As Sri Lankans prepare to elect their next President on Saturday (November 16), they seem to be spoilt for choice. This time over, there are an unprecedented 35 candidates in the fray for the post of President. The highest number of candidates in a presidential election so far was in 2010, when 22 candidates had joined the race — which itself was a record at the time. This time, the number is up by more than half. A surfeit of candidates may be seen as an indication of greater public enthusiasm for participation in the democratic process. On the other hand, it may as well be reflective of an underlying cynicism. A vague feeling that the people are not getting the leadership choices they would perhaps prefer to have. In this situation, the latter seems to be the case.
Traditionally, elections in Sri Lanka have mainly been a two-horse race between the right-of-centre United National Party (UNP) and the left-of-centre Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), with a select few smaller parties — such as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the JVP — representing regional or sectional interests and occupying the margins. An odd Independent was often seen as an aberration, intended to make a point rather than to make an impact on the outcome. This time four Muslims, two Tamils and two Buddhist monks are among the several others who have jointed the race.
Most of the Independents may not make much difference to the final outcome, but groups representing the regional or sectional interests are bound to cut into the votes of the two main contenders — former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and sitting minister Sajith Premadasa.
Even as Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential aspirations had been in public knowledge for some time, it was only in April this year that he was able to renounce his American citizenship to qualify for the contest. He had since entered the field as the candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), a party earlier launched by his elder brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The ruling coalition led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe was taking even longer in naming their candidate. Their dilemmas were manifold.
For one, President Sirisena continued to weigh his options about setting himself up as a candidate. But once Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his entry into the fray, President Sirisena ruled himself out of the race. As for Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, he had been harbouring presidential ambitions for even longer. But in the current situation, he did not enjoy the party’s unanimous support. It took the party some time to persuade him to step aside in order to make way for a candidate who could command better support within the party than he could muster. It was thus that the ruling coalition was finally able to zero in on Sajith Premadasa, a sitting minister and the son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, as its choice.
Perhaps, aware of the fact that given his wartime record as defence secretary he may not be able to cut much ice with Tamil voters, Mr Rajapaksa has since been focusing on consolidating the Sinhalese votebank. Since last month, he has made several speeches indicating his future priorities as President. In one case, for example, he promised to release the soldiers who were in jail on charges of excesses committed against many innocent civilians (mostly Tamil) during the operations. That was supposed to help him consolidate his support base among the majority Sinhalese — many of whom see the war against the LTTE as a patriotic duty. And so, they believe any excesses committed during the operations deserved to be applauded rather than punished.
Many Muslim voters, who had backed the senior Rajapaksa earlier, have since moved away in view of the stringent Sinhala rhetoric of the present campaign. But the Rajapaksa camp is not worried. They are banking on the fact that any loss of minority votes would be more than made up by the majority Sinhalese.
Thus, on balance, Gotabaya Rajapaksa does seem to be enjoying some edge over his main rival. But even so, there still are a whole lot of allegations pertaining to the human rights record of the period when he was in office that remained to be dealt with. These include cases involving the murder of journalists and killing of unarmed Tamil civilians — including some in custody — pending against Mr Gotabaya in the courts in Sri Lanka and in the United States.
Apart from the high-profile case of the murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasanatha Wickeramatunga, which attracted international attention, there are others such as the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekanaligoda and attacks on journalists Upali Temnakoon and Keith Noyahr. These pertain to the period when defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was acting as the principal hatchet man of the regime while President Mahinda Rajapaksa was waging an all-out war against the Tamil Tigers. It was no surprise, therefore, that a section of the Sri Lankan elite recently started the “Stop Gota Movement” as a counter to the winning streak in the Rajapaksa camp. But movements such as these often make an intellectual point, but rarely make an impact on the wider constituency. More so in a society that has been no stranger to polarisation on ethnic lines.
In the event of Gotabaya Rajapaksa winning, he has given enough indications about who the new Prime Minister is going to be — none else but his senior sibling and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is going to be a strong government, as the former defence secretary has promised during the campaign. And as earlier, two other Rajapaksa siblings are due to play an important role in the government. As President, Mahinda Rajapaksa had earlier quite adeptly used the threat of a “tilt” towards China to influence Indian positions. How that plays out in the future one can only wait and see!