By Harim Peiris
Despite the long presidential ballot paper, the real contest for Sri Lanka’s highest office is between Cabinet Minister, Sajith Premadasa contesting from the UNP led National Democratic Front (NDF), under the swan symbol and his challenger from the opposition, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, contesting from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), under their symbol, the lotus bud. One of these two would be declared as the President elect of Sri Lanka on 17th November and take the oath of office shortly thereafter. The most interesting of the other also rans, is undoubtedly Anura Kumara Dissanayake, leader of the JVP, who can reasonably be expected to get approximately in the region of 5% to 6% of the popular vote, which the JVP has been polling nationally in recent times. The two main rival political camps in Sri Lanka, have produced two significantly different candidates, to harness their very different constituencies.
A young self-made leader vs the heir of a political dynasty
Sajith Premadasa is a self-made leader in many ways. Though the son of a former president, Sajith entered active politics after his late father’s assassination and not by being groomed by a presidential dad. Shortly thereafter the UNP went into a long period in opposition during the Kumaratunga presidency. Sajith eschewed the easy path of nursing his father’s pocket borough and established political base in Colombo city, believing correctly that this will remain with him and instead built from scratch his political base in rural Hambanthota’ s Sinhala villages, to launch the ultimate challenge to the Medamullane dynasty from Hambanthota itself. At the age of fifty-two (52) years, Sajith Premadasa is by Sri Lankan standards, a youthful presidential candidate and stands in contrast to his seventy (70) year old challenger. Clearly, two decades separate them.
Gotabaya by contrast is very much a creation of his brother’s presidency, best exemplified by the fact that he landed in Sri Lanka after, not before Mahinda won the election as President in 2005 and as recently confirmed by the Supreme Court, resumed his Sri Lankan dual citizenship post-election in 2005, under the hand of his presidential sibling. Gotabaya never nursed an electorate as an organizer, never sat in Cabinet with diverse multi ethnic colleagues, never engaged in democratic debate and discourse in Parliament or indeed elsewhere. Just exercised unchecked power in the shadow of a populist presidential sibling, in the context of a brutal civil war. Gotabaya has a serious democratic deficit, in process, practice and experience.
A squeaky-clean image vs a candidate busy defending himself
It was British peer, Lord Acton, who famously stated that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and the results of Gotabaya’s wielding of absolute power, with no democratic accountability, for a decade, can be seen in the vast array of legal cases, charges and investigations, in which he was or is a defendant or an accused. The accusations and cases range from the Avant Garde cases and attendant issues to the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda and other human rights abuses, the Wickramatunga case pending in US courts. Gotabaya has a serious job to clear his name, especially on the substantive issues and not on a technicality.
Sajith, on the other hand, has had a squeaky-clean image. There have been neither allegations of corruption or rights abuses directed towards Sajith. Even his grassroots politics in Hambanthota and elsewhere, focus very much on the carrot rather than the stick and in what has been the downfall of many a politician in Sri Lanka, has avoided getting his family, relatives and wider clansmen associated with his political life and official duties. Even his campaign is run professionally by UNF leaders, while Gotabaya’s is very much a family affair on key decisions.
A message of hope as opposed to a message of fear or hate
It is however in the political messaging that the campaigns of Sajith Premadasa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, diverge and contrast most strongly. Sajith’s is a campaign of forward-looking optimism and hope, that is realistic in its self-criticism of the UNP’s very limited delivery of the past five years. In fact, the main reason why Sajith got the UNP’s presidential nomination ahead of party leader Ranil Wickramasinghe, was that the party had to lead its campaign, with somebody not closely related to the past five years track record. The confirmation and affirmation of the role of Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka at Sajith’s inaugural rally, both defined the experience and knowledge which would guide the nation’s national security, in the war ending army commander but also blunted and took away the monopoly on that issue which Gotabaya’s campaign tried to arrogate to themselves. Sajith defines a Sinhala nationalism which is confident of its place in the sun and is generous and accommodative in the traditions of the ancient Sinhala kings and kingdoms, which created the space and opportunity for a multi ethno-religious society to grow and thrive. Gotabaya’s message at its heart though, is one of the Sinhala people being under siege and requiring a strong and perhaps even an undemocratic leadership to protect them from their internal enemies. It is essentially a message which drives us apart, polarizes and creates a deeply divided society.
Economically Sajith’s message of social justice and helping those who need a helping hand, is both more socially democratic and equitable than the protectionist, rent seeking, economic populism of the Chinese model with high priced Chinese loans, which seems to be the model the Rajapaksas favour. Sajith has a short time to share his vision for the country. But as the 60% who did not vote for the SLPP’s Pohotuwa in 2018 or the 52% who voted for the NDF Swan in 2015 looks at the choice before them on November 16th, , the carefully crafted, centrist message of hope and renewal of Sajith Premadasa, stands in stark contrast to the alternative of a militarized, authoritarian Gotabaya rule.