It was quite obvious that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had a head lead running up for the 2020 Presidency. In a tussle which was not bipolar as in the 2015 or the 2010 elections, such a lead was perceived as decisive and almost irreversible. Gotabaya had laid the groundwork for his candidacy through projects such as Viyathmaga and Eliya which ensured that Mahinda Rajapaksa, whether the strong man liked it or not, would name him as heir apparent to the Rajapaksa Dynasty. A substantial slab of votes in the deep-south cemented mainly by the war victory and a chauvinist and jingoistic ethos guaranteed that he could soar further with confidence to garner the remaining margin needed for the 50% result. At a glance, the wrangling that apparently existed between Ranil and Sajith and the delay in unleashing the latter as the UNP-led DNF candidate for Presidency, was seen as a disadvantage and conceding a free hand for Rajapaksa to tap the masses uncontested.
To his credit, Sajith managed to kick start the campaign with a bang at Galle Face Green with unprecedented crowds and entrusting the responsibility for Defence of the country to Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka, in the event he was appointed. Since national security was one issue that Gotabaya was seen to be leading Sajith way ahead, specially, after the Easter Sunday attacks, it was imperative that Sajith countered that space dominated by the former uncontested. He found the answer in Fonseka and since then Sajith’s platform has been as vocal as that of Pohottuwaon national security and sovereignty of the country. How identically flawed the conception of both the main candidates when it came to national security, making it a matter to do with Generals and the military, is another matter to be discussed elsewhere. But in the public glare, Sajith has done no harm by taking up the national security mantle for himself. Whether that will be enough to counter the popular perception, at least among the Sinhala Buddhist constituency of Gotabaya as the national security savior will be seen on November 17.
Sajith Premadasa had to deal with the anti-incumbency tendency associated with national elections specially, after many promises of good governance for which people from all strata of society transcended party lines in 2015, had proven to be an utter failure. Although not directly involved in corruption allegations such as the Central Bank Bond scam and the Central Highway kickbacks, it was not going to be easy as a leading Minister and the Deputy Leader of the main constituent entity of the yahapalana government to extricate himself entirely from the abysmal performance of four and a half years. Yet he had always kept a tactical distance from the Wickremesinghe-led inner circle of the UNP and maintained a good rapport with President Sirisena, which many attribute to the latter’s self-professed neutrality in electioneering, which in effect had allowed Chandrika and Welgama to approach a broad section of the traditional SLFP who are not happy with the Pohottuwa dominance. The very recent utterance by Sajith that he would appoint a new PM and would not accommodate any corrupted egg in this Cabinet surely goes a long way in countering the anti- incumbency mentality.
At the same time his promise of harking back to the UNP of the Senior Premadasa era and not to the neoliberal brand the party promoted for the last quarter of a century under Ranil, seemed to go down well with his targeted constituency, the poor and the marginalized, ‘the left behind’s of market economy introduced by the UNP but followed by the Rajapaksas as well. The new technocratic and modernized economic model Rajapaksa is promoting at his election campaign , is palatable to the urban based professional, business and middle class segments but not to those sections in the periphery. As Victor Ivan points out, this is where Sajith will manage to draw votes from two ‘parties’; the UNP and the poorest, marginalized and disenchanted masses not attracted to the neoliberal Ranil model and some of whom had supported Mahinda during past elections. If this hypothesis is correct it will result in a slab of the bottom layer of the hitherto Rajapaksa oriented rural and urban votes being gnawed up by Sajith.
Weaker and marginalized segments
The issue that resulted in him being called the Padman, also worked out in advantage to Sajith in gaining the attention of a section of society that otherwise would have found him uninspiring. The women’s right and civil, activists as well as many open-minded people appalled by the negative and cynical response coming from the Pohottuwa stalwarts, did rally around the call for free sanitary wear, if not the caller himself. Charges of rape and murder, related to election rallies, though not among or involving the top rung of the Pohottuwa juggernaut, but among the rank and file, has put their propaganda machine on the defensive. The sexual abuse of the SLFP damsel with a mental disability did the media rounds and gave opportunity to the Sajith camp to usher in the dark and eerie memories of times when local politicos sponsored by the Rajapaksas raped foreign tourists and celebrated a century of rapes of women. Though such reminders will have hardly an impact on the devotees of the Rajapaksa clan, they will make the undecided or the floating voter with youth and women constituting a considerable portion, to think twice before voting for Gotabaya.
The issue of the citizenship of Gotabaya as well as his voting right has come to the fore at the worst possible time for him. Although he was quick to prop up a bunch of lawyers to show to that he was not an American citizen anymore, the move has been equally debunked by legal as well as immigration experts who see many suspicious points in the story which states that Gotabaya has renounced citizenship. Yet another civil suit has been filed in USA seeking a declaration whether Gotabaya has renounced his US citizenship and it was believed a decision would be pending in a few days. The point is that during the last few days before the election, the Sajith campaign has managed to push the Gotabaya group on to defending on many fronts where as they would have preferred to be on the offensive and aggressive to gain new terrain.
Is that enough?
In the absence of any reliable and unbiased opinion polls, it would be pertinent to note that about a week ago, reliable diplomatic intelligence sources had put the figure at 42% to Gotabaya and 40% to Sajith with the reservation that the Sajith manifesto which was released quite late and well after that of Gotabaya, could pay dividends once it is offered to the North and East and the segments in the margins. According to that assessment the Rajapaksa campaign had peaked out and was now static while whatever new ground that could be made is undoubtedly with Sajith. Some independent analysts even believe that Sajith could have his nose in front by now, which could end up being a surge cometh the last few days.
Yet, whether that surge is enough to dismantle the hegemony that the Rajapaksas hold on the monolithic Sinhala Buddhist constituency of the South and turn the tables is the million dollar question.