Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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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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