Politics of Gota Vs Sajith the Presidential contest in Sri Lanka | Security Risks Asia Humane ClubMade with Humane Club

Politics of Gota Vs Sajith the Presidential contest in Sri Lanka

Published Nov 02, 2019
Updated Mar 28, 2020

Sri Lankan people will be voting in the 8th presidential election on November 16 to elect a successor to President Maithripala Sirisna. The election is a crucial for former president Mahinda Sirisena as it will decide whether Rajapaksas can bounce back at the helm. As two-time president Mahinda is not eligible for a third term, thus his younger brother Gotabaya (Gota) Rajapaksa (70), controversial former defence secretary, is being fielded by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) in the election.

Though 35 candidates had filed their nomination in the poll, Sajith Premadasa (52), housing minister and deputy chairman of the ruling United National Party (UNP), fielded by National Democratic Front (NDF) will be Gota’s main challenger.  Sajith a less flamboyant personality as compared to Gotabaya, is the son of Ranasinghe Premadasa and is seen as a , Sajith is a non-controversial candidate. He has studied at the London School of Economics and the University of Maryland, United States. He is banking on his father Ranasinghe Premadasa’s lifelong association with UNP.

The elder Premadasa came from humble beginnings, to rise up to become PM (1978 to 1988) and President from 1988 to 1993.  He focused on welfare schemes like housing for the poor. His aversion to the presence of Indian forces in Sri Lanka, led him to supply arms to the LTTE to fight the IPKF.  His failure to read the Tamil Tigers correctly cost him his life when LTTE suicide bomber attacked a meeting addressed by him.  In his speeches, Sajith has focused on projecting his father’s humble lineage who was President during crucial years of Indian Peacekeeping Force operations against the Tamil Tiger separatists. 

The president is directly elected for a five-year term, based on instant runoff voting system (IRV).  In IRV system, voters rank three candidates in their order of preference.  If a candidate wins majority first preference votes in the first round, he will be declared winner. If he does not, in the second round, the second and third preference votes polled are considered to determine the winner. 

In the past seven presidential elections, there was no need for a second round as winners had polled more than fifty percent. However, many expect a close race between Gotabaya and Sajith, so election may enter a second round. If that happens, Anura Dissanayake of the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), ranked third, can tilt the balance.  Another dark horse is former army commander Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake contesting as the candidate of the National Peoples Movement and Peoples Forum Organisation. He says his “main priorities are to curb bribe and corruption, to uplift the economy and to ensure national security.”

Gotabaya, a former army officer who fought the LTTE, gained nationwide popularity after he successfully executed his brother Mahinda’s plan to eliminate the Tamil Tigers. Gotabaya’s campaign speeches indicate national security as the central theme.  Evidently, it is aimed to take advantage of the feeling of insecurity among the people in the wake of Easter Sunday bombings.  However, Gotabaya has a poor reputation as an authoritarian figure with disdain for democratic norms and rule of law. He has said that he does not recognize the UN Human Rights Council resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka for promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in the country reinforced his negative image.

His repeated statement that he would release all military personnel under detention if he comes to power has shocked many.  At present 48 armed forces personnel are being prosecuted in five serious cases of abduction, disappearance, assault and murder. Gotabaya and a few other senior officers’ names have come up during CID investigations. Media is also wary of Gotabaya as during his tenure, there were a few targeted assaults and even murder of journalists.  Gotabaya has also announced he would give “due powers” to intelligence officers and provide legal cover to them.

Sixteen political parties are supporting Gotabaya. They are mostly traditional partners of Mahinda’s coalition like the slew Leftist parties,  Ceylon Workers Congress,  Eelam Peoples Democratic Party and Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal of Karuna. The depleted Sri Lanka Freedom Party led by President Sirisena also pledged its support though the President has said he would not campaign.

In the anti-Muslim backlash unleashed the wake of Easter Sunday jihadi attacks many Muslim leaders were subject to unverified allegations having links with jihadi extremists. This brought back bitter memories of anti-Muslim violence by Buddhist fringe elements under the benign watch of Mahinda Rajapaksa when was in power. So it was not surprising to find only a minor Muslim party the United Peace Front – figures in Gota’s list.

Gotabaya’s manifesto released on Oct 25 focuses on national security and restoring stability after the failure the present regime to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks. The manifesto said a non-aligned  foreign policy without compromising territorial integrity would be followed. A fresh process of constitutional reforms without appeasing those pursuing personal agendas would be taken. It said all bilateral and multilateral international agreements would be re-examined and revised where necessary in consultation with countries concerned. Other promises include an administration free of corruption, rebuilding of national economy after unprecedented economic crisis caused in the wake of treasury bond scams perpetrated between Feb 2015 and March 2016. The manifesto also said that talks would be commenced immediately with China to revise the agreement on Hambantota port finalized in 2017. It assured the port would be developed with local entrepreneurs providing services.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa proposed to suspend acquisition of vehicles, officers to the public sector. He It vowed to punish those responsible for waste, corruption and irregularities, including the treasury bond scams, assured that the FCID (Financial Crimes Investigation Division) would be legitimately established.

Sajith is supported by two prominent Muslim parties – Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and All Ceylon Makkal Congress , the Tamil Progressive Alliance formed to represent Tamils (mostly Tamils of Indian origin) living outside northern and eastern provinces and the Jathika Hela Urumaya , popularly known as monks party for its strong affiliation with Buddhist clergy. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has said it would study the manifesto of the NDF to take a decision on supporting Sajith.  Former president Ms Chandrika Kumaratunge and her group within the SLFP has pledged their support to Sajith. PM Wickremesinghe has announced he would continue as PM after presidential poll.

Sajith released his manifesto ambitiously titled “Sajith’s Social Revolution” on Oct 31. The presidential aspirant in his speech on the occasion said it was “a historical journey to launch a revolution of change” to begin an exercise to bring about social, political and economic development to benefit people from all walks of life. In an oblique reference to Rajapaksas, considered as authoritarian rulers with disdain for democracy, Sajith said he will “create a nation where its rulers act as real custodians of the nation instead of acting like outright owners.

Sajith’s appeared to have more depth, having learnt from the aberrations of the outgoing Sirisena government’s failure to deliver on its promises. The manifesto pledged a new constitution to create a strong nation with a judiciary independent of the government, independent public prosecutor appointed by the Constitutional Council. The Constitutional Council, and not the Supreme Court, would adjudicate disputes among different levels government and between provinces as well as with the Central government.

The manifesto also envisaged the creation of an upper house comprising provincial council representatives. It came out clear on establishing an Executive Presidency which will work in concurrence with the prime minister, apparently to satisfy both the lobbies for and against executive presidency. Other promises include creation of a national security advisor, adopt a zero tolerance policy on drugs and extremism, and set up special anti-narcotic courts with special prosecutors.

Of special interest to minorities are the promises to introduce new laws and regulations under which religious extremism would be monitored and hate speech penalized, resettlement of war displaced persons and bringing “meaningful devolution” to provinces. Welfare benefits promised included 25 percent quota for women in PCs and parliament, ten million-rupee life insurance policy for working journalists and free annual medical check-up for everyone over 35 years of age.

Though agendas by themselves do not win votes, they do help in understanding focus areas of different candidates. It is significant that in this presidential election national security and development issues rather than foreign policy which used to figure in the past elections.  The Sirisena government came to power with huge minority support. Though it had not been able to fulfill all the promises, it has made the president more accountable, there is greater media freedom and efforts are on to investigate and prosecute the corrupt. Gotabaya is unlikely to attract much of minority votes. If he wins, it may be difficult for him to revert to his heavy-handed style of functioning. On the other hand, Sajith’s success would depend upon his ability to attract minority votes. Then only his ambitious agenda would serve a meaningful purpose.