Gong Sounds, Bout Begins
The presidential race proper has commenced with the handing over of the nominations, on Monday, October 7. There are 35 candidates in the fray, but the competition will finally be between Gotabaya Rajapaska and Sajith Premadasa, representing the SLPP and the UNP-led NDF, respectively. The contest is bound to get red in tooth and claw within the next couple of weeks.
Never have been there so many candidates vying for the presidency, in this country. The Election Commission (EC) is faced with unforeseen problems. The ballot paper will be longer than usual and extra-large boxes will have to be made. Counting will also take longer and require more space to accommodate the representatives of all candidates.
The upcoming presidential election is without parallel. For the first time since the introduction of the executive presidency, in 1978, neither the President nor the Opposition Leader nor the Prime Minister is in the presidential fray. President Maithripala Sirisena decided against seeking a second term for obvious reasons; he did not want to suffer a humiliating defeat. Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa is a former two-term President and, therefore, constitutionally debarred from contesting another presidential election. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who lost two presidential elections—in 1999 and 2005—has skipped the third presidential contest in a row. He opted out of the race in 2010 and 2015. The UNP, which introduced the executive presidency, has failed to secure that position for the 25 long years.
Last week’s victory in a crucial legal battle was a tremendous boost for the SLPP’s morale close on the heels of the UNP’s national convention, where Sajith was officially named the UNF presidential candidate. The UNP has since sought to dissociate itself from the unsuccessful petition challenging Gotabaya’s citizenship in the Court of Appeal. The SLPP, however, maintains that the two petitioners, Gamini Viyangoda and Chandragupta Thenuwara are mere proxies for the UNP, and one of the government’s main legal advisors appeared for them. The fact that Health Minister and government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne bragged, in public, that the courts would surely disqualify Gotabaya before the nominations day, and the presidential election would be a walk in the park for Sajith made it abundantly clear that the UNP had pinned its hopes on the petition. He subsequently claimed that the path was far from clear for the SLPP because the JVP was planning to file a case against Gotabaya’s dual citizenship. In so saying, he riled the JVP, which promptly denied his claim. JVP MP Sunil Handunnetti lost no time in berating Rajitha, saying that the latter could not speak for the JVP. He even called the Health Minister’s sanity into question. His consternation is understandable, given the efforts being made by its rivals to lump his party together with the UNP.
The SLFP is in a dilemma. Its efforts to pressure the SLPP to adopt a symbol other than the Lotus Bud for the presidential election having failed, it can back Gotabaya or Sajith, or remain neutral.
President Sirisena will find it extremely difficult to justify a decision to support a UNP-led alliance, having made an abortive attempt to dislodge the UNF government last year. Even if he decides to do so, he may not be able to get the party’s rank and file to vote for the UNP. It has already lost most of its MPs to the the SLPP and several others including Sarath Amunugama and Nimal Siripala de Silva have pledged their support to Gotabaya. If the SLFP decides to remain neutral, most of its members are not likely to fall in line. If it chooses to remain neutral, it won’t gain anything from the SLPP in case the latter forms a government. If the SLFP backs Gota, it may be able to retain what is left of its support base, but some of its MPs are likely to defect to the UNP. Never has the party led by the incumbent President been so helpless.
The time is fast running out for the SLFP and it will have to make a decision latest by the end of this week. The chances are that it will be compelled to back the SLPP and negotiate for a better deal, at the parliamentary election. This seems to be its game plan and the delay in announcing its decision may be due to the possibility of defections.
TNA, too, dillydallies
The TNA is dillydallying. It has said it is keeping an open mind and will have talks with all presidential candidates to ascertain their views on the problems the Tamils are faced with. Thereafter, it will study the policies of the candidates and extend its support to the one whose programme is most favourable to the Tamil community and aimed at helping solve the ethnic issue, the TNA has said.
The TNA, however, does not seem to tell the whole truth. It will never support the SLPP candidate and the only one it can back is Sajith, even though it is not so well disposed towards him. They would have lost no time in throwing their lot with the UNP-led coalition if Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had entered the fray. Premadasa, however, can rest assured that he will have the TNA’s backing.
The TNA may find it difficult to face the people, having failed to fulfil its pledge to have more powers devolved to the Northern and Eastern provinces, but the Tamil voters are left with no alternative but to back the TNA.
K. Sivajilingam is contesting as an independent candidate, but cannot pose a challenge to the TNA, which has a solid vote base. He represents the interests of the pro-LTTE groups, and it will be interesting to see how many votes he polls.
The TNA has made its support conditional, though. It wants a new Constitution introduced with provision for a higher degree of devolution of power. Premadasa may not want to accept such conditions in public, for yielding to the TNA’s pressure is counterproductive in the southern electorates.
Statistics and reality
Minister Rishad Bathiudeen and Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne have been quoted by the media, recently, as claiming that Premadasa will have a head start in the presidential race because he will get the votes of the minority communities. Premadasa has already had 30% of votes in his basket, and he has to secure only 20% more to win the presidency, Senaratne has said. But statistics do not necessarily reflect reality. The TNA, contesting the last general election, polled only about 5% of the total number of votes, and this was a little lower than what the JVP obtained. The SLMC does not possess a bigger vote bank than the TNA. The ACMC led by Bathiudeen is smaller than the SLMC. These parties cannot deliver to Premadasa more than what they poll among themselves at general elections. However, the fact remains that the candidate who can secure the Tamil and Muslim votes has a huge advantage in a closely contested election, where even a few thousand votes matter.
The presidential election will be a close fight and it will be a mistake for either the UNP or the SLPP to take it lightly. The situation is still fluid and it is too early to make any predictions. As things stand, one need not be surprised even if there happens to be a run-off.
EC foils bribery attempt
Sri Lankans must be envying their counterparts in Elpitiya, which is going to the polls shortly to elect members to its Pradeshiya Sabha. Politicians representing both the government and the Opposition are playing Santa. They are all out to bribe the electors there. The EC has stepped in to thwart an attempt by a ruling party candidate to take a group of villagers on a pilgrimage. There is said to be no such thing as a free lunch and the EC has done the right thing. Crafty politicians know more than one way to skin a cat. The disappointed candidate may try to bribe the electorate in some other manner.
In August 2018, Rohana Hettiarachchi, the Executive Director of the polls monitoring outfit, PAFFREL, revealed that a candidate had spent as much as Rs. 40 million on his local government election campaign. He said legal action would be taken against the errant candidate. There may have been other candidates who did likewise, but went scot free.
The aforesaid cancellation of the pilgrimage reminded us of a practice in the Village Council days. Some crafty politicians would have pilgrimages organised, through various fronts, for the supporters of their rivals so that they would be away on the day of polling. People no longer fall for such tricks but are more than willing to benefit from the largesse of candidates. They may not take kindly to the EC interventions.
The Money Tree in Galle
One may recall how legendary W. Dahanayake reacted to election bribes. His main rival, at the 1947 election, was Henry Amarasuriya, a wealthy person, who threw a lot of money around in a bid to win. Amarasuriya became very popular among the needy due to his generosity. Dahanayake did not care about what the poor got from his rival. Instead, he craftily got the credit for that. He famously said that he had shaken a ‘money tree’ and asked the people to pick as much as possible and vote for him. The people did likewise and Amarasuriya lost!
Election bribes do not necessarily yield votes for politicians to win elections. What befell Mahinda Rajapaksa, at the 2015 presidential election, may serve as an example. As the incumbent President at that time, he got his government to shower handouts on the electorate, but failed to achieve his goal. However, the practice of politicians bribing electors has to be stopped. A ceiling has to be slapped on campaign expenditure. Candidates have become too dependent on moneybags including anti-social elements like drug dealers with huge slush funds at their disposal. This practice is the bane of Sri Lankan politics.
A General in the fray
Former Army Commander General Mahesh Senanayake is also running for President. He is the second army chief to vie for the highest post. He seems to think that he may be able to woo the voters who are disillusioned with both main parties and the JVP. The youth account for the vast majority of floating votes, which are the deciding factor in any election.
Some political observers believe that Gen. Senanayake may eat into the SLPP vote base more than the UNP’s, given his military background and appeal to nationalist forces. However, whether he will be able to poll enough votes to be a challenge to either the SLPP or the UNP-led alliance remains to be seen.
Former war winning army commander General Sarath Fonseka polled 4,173,000 votes at the 2010 presidential election because the UNP, the JVP, the TNA, the SLMC, etc., threw their weight behind him. But at the last general election (2015), where his party went it alone, he could not obtain enough votes from the Colombo District to enter Parliament. He had to join the UNP and secure a National List slot.
Gen. Senanayake became popular in the aftermath of the Easter carnage. He, no doubt, handled the security situation well and proved his mettle. He revelled in public adulation, so to speak, but politics is a different ball game, where it requires more than one’s popularity to win crucial elections.
The JVP going it alone
The JVP has fielded a presidential candidate for the first time during the last 20 years. It has fielded its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake as the candidate of an alliance. Nandana Gunathilake contested the 1999 presidential election and polled about 344,000 votes. Thereafter, the JVP backed Mahinda Rajapaksa, in 2005, General Fonseka, in 2010, and Maithripala Sirisena, in 2015. It has had to face the upcoming presidential election owing to an erosion of its vote bank over the years.
Had there been a common candidate like Speaker Karu Jayasuirya, acceptable to all parties in the yahapalana camp, perhaps the JVP would not have entered the fray. That Jayasuirya was desirous of contesting is no secret. He reportedly participated in a photo shoot both in and outside Parliament in the hope that he would be the UNP’s presidential candidate. He indicated his willingness to run for president to abolish the executive presidency, but by that time Sajith had overtaken him as well as the party leader. If he had been fielded, the JVP would have considered making common cause with him, as it 1994, when it opted out of the presidential contest in support of Chandrika Kumaratunga, who promised to abolish the executive presidency.