The Last Week: Who Has The Lead? Who Has Momentum? Who Knows The Voter?

By Rajan Philips –

Rajan Philips

One more week to go. One last week for speculations. To be fair, I can cite one neutral and two partisan predictions. The neutral one plays it safe: Gotabaya has the lead, Sajith has momentum, and neither will win on the first count. Some Gotabaya supporters, however, are putting it out that Gotabaya will get it on the first count at 55%, no less. I first saw this in the gut-opinion of an emeritus academic. The same number has since been popularized in a journalistic piece apparently based on an anecdotal survey of other journalists. The third one doing the rounds is boosting Sajith Premadasa and is said to be based on a “controlled sample of 10,000 voters”, which is rather large for a survey sample and there is no indication how ‘representative’ it is of the voting population. Nonetheless, the survey results apparently indicate that Premadasa’s momentum has eaten into Gotabaya’s early lead and that it is Sajith Premadasa and not Gotabaya Rajapaksa who will win on the first vote count. Who knows? I take no responsibility for any of this and I am absolutely agnostic about the outcome next week. You can believe me on that!

What is interesting about the survey is the commentary that this election is not about party support but about individual candidates and their direct appeal to the voters. Presidential elections are invariably about both – the party and the individual candidate, but there is something different about the two leading candidates in this election. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, erstwhile American citizen,  has been self-promoting himself as a candidate in Sri Lanka from the time Donald Trump won the election in the US. Then he found a party, or, rather, his family found a party for him. 

Sajith Premadasa’s trajectory has been different. He was born a UNPer, perhaps more so than anybody else in the current UNP including Ranil Wickremesinghe. He is now a man seemingly seized by the moment. Throughout 2018 when Ranil Wickremesinghe was on the ropes and Maithripala Sirisena was begging Sajith to join him as PM, the word on the street was that Sajith Premadasa was lying low because the time was not opportune, and the astrological omens were not good. Not anymore. Stars or no stars. Premadasa became a candidate fighting the ‘official reluctance’ of Ranil Wickremesinghe. Now, he has daringly contradicted the Leader’s assertion that he (Ranil) would continue as Prime Minister with Premadasa as President. Candidate Premadasa has declared that he would appoint “a new prime minister who he felt could command a majority in parliament.” He has gone further and said: “I will not include any individual accused of corruption in my ministerial cabinet.” 

Prime Minister’s President

These are daring statements that one would have expected to hear more from Gotabaya Rajapaksa insofar as he has been projecting himself to be a non-traditional politician, like Trump, and with a military record to boot, unlike Trump. The truth is that if elected as President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be his Prime Minister’s President, with or without the 19th Amendment. There is the constitutional no man’s land that could arise during a presidential transition. That is the country’s problem in trying to ride two horses – an elected president, and a prime minister with majority support in parliament. That problem is for next week, so let it be for now. 

The broader reality is that there is a mountain of the past that is weighing Gotabaya Rajapaksa down even though he has never been an elected representative before. The past is the postwar government of Mahinda Rajapaksa in which candidate Gotabaya was Defence Secretary presiding over a different battlefield that ranged from urban development to legal drafting. He was also the pivot of the celebrated ‘Tuesday Tea’ troika with then Central Bank Governor Nivard Cabraal and then Chief Justice Mohan Peiris. 

To put this troika and its role in some perspective, HNG Fernando, a former Chief Justice, was Legal Draftsman before he became a Supreme Court Judge. Imagine Justice Fernando being Legal Draftsman under a Defence Secretary. There is no need imagine but those were days when no Permanent Secretary would dare invite a Chief Justice, or any Justice, to tea on any day, let alone every Tuesday. Nor was there a Central Bank Governor known primarily for political lobbying and not serious banking. More starkly, they were also days when ordinary people did not have to fear white van kidnapping or daylight killings, and rich people did not have flee to Malaysia to escape semi-official ransom seekers. This was what the country went through between 2010 and 2015. Need it go back to the future?         

In his appeal to the voters, candidate Rajapaksa  is walking the fine line of being a war hero before 2010 and an abuser of power after 2010. There is no question that large numbers of the national intelligentsia are quite prepared to be amnesiac about his faults and foibles and focus only on his wartime achievements to serve their own vested interests. That includes even members of the learned legal profession, now located at different stations in the judicial structure. 

One would have thought that members of the legal profession are learned to be better than others when it comes to upholding the constitution and abiding by the laws of the land. The problem for Mr. Rajapaksa, however, is that there is also an army of voluntary detractors who will not rest without constantly reminding the country, in and out of courts, about the negative face of the Rajapaksa coin. Are the voters paying attention to all the din of Rajapaksa pros and cons, or are they making up their minds in their own way? We will soon know their vote, but may never know how they made up their mind. 

Young and Women Voters

That brings us to a host of questions about the voters. Who is a Sri Lankan voter? How do Sri Lankans vote? Do they really vote as separate ethnic voting machines – as Sinhala Buddhists/Christians, Tamil Hindus/Christians and Muslims? None of these groups are a homogeneous political mass, even though it has been a clever electoral strategy to treat them as monolithic groups. Each group has always been differentiated along caste and class lines and the locations where they live. Now they are becoming sensitized to other lines of differentiation: age, gender and sexuality. Political aspirants can appeal either along primordially divisive ethnic lines, or they can appeal along the more inclusive lines such as age, gender or sexuality? We might be witnessing some pathbreaking cracks in the hitherto ethno-electoral monoliths.

According to the survey I referred to earlier, the voter support for Rajapaksa and Premadasa is apparently splitting along age and gender lines. Older and male voters are siding with Rajapaksa, while younger and female voters are leaning towards Premadasa and in larger numbers. The age disparity is there for all to see. You can hardly see anyone under 70 years age in the backdrop to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s campaign photo-ops. And it shows in the Rajapaksa campaign slogans and priorities: social discipline, unitary constitution, training nurses to work in Europe, and building an elliptical highway in areas where there is no vehicular demand for it. Sajith Rajapaksa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake are twenty years younger and can relate better to voters who are even twenty more years younger to them. 

Sajith Premadasa would also appear to have struck a chord with women voters. When he first talked about the importance of sanitary pads, there was much laughter in the Rajapaksa camp. But as Premadasa started explaining the significance of sanitary pads as symptomatic of women’s problems in general, and of a particularly embarrassing experience for millions of adolescent girls, the Rajapaksa campaign realized that they had missed the moment. A hurriedly formulated response by Gotabaya Rajapaksa did not rise above the customary protective role of the male, and the claim that women will feel liberated when he takes over national security. The shoe was soon on the other foot, with younger and gender-informed women laughing out loud at old men promising Victorian chivalry. 

Another new pathbreaker is Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s stand on sexuality and his support for the LGBTQ community. In revealing appreciations, LGBTQ community leaders have indicated that the Sri Lankan LGBTQ community is two million strong and all two million of them could potentially vote for Mr. Dissanayake. That seems farfetched and twice as much even the JVP’s own expectations. Nonetheless, it is the directionality of politics that is getting fascinatingly plural. I have not come across any position on the LGBTQ community articulated by Sajith Premadasa. He cannot be younger and bolder than Gotabaya Rajapaksa and not take a position on the rights of the Sri Lankan LGBTQ community. By the same token we should not expect to see Gotabaya Rajapaksa taking any progressive or practical position on the rights and freedoms of the island’s LGBTQ community.        

New majority of the majority

Age and gender seem to be the factors helping Sajith Premadasa in breaking through the Rajapaksa heartland in the districts of the North Central, North Western, Sabragamuwa, Southern and Uva Provinces. Again, according to the survey, Sajith Premadasa seems to be in a strong position to win the districts of Gampaha, Kalutara, Kegalle, Ratnapura and Badulla and to reduce Rajapaksa’s margin of victory to lower than 10% in the Rajapaksa strongholds of Anuradhapura, Pollonaruwa, Kurunegala, Galle, Hambantota, Matara and Moneragala. If these indications are true, Sajith Premadasa might be on the tide of an electoral swing that few would have expected.

Three weeks ago, in tracing the potential paths to victory for the two leading candidates, I mentioned that in 1988 President Premadasa won the Districts of Polonnaruwa, Kurunegala, Kegalle, Ratnapura, Badulla, Monaragala, and even Hambantota, all of which were later won by Chandrika Kumaratunga and are now considered to be Rajapaksa havens. I further mentioned that it would require quite a vote swing for Sajith Premadasa to win any one of these seven districts that his father had won in 1988. I did not quite think through that such a swing could be made possible by younger and female voters. A new possibility seems to be dawning, certainly for the future even if it turns out to be a false dawn this time. 

Young men and women of all ages can also redefine the concept of and the advocacy for ‘the majority of the majority’. This has been a byproduct of the Rajapaksa presidency and electoral strategy, targeting Sinhala Buddhists as if they are the Rajapaksa family’s  patrimonial voters. Ranil Wickremesinghe conveniently bought himself into this and created the counter argument for himself that the only way a UNP candidate can win against a Rajapaksa candidate is by combining a decent minority of the Sinhala Buddhist majority and an overwhelming majority of the Tamil and Muslim minority. What this election might be showing is that a majority of women voters can conceivably constitute an ethnically inclusive national electoral majority. That in itself is not Nirvana. But it opens pathways to more positive political enlightenments.