Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for August, 2019

Gota clinches the SLPP nomination

Posted by harimpeiris on August 16, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 15th August 2019)

Ending months of speculation, last weekend witnessed the crowning of Gotabaya Rajapakse as the presidential candidate of the main opposition Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP), essentially the political vehicle of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is a political credit to the Rajapaksas or a reflection of the divided leadership of the Sirisena/Wickremesinghe Administration, which has enabled the Rajapaksas to bounce back from their twin electoral defeats of 2015 and win last year’s local government elections and thereby plausibly lay claim to their candidate being the front runner in the constitutionally mandated year end presidential election.

There were several Rajapaksas in the fray for the essential role of political heir to term limit bared Mahinda Rajapaksa, each with his own unique claim to the prize. There was the outside chance for Chamal as the consensus builder, Basil as the architect and operator of the SLPP party machinery but the passion, energy and drive of pro Rajapaksa activists was always Gota, almost from 2015, when a comeback path was being chartered. Gotabaya Rajapaksa also left nothing to chance. Eschewing existing and potential political parties, he mobilised through several civil society organisations established for that very purpose. As Mahinda conceded in his nomination speech last week, when election time came, Gota had already sewed up the nomination by dominating the political imagination of pro-Rajapaksa activists and political allies. There were significant naysayers, the most prominent of whom was former Minister and SLFP and SLPP stalwart and district leader from Kalutara, Kumara Welgama, the scion of an old political family. He questioned why only a Rajapaksa could aspire to be the presidential candidate and strongly opposed the Gotabaya candidacy. His views may influence the swing Kalutara District in a closely contested election.

Another feature of the impending 2019/20 elections is the more overt role played by organisations led by Buddhist monks. Now, the presence of Buddhist monks in active politics is not new to Sri Lanka. Late Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated by a monk and the first accused in the case was a monk. Members of the Buddhist clergy sit in Parliament, the first ever MP elected to Parliament being Ven. Baddegama Samitha from the old left, the LSSP. However, the new organisations and the monks that lead it, such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), are essentially engaged in the task of changing the contours of Sinhala nationalism from an ethnic nationalism to an ethno-religious nationalism. In so doing, they are making the identity politics, which form the essential core of Sri Lankan politics, potentially more divisive, emotive and in the contestation for political power, much more toxic. It also makes it much more difficult for Sri Lankan democracy to mature, for our politics to move from being about identity to being policy and ideas based and discourse in a civil and reasoned manner, with give and take. Instead our identity politics will be emotive, the discourse virulent and intolerant violence against the “other” never far from the surface. From 2010 onwards, this has been evident in the violence against Muslims at Durga town, Ampara and more recently in Digana. Now, the BBS contested the 2015 August parliamentary elections as irrelevant also-rans, who lost their deposits, but it has been in their perceived and claimed relationship to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, that their real role in current and future politics lies.

Gotabaya is clearly a champion of the Sinhala nationalists and the Rajapaksas have always had a game plan of winning elections with a preponderance of the Sinhala vote with little or no minority support. It barely worked for them in 2005, worked handsomely in the unique political environment of the post-war 2010 election and failed them in 2015. As Finance Minister and UNP heavy weight Mangala Samaraweera observed in his Face Book statement right after Gota’s nomination, though there is a new Rajapaksa candidate in the 2019/20 election, the game plan and governance will be the same. There is really no message or attraction to anybody else other than Sinhala Buddhists, not when the political allies and ideologues are the likes of the leadership of the BBS and their fellow travellers, who seemingly inspire hate against the “other” in their followers and rather obviously create fear and loathing among the objects of their hate, the ethnic and religious minorities in the country, who collectively make up a not inconsiderable 30% of the population or almost one in every three Sri Lankans.

Fortune favours the bold as the saying goes and Sri Lanka’s justice system has indeed been kind and fortunate for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Facing potential legal jeopardy and accused in a variety of cases and issues, in the superior courts and courts of first instance, the legal proceedings against Rajapaksa went nowhere. The only real pending legal challenge is the civil suit in the United States brought by the daughter of slain Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga, who this week wrote a scathing public letter to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, copied to UNP MPs and their Working Committee, alleging the Attorney General (AG)’s Department and government’s acquiescence in stonewalling legal proceedings and investigations.

The dynamics of the 2019 presidential election is much more likely to be similar to and along the lines of the 2005 presidential elections. A resurgent and independent Elections Commission will, like President CBK did in 2005, ensure a reasonably free and fair poll, albeit somewhat more violent. The real decider is likely to be the minority vote. It was so in 2015, when President Sirisena’s victory margin in the Northern and Eastern Provinces overturned his narrow losses elsewhere. In 2005, a very close election resulted in the victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa over current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, due to the LTTE inspired Tamil voter boycott of the presidential poll. There are rumblings among Tamil elites along those lines. Tamil nationalists have never objected to a mono ethno religious Sinhala state, believing that it makes their case for a Tamil Eelam, more logical and an easier sell.

It is the idea of a democratic, pluralistic and multi ethnic Sri Lankan state, which has been the really elusive ideal to pursue, whether by CBK, Neelan Tiruchelvam, Sambanthan, Sumanthiran or Anura Kumara Dissanayake. Post war, the rainbow coalition of 2015 preached it, promised it and started down that road, with the 19th amendment, the RTI, Independent Commissions, the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and land releases, housing and rehabilitation programmes in the North and East, but at best faltered or stalled. Whether the UNP led government, whose as yet unannounced candidate can marshal these diverse political forces, to ensure that the Rajapaksa verses the rest, political formula will prevail the December election will tell. Either way the SLPP candidate is now announced. In February last year, the party secured 40% of the popular vote and needs to make up another 10%. The events of April 2019 have clearly helped their cause. A hard-fought campaign and a potentially close election seem likely, at least at this point in time.

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UNP formation of National Democratic Front – lessons from CBK / UPFA

Posted by harimpeiris on August 8, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 07th August 2019)

The onset of the presidential election season has seen hectic political activity towards the formation of political alliances, aimed at creating coalitions which would be electorally viable in an essentially two-person presidential contest. Which will require the winning candidate to secure more than half the votes cast. A sophisticated electorate generally disregarding the also rans.

The past weekend saw the near birth of a UNP led National Democratic Front (NDF), which was ultimately still born, due to the protests of several UNP heavyweights and reformers, the sticking point seemingly the decision-making powers ceded to the NDF by the UNP. Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe who had been procrastinating on the formation of the Front, since the restoration of his government, after last October’s short lived constitutional coup Rajapakse administration, had moved into high gear in seeking to establish the Front, which also creates the political space and framework for a small SLFP breakaway group to formally join the UNP led alliance.

The concept of the NDF, which incidentally is the same name as the alliance which succeeded in electing Maithripala Sirisena as president in 2015, is essentially an attempt to formalize the remnants of the 2015 rainbow coalition, sans its successful candidate Maithripala Sirisena, who is engaged in talks at returning to the Rajapakse fold from whence he came. The political alliance between the SLPP and the SLFP is a more natural one, reflecting that the two parties, draw their support from essentially the same socio-political segments, largely a rural and suburban ethnic Sinhala constituency. Efforts however are underway within UNP circles to formalize the NDF constitution, the issues being a proxy for the underlying issue of who would be the UNP’s / NDF’s presidential candidate.

These efforts can draw some lessons from Sri Lanka’s recent political history, in the SLFP’s formation of the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and its precursor the Peoples Alliance (PA), two / three decades ago. The SLFP had been languishing in opposition for seventeen long years prior to 1994, its leadership dominated by the iconic Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman prime minister, a leader in the likes of other great women political leaders like Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and Margret Thatcher. She lost the close contest of the 1989 presidential election, to Ranasinghe Premadasa, largely due to the electoral boycott enforced by the second JVP uprising, in much the same way as Ranil Wickremesinghe lost the closely fought 2005 election to Mahinda Rajapakse, largely due to the LTTE enforced boycott of that election.

But by 1994, sections of the SLFP was convinced that their icon of “Mathini” as she was fondly known was not a politically viable candidate for an electorate looking to the future and not the past. Then young SLFP stalwarts like current UNP front bencher Mangala Samaraweera, was instrumental in the formation of the Peoples Alliance (PA), which brought on board the traditional left parties of the LSSP, the CP and range of other smaller parties, which were instrumental in selecting Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga as the Alliance’s presidential candidate and who consequently won the 1994 election with 62.25% of the popular vote, the record victory margin ever, which even Mahinda Rajapakse in 2010 could not eclipse, winning as he did with 57.8% of the vote at the zenith of his post war popularity.

In reality, the UNP will always dominate a political alliance or front its creates, in much the same way as the SLFP dominated the People’s Alliance and its successor the UPFA, in the manner in which the SLPP will always dominate the alliance it is in the process of creating and as a Northern example, the manner in which the Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK / Federal Party), dominates the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), much to the chagrin of its smaller allies.

The real issue for the UNP is the choice of its presidential candidate. IN 1994, when the PA was formed, Madam Sirimavo was the choice of the old guard in the SLFP but the People’s Alliance (PA) partners were crucial in providing support for the young SLFP reformers to maneuver CBK as the presidential candidate. In the current situation for the UNP, seemingly the allies may be more comfortable with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, with whom they have worked together over the years, while UNP reformers may be looking ahead and hungry for change. The result is a proxy war over the NDF constitution, the real issue being the choice of candidate.

Sajith Premadasa has risen to the top as Deputy Leader of the UNP, by creating no enemies, causing no controversies and generally working hard in his constituency as an opposition MP, holding his own in the Rajapakses’ political backyard and then even harder as Housing Minister, seeking to realize his father’s vision of “shelter for all”. But, the political challenge for the UNP candidate is to be acceptable and attractive to a much more diverse constituency than the SLPP’s candidate, who is clearly targeting an election victory on a Sinhala only constituency, based on ethnic Sinhala nationalism. The UNP / NDF candidate will have to coalesce everybody else together to repeat in 2019, what was achieved in January 2015.

The UNP and its allies, with or without a formal alliance will face the 2019 presidential election with the considerable disadvantage of the anti-incumbency factor, which it did not have in 2015. Accordingly, the challenge for its candidate is greater than five years ago. It is well advised to gather all its allies in a big tent to create a viable coalition for the presidential election. A united opposition and a fractured government is a recipe for defeat which the Rajapakse’ experienced in 2015 and the UNP will be seeking to avoid in 2019.

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