candidacy seems to have failed as far as the core Sinhala Buddhist constituency is concerned. The collective assessments by Sinhala media provincial journalists have outlined the reasons for it. As of now, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the front-runner and many of his supporters feel Gota would get at least 55% of the votes at first count. This view has been further strengthened by the SLPP–SLFP alliance. However, there are two more weeks to go before the election takes place. As stated earlier – except for the “permanent vote banks” – most new voters and floating voters remain undecided until the last three days. Hence, Sajith Premadasa has a very good chance of narrowing the lead and even reversing the situation if he is able to conduct a galvanised campaign in the next fortnight. The multi-crore question is whether Sajith and his supporters can do it. If the answer is in the negative, the obviously inevitable conclusion is that of Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa becoming the next President of Sri Lanka.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org