Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for October 7th, 2019

Sajith unveils a social justice with security platform

Posted by harimpeiris on October 7, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 03rd October 2019)

Sajith Premadasa finally clinched the governing UNP’s nomination for the presidential election through the formal decision of the UNP’s Working Committee and that decision is to be ratified at their annual convention scheduled for 3rd October. The election itself is only a short six weeks away, the Election Commission having issued the gazette for the date of polling as 16th November 2019.

A UNP younger generation takes over

Soon after clinching the nomination, the basic framework of the political pitch and path of Minister and presidential candidate Premadasa are taking shape and it is fascinating to examine not least because in six weeks’ time, it could probably be government policy. Firstly, it is clear that a new younger generation of UNP leaders have finally come to their own within that grand old party. That much like his late father President Ranasinghe Premadasa, succeeded the longtime UNP leadership of President JR Jayawardena, that Sri Lankan history repeats itself thirty years later, when President Jayewardene’s nephew and political heir Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe hands over the baton to Sajith Premadasa, the clear political heir of his late father. While the UNP’s party leadership will remain with Prime Minister Wickramasinghe, presumably for as long as he wants it, it is clear that a new younger generation of leadership has taken over.

Regarding the presidential election contest at barely 52 years of age, Minister Premadasa is almost two decades younger than his 70-year-old opponent from the Rajapakse camp and only the second youngest candidate, where former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was in her forties in the early nineteen nineties.

Social Justice with Security

The foundation of Sajith Premadasa’s political program is the path of social justice and social democracy. Like his late father before him, Sajith Premadasa articulates a vision for a future Sri Lanka, where the top two percentiles of the populations do not receive over half the national income, while the lowest two percentiles, languish at around five percent. A policy focus on investment in human capital and social infrastructure, is articulated to ensure economic growth with social justice.

Candidate Premadasa, the political machine around him, the UNF’s allied other parties and of course his own party the UNP, are exuding confidence. They believe that the election is theirs to lose. The rationale is not hard to see. The Rajapaksa’s and their political machine in 2015 lost the presidential and the subsequent parliamentary elections despite high doses of Sinhala nationalism and unabashed abuse of state power and resources. The political formulae of 2015 was Rajapakse verses the rest. Candidate Premadasa recognizes that the opposition and his chief rival Gotabaya Rajapakse is clearly following an electoral strategy of solely targeting the Sinhala Buddhist voter. It would be impossible to eat into Rajapaksa’s voter base by being more Sinhala Buddhist nationalist than the Rajapaksa’s and also simultaneously appeal to other communities. It’s a political tight rope walk requiring a careful political balance and Premadasa seems to relish the challenge. To win candidate Premadasa must wean off a small section of the Rajapakse support base and then unify the rest of the electorate baring the JVP’s 5% of the national vote. The UNP voter base has historically been more ethnically and religiously diverse, than its opponents and the UNP even at its low points was still winning parliamentary representation from Jaffna District in their own right and always electing UNP Muslim members.

A track record to go by

Minister Sajith Premadasa is clearly pitching his track record as a member of Parliament and as a Minister of Housing as an indicator and track record that people can trust. He correctly and clearly claims that his ministry has been run without family bandyism and involving his relatives in his government work, while his housing schemes and ministerial programs have been implemented without fear or favor including large swathes of it in the former conflict areas of the Northern and Eastern provinces. He is also, again rather like his father somewhat of a workaholic and is and has been extremely hard working as a minister. He is likely to be a very hands on president, ably assisted by the team around him.

Politically Candidate Premadasa senses the weaknesses in his principal opponent in terms of the lack of political experience and the negative aspects of his opponent’s track record. The Defense Ministry is not the place where you learn to consult and compromise to reach consensus, an essential feature in a democracy and a trait very visibly lacking in his opponent’s campaign and camp. Most recently it was SLFP stalwart from the Kalutara District Kumara Welgama who again mentioned his fear about the return of the white van culture, while slain newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge’s daughter has initiated legal proceedings against Gotabaya Rajapakse in US courts.

The Rajapaksa’s through the SLPP secured about 40% of the national vote in the February 2018 election. But the political sheen and ascendency of the Rajapaksa political machine was clearly severely dented by the failed constitutional coup and the short lived third Mahinda Rajapakse government of 52 days, a prime minster who never once stepped into Parliament and lost the first of several no confidence votes within days of being appointed. So the conventional wisdom would have it, that the election is currently a tie within the statistical margin of error, between the UNP nominee Minister Sajith Premadasa, set to contest under the Swan symbol and banner of the National Democratic Front and the SLPP nominee of the former defense secretary and brother number two Gotabaya Rajapakse, with the election likely to be decided by the large number of uncommitted and undecided voters.

Somehow one gets the feel, that Sajith Premadasa is the centrist and moderate candidate who will be the pick of the currently undecided and uncommitted voters who will be the deciding factor in the November election.

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