Presidential election 2019: A post-mortem
The well organised campaign that enabled Gotabaya Rajapaksa to win the coveted executive presidency did not kick off after the announcement of the presidential election, a couple of months ago. His victory was the culmination of a process that began a couple of weeks after the defeat of President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2015 presidential election. Immediately after that debacle, those close to him made an effort to help him make a comeback, and they called their campaign ‘Mahinda Sulanga’ (Mahinda Wind. They held their first meeting at Nugegoda; it was a huge success. Their main slogan was ‘Mahinda samaga negitimu’ (Let’s stand up with Mahinda).
The 19th Amendment to the Constitution effectively prevented Mahinda from contesting another presidential election and Gotabaya become the choice of the the main Opposition. He launched his Eliya foundation and Viyathmaga, which got a boost from Mahinda’s political campaign.
Mahinda formed the SLPP, which swept the local government polls last year. The SLPP campaigned hard at the grassroots level and emerged as a formidable challenge to the government as well as the SLFP, which had turned hostile to the Rajapaksas. It conducted a series of successful rallies and was election ready. When the presidential election was announced, Gotabaya had been groomed for the presidential contest and was ready to face the contest. He entered the presidential fray with confidence and went on to become the President.
The challenge before Gotabaya now is to live up to the expectations of the public by fulfilling his election pledges.
NDF candidate Sajith Premadasa’s presidential election campaign began after the announcement of the presidential contest and it was initially intended to pressure the UNP leadership to nominate him to run for President. The UNP leaders had to grant his wish in the end under duress. When Sajith embarked on his campaign proper, the forces led by the SLPP had been campaigning for nearly five years.
Gotabaya also had what is called the beginner’s luck. He had not taken part in active politics and conducted himself in a professional manner. Most of all, he said nary a bad word about his main rival, Sajith. He conducted a positive campaign. His main advantage was that his party was in the Opposition.
Sajith did his utmost to dissociate himself from the government leadership whose popularity is on the wane owing to numerous allegations of corruption, inefficiency, etc., so much so that he sounded like an Opposition candidate towards the latter part of his election campaign. That he considered Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe a political liability was evident in his declaration that he would appoint a first-time PM in a bid to have the public believe that upon his election as the President, PM Wickremesinghe would cease to be the PM. But having been party to all unpopular and controversial decisions the UNP-led Cabinet made, without protest, there was no way he could absolving himself of the blame for the omissions and commissions of the government and, therefore, the anti incumbency factor weighed him down.
The TNA’s 13 demands may have gone down well with its constituency, but they were a recipe for disaster in other parts of the country. Paradoxically, those demands stood Gotabaya in good stead in that they galvanized the pro-SLPP constituency into going all out to ensure his victory. Sajith benefited from the TNA’s block vote, but his association with the northern party became a huge disadvantage for him in the areas outside the North and the East as can be seen from the results of Saturday’s election.
National security ceased to be a determining factor at elections after the conclusion of the war. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s attempts to win a third term by campaigning on a national security platform, therefore, failed in 2015. His rivals accused him of making an issue of a non-issue. In fact, there had been no terrorist attacks since the end of the war. But the Easter Sunday terror strikes made national security a top national priority again much to the disadvantage of the UNP-led government, which stands accused of having failed to prevent the carnage in spite of being privy to intelligence warnings of the attacks well in advance. Sajith sought to mitigate the damage by offering to appoint former war-time army chief Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka as the defence minister in case of his victory. But his offer did not yield the desired effect on the electorate.
The UNP-led administration has not been able to live down the bond scams, which have ruined its chances of winning elections. The cover-up of the biggest ever financial crime in the country and the involvement of some government leaders in it are issues that its rivals can go on flogging effectively for years to come.
The bond scams took a heavy toll on the DNF presidential election campaign due to the presence of the politicians blamed for them on Sajith’s platform. Sajith did his utmost to disown them and, in fact, he took on some of them in public, but to no avail. The SLPP succeeded in having the voting public believe that a vote for Sajith would be a vote for the bond racketeers.
The government did not seem concerned about the economic difficulties of the public. Its ministers are seen to exude arrogance at media briefings upon being questioned on such issues. They go into the denial mode and seek to ridicule those who question them on such issues. The cost of living remains high, though it is not a recent phenomenon. Inflation has risen under successive governments, but the government leaders should be seen to be concerned about public woes if they are not to incur the wrath of the voters. Sajith promised economic relief to the public but failed to convince them that a government that had remained indifferent to their suffering would make a serious effort to improve their lot even if Sajith was elected President.
Negative campaigning was another reason for Sajith’s defeat. Personal attacks usually don’t help win elections. Sajith was critical of his main rival, Gotabaya, but did not go to the extent of vilifying the latter. But some of his Cabinet colleagues went all out to demonize Gotabaya and carried out a sustained attack on him instead of criticizing his policies and countering his claims. Their modus operandi left a bad taste in many a mouth.
The UNP apparently pinned all its hopes on the issue of Gotabaya’s dual citizenship and the renunciation of his US citizenship. Its all-out attempts to have him disqualified from running for President gave the impression to the public that it was doing so because it was unable to face him in the contest. The Court of Appeal order dismissing a petition against his dual citizenship came as a major setback for the government’s election campaign. Its efforts to have the people believe that the US had not accepted his request for renouncing his American citizenship failed to be effective enough to discourage the people from voting from him.
Sajith went on making promises in such a way that one wondered whether he was really serious about fulfilling them, for he did not reveal how he intended to raise funds for implementing them. This affected the seriousness of his purpose as well as that of his campaign. It was also seen as a sign of desperation and did no good.
Sajith is down. But he is certainly not out. He is sure to make a comeback the way his father did, learning from his mistakes. His resignation from the post of the UNP Deputy Leader will go a long way in winning the sympathy of the party’s rank and file.