Politics is about the clash of ideas, debates and discussions about policy, the turning of notions into ideas, ideas into ideologies and laying it all before the people for decision. Elections are won and lost based on the strength or otherwise of competing programes.
Alright. Let’s get real now. This is Sri Lanka. The year is 2019. Let’s ask a simple question: when last did ideology count? Politicians are not stupid and neither are the people. Rational choices are made but ideological preferences rarely figure in calculations. It’s mostly about ousting incumbents; ideas and ideology, programmes and policy, and other such lovely notions simply don’t have any currency in today’s political theatre. There is talk, however, of a Leader. Yes, upper case.
An effective leader. A strong leader. Now a leader of any pretension would also be effective and would also be strong. The obvious implication of this search is that right now Sri Lanka is effectively ‘leaderless’. In other words, those who have been running the country since January 2015 are ineffective and weak.
- An effective leader. A strong leader. Now a leader of any pretension would also be effective and would also be strong
- Voting patterns tell a story too. The coalition that supported Sirisena in 2015 is gone
And so we have people surveying the political firmament for personalities who would fit the bill. Naturally, given the political system Sri Lanka has, the focus tends to be on possible candidates from the major parties; the United National Party (UNP), the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the last only on account of the fact that its leader, the beleaguered Maithripala Sirisena is the incumbent president.
So we have the UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, always a contender even though he balked in 2010 (convinced probably of a routing) and in 2015 (perhaps unsure of victory but believing that the defector Sirisena would have a better chance against Mahinda Rajapaksa). The past four years has clearly set to rest any illusions that even the ardent loyalists may have entertained about his credentials as a capable, effective and honest politician. This is probably why many senior UNPers are looking at different options, in particular Sajith Premadasa.
The ‘Ranil or Sajith?’ question has revealed deep divisions in the UNP with both camps digging in for a protracted battle. There seems to be absolute certainty among the majority of UNPers that Ranil has no chance against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the probable candidate of the SLPP, or anyone else from the SLPP for that matter. Sajith has to get past Ranil who, by virtue of the party constitution, has and will continue to call the shots. Going by track record it is unlikely that Ranil will agree to any proposal that could lead to his ouster as party leader, regardless of its impact on the outcome of the election.
In any event, it appears that the ‘issue’ for those entertaining presidential ambitions in the UNP is party leadership and not the presidency — not for now at least. The struggle is more about positioning oneself for a bid at a subsequent election.
With respect to a probable victor, it’s almost as though Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a shoo-in. Even those who are not at all keen on a Rajapaksa becoming President have grudgingly acknowledged this. One regular columnist, for example, has said that ‘Gota’ has achieved iconic status amongst sections of the population.
Why a ‘strong leader’ though? The answer could be the attribution of all the ills of Sri Lanka to the absence of such a leader. That might be an extreme position to take, but then again this regime, led by Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP)and Maithripal Sirisena (SLFP) have demonstrated incompetence, indecision and incoherence over and above an absolute lack of political will to deliver on election promises. Good governance was what was promised. There’s no governance and there’s very little ‘good’ in what’s been done. There’s every reason to conclude that the default-option scenario would be played out. That, one notes, was what brought Maithripala Sirisena to power. Sirisena’s history and the UNP’s history were known and weren’t exactly talked about as though the relevant individuals embodied shining examples of statesmanship.
Even if all this is perception and can be dismissed as subjective, one cannot wish away the results of the February 2018 local government elections, which in the very least point to a massive vote of no confidence on the regime. The regime hasn’t done anything remarkable since then to change this view. Indeed, the utter incompetence that facilitated the Easter Sunday attacks, compounded by subversion of the intelligence units, absolute demoralization of the security forces and unpardonable compromising of sovereignty in Geneva could only be expected to further erode voter confidence.
Voting patterns tell a story too. The coalition that supported Sirisena in 2015 is gone. Sirisena might still support a UNP candidate or he could be the compromise candidate if the Ranil and Sajith factions cannot work out their differences. The problem is that Sirisena is a tired and unmarketable brand. The SLFP won barely 15% of the votes in February 2018. It is unlikely that he will retain even the barest of support he got from the seniors in the party should he and the UNP try a 2015-repeat. The Catholic vote was the UNP’s to lose. They’ve lost a lot after the Easter Sunday attack. The Muslim parties may remain with the UNP, but at the risk of alienating other communities. The main Tamil parties supported the UNP’s candidate of choice but the percentages are likely to change. Such an erosion could also be crucial. It could be worse if the TNA or any other Tamil party chooses to field a candidate.
Rajapaksa lost several hundred thousand votes in 2015 (compared to 2010) in the Western Province. The SLPP recovered much of these traditionally SLFP-leaning voters as evidenced by the February 2018 results.
There is also the possibility of a third party candidate. The JVP could decide to contest. The National People’s Movement (NPM) with or without the support of that party and the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP). Nagananda Kodituwakku, Rohan Pallewatte and others have expressed plans to contest. Separately or together, it is unlikely that this segment could obtain significant numbers. The JVP, for example, even under the most favourable conditions could hardly garner more than 5% of the vote. In any event, it is probable that they’ll attract those who voted for Sirisena rather than those who voted for the SLPP last year. Unfortunate, I feel, but then again, we are not talking ideology or program here.
So we have a very likely possibility of a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency. Whether this is to be applauded or not, whether he is likely to deliver or not, whether the alleged ‘strength’ would translate into ‘iron fist’ are most certainly matters that warrant discussion. Such discussion is important but it is not typical for deep-ideology to play a significant role in decisions come election time. We are talking strictly about ‘winnability’.
If prediction is the name of the game, then right now, it is certainly Gota, if as expected he is officially nominated as the candidate of the SLPP. It’s Gota by a stretch, really. Whether we like it or not. As things stand right now.