An election dilemma in Sri Lanka

Progressives are united against having a Rajapaksa as President but divided over Premadasa’s abilities

In less than a month, over 15 million voters in Sri Lanka will have a say in the country’s presidential election.

A total of 35 candidates are in the fray, but the principal contest is between Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and Sajith Premadasa of the United National Party (UNP). Two other prominent candidates — the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake and civil society group-backed former Army commander General Mahesh Senanayake — are pitching themselves as an alternative to the mainstream parties.

As the final countdown begins, progressives in Sri Lanka are sharply divided. Though bound by a resolve to “stop a Gota [as Gotabaya is popularly known here] presidency”, they are unable to agree on ‘how’ they might oppose him. Mr. Gotabaya, 70, is a war-time Defence Secretary and younger brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. In much of the island’s Sinhala-Buddhist south, the brothers invoke an aura of “war victors” who “saved the country” from the separatist LTTE. In Mr. Gotabaya’s now-significantly large support base, which includes professionals and businessmen, he is also seen as an efficient administrator, and a “non-politician” promising to deliver.

However, the Rajapaksa brand doesn’t draw all Sri Lankans. To a substantial population, particularly Tamils, Muslims and his Sinhalese critics, Mr. Gotabaya’s candidacy portends a reversal to an era known for its authoritarian slant and diminished freedoms. Mired in accusations of killings and enforced disappearances during the war and soon after — which Mr. Gotabaya has squarely denied — the Rajapaksa decade in power, from 2005 to 2015, was marked by brutal state repression an unmistakable intolerance to dissent.

His main opponent, Sajith Premadasa, is the son of the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who many Sinhalese revere as a pro-poor leader, particularly for his efforts in housing reform and poverty alleviation. The senior Premadasa’s presidency also brings back memories of a dreadfully repressive regime, especially around the second armed insurrection of the JVP.

But Mr. Sajith’s own political career has been largely non-controversial. Currently a Minister for Housing, Mr. Sajith, 52, has seldom spoken on national issues until now.

A hard-won candidacy

Mr. Sajith’s hard-won candidacy followed an insurgent campaign by his supporters within the UNP. They sought to shift the power centre from party leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe — who is seen as representing the Colombo elite — to deputy leader Mr. Sajith, who is said to have aroused new energy at the party grassroots. Nevertheless, Mr. Sajith is still part of the incumbent UNP government. It is a government that won elections on the promise of democracy and good governance in 2015, but disappointed on most fronts. At the end of its term, its staunch backers — including liberals and several civil society groups — are utterly disenchanted.

While President and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) leader Maithripala Sirisena is held chiefly responsible for last year’s constitutional crisis, the UNP arm of the coalition too has let down supporters. The UNP-led government, which vowed to ensure accountability and justice, hardly walked the talk. From its failure to respond to the massive corruption scandal at the Central Bank of Sri Lanka in 2015 to its inability to prosecute those responsible for grave crimes during the Rajapaksa administration, it has repeatedly shown a lack of conviction and the political will to deliver the good governance it promised, though it made partial headway in reconciliation front and to some degree, opened up democratic space.

The UNP is popularly perceived as the liberal alternative to the nationalist SLFP, whose place the SLPP has now taken, but Mr. Sajith’s messaging has at best been contradictory — with his own positions and surely his party’s. In his public rallies, he has been promising welfare programmes, including free noon meals at schools and greater rural employment. While addressing business chambers though, he has vowed by the free market, with little explanation of how he might reconcile the divergent approaches to governance. He has pledged to protect “war heroes”, just like Mr. Gotabaya has, and supports the death penalty despite the UNP opposing it. Both candidates have promised to enhance national security — a popular theme after the Easter Sunday attacks — but neither has so far articulated a progressive vision for the war-affected Tamil community that includes substantive power devolution.

In this scenario, progressives are torn between backing Mr. Sajith, despite his shortcomings, in order to “keep Gota out at all cost”, and supporting a third alternative such as the JVP to help start a much-needed, new political culture and relief from the two main parties that have alternated in power since independence.

Those unwilling to back Mr. Sajith know well that the JVP doesn’t stand a chance to win this election, but still feel the need to support it. After all, it was the JVP, along with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), that boldly challenged the October 2018 constitutional crisis, batting firmly for democracy. The JVP is fielding its own candidate after 20 years to kick-start a “real social transformation” that it thinks neither main party will do.

The third option

For others in the progressive camp, a third option like the JVP’s Mr. Dissanayake or General Senanayake may be important but certainly not relevant at this political moment. The stakes, they say, are too high and warrant an urgent collective action from democratic forces, rather than a split vote that might indirectly favour Mr. Gotabaya in a presidential poll, where the winner needs 50% plus one vote.

This election is about a “choice between dictatorship and democracy”, senior political scientist Jayadeva Uyangoda noted in a column, urging citizens not to allow their disenchantment with the current regime to blunt their political vigilance about an “impending catastrophe”. Few in the liberal/leftist camp disagree with him on the perils of a Gotabaya presidency. But they doubt if a Sajith presidency can, in reality, “keep Gota out” decisively. It was indeed the UNP government’s lapses that made a Rajapaksa comeback a viable electoral prospect — first evidenced in the SLPP’s big win in last year’s local government elections.

Moreover, apart from promising to take on the “Rajapaksa oligarchy”, Mr. Sajith has not put forth a radically different or progressive agenda, they argue. Mr. Sajith and Mr. Gotabaya may not be the same but is Mr. Sajith different enough to bring about a more fundamental political shift, they ask? The politics of ‘backing the lesser evil’ merely postpones the return of a regressive rule but doesn’t make it any less inevitable, they worry. Such a choice will not alter the political landscape sufficiently, or entrench democratic values or progressive ideals, in their view.

A record number of candidates are contesting Sri Lanka’s November 16 presidential election, but for some voters, making a choice has never been harder.

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