Mahinda vs. Maithri: Frenzied contest races to final week

  • A few months ago, President Mahinda Rajapaksa quipped that faced with a lack of opposition, his Government had to step into play the role. Supremely confident of victory, he sought re-election two years ahead of schedule. How does he come to be fighting tooth and nail for survival against an Opposition that was in all kinds of disarray only four weeks ago?
 At the Bambalapitiya junction, a larger-than-life silhouette of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is illuminated with hundreds of tiny blue, red and white fairy lights. It’s a strange depiction because his hair and facial features are covered in tiny blue lights. Behind the giant light spectacle is an entire façade of presidential portraits and signatures. Last week, a large screen television was mounted upon the façade. It plays propaganda videos about the last days of the war in 2009 and President Rajapaksa kneeling to kiss the ground upon his triumphant return home from an overseas trip on 18 May 2009.

It is not clear if the propaganda façade masks a UPFA office or campaign headquarters, only that the building used to be a large retailer of pharmaceuticals. A similar propaganda bombardment greets commuters, pedestrians and motorists at the Colpetty Junction not too far away.
At hi-tech, well-organised presidential rallies, automated drones fly incessantly overhead, conducting crowd counts and taking pictures and video. There are often thousands of supporters at presidential rallies, nearly all of them transported to the venue in dozens of CTB buses. Twenty-five-foot balloons decorate the grounds, each depicting President Rajapaksa in different poses. A helicopter whirring overhead signals the advent of the VIP speaker. At every rally, a Mercedes Recreational Vehicle parks beside the main stage and reportedly holds a luxury restroom.
Parallel to the main stage – which the President mounts with his hands raised in frantic waves to the crowd – the press podium remains largely empty. Once the drone cameras have done their work, the crowds are marshalled out, in Kuliyapitiya even while candidate Rajapaksa was still speaking. For hours after the rally, supporters wait to be taken back to their hometowns and districts. Other commuters complain about a lack of regular buses on the roads and long waits at bus-stands when rallies are being held.
Opposition rallies are very different affairs. In town after town, the local authorities refuse to authorise the use of public grounds, forcing the Sirisena campaign to find well-wishers to rent out a property or a parking lot for a few hours. Stage constructions are basic, as are the public address systems. Rally participants must stand for hours in muddy, insect infested properties. But the rhetoric flowing from the stage enthrals the crowd. Juicy tidbits about life inside the Rajapaksa administration are liberally shared by recent defectors to the Opposition from the President’s inner circle. Residents in the area saunter towards the rally at 9 p.m., apparently after dinner, tightly gripping their children by the hand.
Spending power
Controlled messaging on social media, live webcasts of the rallies and official photographs of each event have replaced on-site media reports, leading to a crucial lack of nuance in the way both candidate campaigns have unfolded on the ground. But brief forays into rallies are powerful indicators of spending power and organisational strength of the two campaigns.
Opposition strategists explain that when the Opposition places Rs. 8 million on advertising on a particular channel on a specific night, the incumbent campaign outmatches the sum by miles, by ordering Rs. 100 million worth of airtime on the same channel. Big business and private sector companies appear to be strongly backing President Rajapaksa, creating major gaps in financial backing between the incumbent and the Opposition candidate.
By contrast, the Rajapaksa campaign’s spending power appears to be limitless. The incumbent campaign’s organisational strength also vastly supersedes the Opposition, with the Government mobilising the full force of the State machinery in electioneering.
Mimicking Narendra Modi, the Rajapaksa campaign pioneered the use of hologram technology in its election campaign, beaming the President in electronically to address a youth event in Ratnapura. Identical t-shirts, caps and banners are handed out to rally participants to create uniform images that feature a sea of people. The President’s social media campaign, reportedly spearheaded by a BJP IT expert according to a report in The Hindu newspaper, is unparalleled in Sri Lanka’s election history. Visually, the 8 January presidential contest looks to feature one candidate seriously dominating the race.
Fight of his life
Unfortunately, images can be deceiving. Gimmickry and vast organisational power aside, President Rajapaksa has suffered an erosion of key support since the day he declared an early poll.
Since he ended the war against the separatist LTTE, President Rajapaksa has appeared larger than life in the Sri Lankan political mainstream. In the afterglow of military victory, he strode the political stage like a colossus, reducing all remaining players both within his own party and the Opposition to squeaking midgets.
Then he was ‘Maharajano’ and in the 2010 presidential election that he called one year ahead of schedule, none but his staunchest political adversaries would dare poke fun of the title. The family that had descended upon the political stage with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election in 2005 were similarly untouchable.
Five years later, President Rajapaksa is facing the fight of his life to stay in power for another six years.
Charges of corruption, nepotism, impunity and abuse of power that have haunted his administration are breathing life into his challenger’s campaign. Since he won the war in 2009, President Rajapaksa’s governance track record has been dismal. In the five years since, his Government presided over the repeal of the 17th Amendment that sought to establish good governance, did away with presidential term limits, the brutal crushing of public demonstrations and the impeachment of the country’s first female Chief Justice.
President Rajapaksa’s decision to call elections two years ahead of schedule brought together strange political bedfellows, all of whom had been in one way or another, on separate platforms, voicing opposition to his Government’s policies. Some of those voices had resided, it appears, deep in the heart of his own administration.
The election that was supposed to be a simple walk-over into what was perhaps to be forever-rule, turned into a struggle for re-democratisation and good governance. In short, the Opposition managed, practically overnight to turn the Rajapaksa administration and its top officials from war-winning heroes to the villains of this political chapter.
After nine years of uncontested popularity, this is a strange place for the incumbent to be.
Frazzled and jittery campaign
His campaign appears frazzled and jittery, making elementary mistakes that tends to erode Mahinda Rajapaksa’s reputation as a maestro of electioneering. The Salman Khan fiasco this week backfired so badly on the Government that even State-run newspapers opted out of publishing pictures of the star-duo sharing a stage with President Rajapaksa the next day.
He was forced to delay the launch of his election manifesto scheduled for 22 December. The ceremony was postponed till 26 December, until the campaign realised the delay would miss the chance to address postal voters altogether. The result was a hastily-cobbled-together manifesto launch, at which the incumbent looked anything but happy as schoolchildren sang songs that referred to him as “appachchi” to the whole nation.

78295_Untitled-1-RecoveredReleased three days after Maithripala Sirisena’s policy statement was made public, the third edition of the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ contained similar pledges about Constitutional reform, and ironically on reforming the powers of the presidency. It also pledged a domestic inquiry (as did Sirisena’s manifesto) into allegations of major human rights abuses during the war – a strange inclusion since President Rajapaksa already put the mechanism in place when he extended the mandate of the Disappearances Commission and provided the three-man team with five international experts on human rights and war crimes.

The inclusions in the manifesto were the strongest possible indication that the Rajapaksa campaign was unnerved by the assault on the office he has held for nine long years by the Opposition, that has used his tenure to point out all the evils of the executive presidential system. The President has also limited campaign appearances with his family members, as the Opposition narrative about single-family rule begins to take hold.
Officially and unofficially, statistical analyses and surveys about this election have begun to give the Opposition the edge of a few percentage points over the incumbent. This week the Colombo University released polling data that suggests a 53% victory for the opposition candidate, while a Kelaniya University academic has predicted a win for the incumbent with the same 53%. Most polling data have the two main candidates neck and neck in many districts around the country.
Loosely cobbled together over the past three weeks, the Opposition campaign relies heavily on the momentum it has gained since snap elections were declared on 20 November. A series of defections from the ruling UPFA and the psychological victory claimed by the Opposition as the President lost his two-thirds majority in Parliament have sustained the Sirisena campaign through alliance teething problems and major funding constraints.
President Rajapaksa may still be able to count heavily on his rural support base to pull him over the 50% mark on 8 January. He will need to secure two-thirds of the Sinhala Buddhist vote, which is largely reflected in his rural base, in order to remain in power.
Taking stock at the end of this week, the Government looks to have to entirely count out any significant portion of the minority Tamil and Muslim vote. The Rajapaksa campaign will attempt to consolidate its Sinhala Buddhist base over the next five days, with fear-mongering about secret deals between the opposition and minority parties pledging allegiance to Sirisena.
The Government still counts in its ranks the Ceylon Workers Congress, key to holding large sections of the plantations dominated by Tamils of recent Indian origin. The UPFA faces a dilemma therefore, as it prepares to push its campaign agenda to the extreme right of the political spectrum, if it is to continue to hold on to support from parties like the CWC.
Serious numbers problem
With the exit of Industry and Commerce Minister Rishard Bathiudeen from the UPFA last week, the Rajapaksa campaign had to come to grips with a serious numbers problem.
Key presidential aides last week admitted to being worried about the election. The New-York based political risk consultancy firm, Eurasia Group reassessed its prediction from November that President Rajapaksa would win the January election. Instead the group in its revised forecast earlier last week predicted a narrow win for the Opposition candidate, but expressed concerns that the incumbent administration would try to remain in power.
Like many other surveys about the January election, the prediction relies on statistical data about demographics and voting patterns. Concerns expressed emanate from growing fears even within the country about mass disenfranchisement in Tamil or Muslim dominated areas on polling day. For the Eurasia Group, the assessment shifted in favour of the Opposition with the exit of Bathiudeen. Significantly, it was this defection and not the SLMC withdrawal of support a few days later that affected the re-evaluation.
Bathiudeen has been a staunch UPFA loyalist since 2004. His personal vote base in the Eastern Province and the Mannar District have ensured the Government of a small portion of the Muslim vote, even when the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress had periodically switched allegiances. If his rural, majority Sinhalese base remains largely intact, a small portion of minority votes could still take President Rajapaksa to 50%. Bathiudeen’s departure diminished the Government’s hopes for that small percentage even further.
Forcing the SLMC’s hand
Bathiudeen’s sudden exit effectively forced the SLMC’s hand this week, after the Mannar District strongman received a hero’s welcome in Kattankudy when he travelled there after pledging support to the Opposition.
Former Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem was in two minds until late last Saturday about the road his party should take at the January election. Earlier, the SLMC was contemplating staying neutral in the election, with Hakeem resigning his cabinet portfolio. There was strong support from the top Muslim business community for the Muslim party to adopt that position.
Hakeem was also concerned by threats emanating from the Bodu Bala Sena that if Muslim parties “conspired” with the Opposition candidate, there could be a replay of the 1915 anti-Muslim riots in the island. Some advisors were urging Hakeem to stay with the UPFA, even if he resigned as a minister, in order to ensure no harm came to the Muslim community during or after the election.
Fears are being raised again now among Muslim civil society leaders about the fate of the community in the event the President wins re-election with both major Muslim parties having deserted him pre-poll. They argue that the SLMC vote base would have inevitably voted with the Opposition candidate, irrespective of Hakeem’s decision.
Where Bathiudeen’s base would be swayed by his decision to support the Opposition, the SLMC voter – a much bigger share of the Muslim vote – would have never voted for the incumbent, these analysts argue. But with Bathiudeen taking a stand, Hakeem and the SLMC were facing the very real prospect of losing its base support to the ACMC if they continued to remain with the UPFA.
Credit to the BBS
Needless to say, the latest three high profile defections from the President’s party must be credited to the Bodu Bala Sena, their open endorsement of the incumbent and the Government’s persistent refusal to clip the wings of the hardline group. The BBS claimed its third victim when Deputy Minister Faizer Mustapha, staunch ally of the President and the Defence Secretary, quit the UPFA saying he “couldn’t stand on the same side as extremists”.
Since November, the President has been trying hard to repair the damage with the Muslim community. His Government offered to sponsor Haj pilgrimages and the President visited several mosques on his campaign trail. All the while, with its fascist remarks and public endorsement, the BBS reversed any goodwill towards the incumbent and sowed fear and mistrust once more within the Muslim community. The Government also failed to help its cause, posting 600 STF personnel in Dharga Town, Aluthgama two weeks ago, the site of major religious riots in June 2014, Muslim civil society activists said.
The Tamil National Alliance endorsement of Sirisena was long anticipated, but it would seem strategically postponed until the eleventh hour. The TNA’s delayed endorsement served to allow the Opposition to campaign with relative freedom in the southern districts by ensuring the Government could not make Tiger labels stick too hard on the Sirisena campaign. Instead the TNA urged Tamil voters throughout this election season to simply go out and vote, confident that its supporters would already know which candidate not to vote for on 8 January.
Like other groups endorsing the common Opposition platform, the TNA has also claimed to be seeking re-democratisation and the recreation of democratic space in order to have the ethnic question addressed in an inclusive and just way, acceptable to all communities in the country.
Legacy-making
Executive term limits are an important aspect of functioning and vibrant democracies. They also prove important towards moulding statesmen. US Presidents serve out their first terms with trepidation but their second terms almost always focus on legacy-making. Second terms, when Presidents know they must go home at the end of four years, are when incumbents begin to plan their libraries and try to pass legislation that in their first terms they were too politically expedient to attempt.
President Rajapaksa never had the same advantage to plan his legacy.
His Government’s victory over the LTTE made him larger-than-life, seemingly invincible electorally – in 2009, it really appeared like the people would want him to stay in power for life. The 18th Amendment, with its removal of the two term limit, made the prospect seem viable. So he made little attempt to win the peace.
Rajitha Senaratne, President Rajapaksa’s old friend and former Fisheries Minister, recalls how he managed to obtain an application for the Nobel Peace Prize after the end of the war. “I took the application to him, and I told him ‘let’s deliver this political solution and end the conflict. You will be a strong contender for this Prize then,’” Senaratne claims he told the President. Mahinda Rajapaksa initially agreed, his former Fisheries Minister says. But soon other roads would seem more compelling.
They say there are no trials so hard to bear than those that are the follies of our own making. So he built railways to connect the north and the south, but failed to connect communities at heart. He provided electricity, water and roadways and told the northern people, battered by 30 years of war, to be grateful. In the south, he allowed the fires of extremism to rage and permitted his Government to preside over the worst communal clashes in decades.
Despite the rhetoric, he could not be “everybody’s” president. Therefore today, he must give up on Sri Lanka’s other ethnic groups entirely as he battles to hold on to the presidency. He must also, sadly attempt to do battle against all those forces purportedly fighting for democracy.