Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for November, 2019

Nation moving from hate to hope

Posted by harimpeiris on November 13, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News on 12th November 2019)

As the presidential election campaign enters its final and concluding stage, with a salutary cooling off period of forty-eight hours before polling, the stage is set for a close contest, in which the undecided floating voter will be the deciding factor. The early favourite of the Rajapaksa nominee, demonstrated the limits of the SLPP’s message and politics. Term limits forced the Rajapaksas to not stand their star Mahinda, but proxy through Gotabaya, who while he energizes the base, is a polarizing figure with significant turnoff factor for many floating voters.

He is not designed to attract non Rajapaksa fans, in a way say, that a Chamal would for instance. Gotabaya has also been dodging interviews, press conferences and a presidential candidate debate due to his quick temper and insufficient grasp of policy nuances, which coupled with being a weak orator, is quite a drawback. His democracy deficit was on public display during the campaign.

The UNP on the other hand, broadened its appeal through resurrecting the National Democratic Front (NDF), declined nomination to a Prime Minister identified with non-delivery and fielded their most formidable candidate, Deputy and younger leader Sajith Premadasa. A hardworking and successful housing minister, untainted by corruption, nepotism or violence. All issues, on which the Rajapaksas have significant liability. Throughout this election campaign, the Rajapaksas and the SLPP campaigned against Ranil and a neo liberal agenda, leaving Sajith free to introduce himself to the country on his own terms and programme, a social justice and democracy platform for which the Rajapaksas had no answer. A candidate and message around which an electorate skeptical about the merits of a Rajapaksa return, have been coalescing.

The Rajapaksas lack a coherent economic message

On the economic front, the Rajapaksa campaign lacks a coherent message. Glossy ads and fancy slogans do not compensate for sound policy and good governance. The governance track record of Mahinda’s second term was disastrous with credible allegations of corruption, widespread nepotism, the pump and dump exploitation of the EPF, Chinese loans at high interest rates for white elephant projects and the decline of the rule of law, capped with sacking the chief justice. To all these issues, the answer given by the SLPP, with never an acknowledgement of any course correction or change, is that there will be military style discipline in the public sector and authoritarian decision making.

We are being offered a treatment worse than the malady, by purveyors who are a part of the problem. The biggest drawback in the Rajapaksas past economic performance was that it marginalized the poor and needy. The less fortunate did not benefit and there was no peace dividend for the vast majority. Resulting in the Rajapaksas losing the election in 2015, despite the same stale and empty slogans of saving the nation, we hear today.

Sajith challenges Mahinda on extremism and national security

The SLPP, its proxies, fellow travellers and allies have been running a campaign which is polarizing and hate mongering with barely disguised racism. This in a country, where the post war need is for reconciliation and unity, with justice and security, none of which is achieved through weakening democracy and dividing our people. This is a reality which even third-party candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayaka has been articulating resulting in an attack on the Rajapaksa ideology in a pincer movement.

Indicators are that a section of the JVP base will actually directly back Sajith in the ballot, even as the JVP has gone public requesting their voters to use their second preference to keep out the Rajapaksas.

However, late last week Sajith Premadasa wrote directly to the former president and now Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa regarding the fear mongering and politics of hate. Sajith Premadasa wrote thus “The greatest threat that I see to the unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of our nation is a cabal of extremists, who will stop at nothing to terrify and divide our people just to consolidate their own power”. He directly charged that such extremists are in fact part of the political coalition which the Rajapaksas inspire and lead.

Sajith Premadasa pulls no punches in this last lap of the campaign as he writes to Mahinda and states “I refuse to be lectured on defending our sovereignty and constitution by a politician who only one year ago trampled our Supreme Law to seize power in an unconstitutional coup d’état”. He also reiterates his own commitment to the unity of the state, arguing that it was a pedantic exercise at best and deceptive at worst to try and distort his use of the term “ekiya rajaya” and “ekiyathwaya”. Similarly, in accordance with dialogue processes of the past decades, he commits to maximum devolution within an “ekiya rajaya”.

Democratic Tamil support verses ex-militants

The Rajapaksas, the SLPP and their allied media have sought to take issue over the support of the democratic Tamil political leadership of Sambanthan and Sumanthiran through the Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), as well as the rest of the TNA, to support the candidacy of Sajith Premadasa, as indeed the NDF’s candidate was successfully supported in 2015. While the SLPP sought to fear monger over this support, Sajith Premadasa raises pertinent questions to Mahinda thus “Your secret deals with Pilliyan, your secret deal with Vartharaja Perumal, your secret deal with Karunna Amman and MLAM Hisbulla”. Sajith Premadasa is backed by democratic Tamil leaders, while the SLPP is backed by lesser sterling characters with a dubious and violent past track record.

In conclusion Sajith Premadasa tells Mahinda as Gotabaya’s mentor, “I cannot fathom how a political leader of your maturity, who has witnessed the devastation wrought by endless ethnic strife, could continue sowing seeds of division and fanning flames of fear among the citizens you have sworn to protect, merely because of your pursuit of power”.

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Is Sajith slowly pulling ahead as Gota fails to gain traction?

Posted by harimpeiris on November 11, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News & Groundviews on 08th November 2019)

The 2019 presidential election, rather predictably is shaping up politically, very similar to its precedent in 2015. On that occasion, the then ruling Rajapaksas’ sought an unprecedented third term and was rebuffed at the polls. In 2019, the Rajapaksas’ are essentially seeking a third term, with the personalities changed.

The message though from the Rajapaksa camp has not changed, only increased in intensity. The message that the Sinhala people are under threat both from within and without and require an authoritarian saviour.

Opposing this narrative, rather late in the day and though no fault of his own, is Sajith Premadasa, the charismatic relatively young deputy leader of the UNP, whose political task and challenge is to recreate the politics of 2015 in 2019, with himself as a new standard bearer and with a fresh political vision and message.

Sajith picking up momentum

Sajith Premadasa’s election rallies around the country have been well attended with enthusiastic crowds. Gota is certainly not outperforming Sajith in grassroots mobilization. It is however in the political discourse and in setting the political agenda, that Sajith has succeeded at seriously eroding Gota’s ability to define the issues. With a distinctive political message, which is resonating, Gotabaya has struggled to respond to Sajith. The SLPP sought to craft the campaign along ethno-social and security lines and on anti-incumbency. A campaign designed against Ranil.

However, Sajith came on the scene, adroitly co-opted Field Marshal Fonseka as his security buffer and anchor and took the charge to the Rajapaksa’s on their weakest wicket, that of governance and economic management. The Achilles heel of the Rajapaksa’s is that a sufficient number of Sinhala voters are unimpressed with their economic and political governance performance, especially in their second term. Now in all probability there is a clear anti-incumbency factor against the current government, but it is in recognition of this fact, that neither the current president nor prime minister are candidates for president, though both, right up to the nominations, sought it.

However, Sri Lanka has a sophisticated electorate which understands, that non-delivery is different from bad delivery. Would the swing voters of 2015, forget or ignore, the sacking of a chief justice, jailing your presidential election opponent, a respected army commander to boot, swinging maritime security to a private firm, white van abductions and rampant nepotism. Sajith while campaigning has successfully occupied the moral high ground. It is to his credit that he has reached the apex of the political ladder, as a main party candidate for president with very limited or no significant negatives as political demerits. This is likely to be reflected in the voting patterns of new, young and currently undecided voters, of whom there are many and who likely will be the deciding factor in this election.

The CBK leadership to an anti-Rajapaksa SLFP

The Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha election results last month, which seemingly warmed the cockles of SLPP insiders’ hearts should however to the contrary, raise a strong caution for them as well. It is very similar to the Monaragala district results of the Uva Provincial Council elections of October 2014, which the UPFA won and then went on to lose the presidency. There the UPFA polled 56%, about what it polled in Elpitiya and went on to lose the presidential election, though it won in the Monaragala District. For the Rajapaksas’ in 2015 and indeed in 2019, 56% of the Sinhala vote is insufficient to carry the country as a whole, when they exclusively target a mono ethnic Sinhala vote. Of equal importance is the 12% of the Elpitiya electorate which voted for the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

This hard core SLFP voter, clearly refused to heed the headlong dash of its parliamentary group towards the SLPP and vote Rajapaksa. It remains SLFP, left of center, socially conservative and likely much more attracted to a message of social and political democracy and justice than it is to the allures of the Chinese model of a national security state. It is to this constituency that former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga seeks to give leadership and direction. The prior decision of President Sirisena to remain neutral in the presidential election and not get on the political platform of Gotabaya Rajapaksa is also a tribute and credit to the political acumen and coalition building skills of Sajith Premadasa, who successfully weaned away Sirisena from supporting Gotabaya and subsequently also secured CBK’s overt support.

A political challenge for Gota

The political challenge for Gotabaya Rajapaksa is significant. The SLPP and the Rajapaksa campaign has struggled to extend its base beyond its core Sinhala nationalist constituency. The campaign and the candidate excites, energizes and creates passion among its core support base but is clearly struggling to reach beyond the Sinhala nationalist constituency.

An uninspiring orator and unfamiliar with policy nuances outside of security issues, he has failed to take up the challenge of a candidate’s debate with Sajith Premadasa, a feature in many democracies, including his second home of the USA. The SLPP is failing to sufficiently tap into the anti-incumbency sentiment of the electorate, both due to the association of Gotabaya with the worst excesses of the Rajapaksa regime’s past track record and also because contrary to expectations and miraculously, the UNP working committee accomplished the near impossible and nominated a fresh face, a younger but experienced leader and an authentic grass roots politician untainted by corruption and generally not associated as part of the inner circle of a less than sterling performance in governance during the past five years. Slowly but surely, support is coalescing around Sajith Premadasa.

The JVP are feeling the heat and recognizing that they are losing the floating voter to Sajith, hence their increased attempts to associate him with the current regime. But Sajith played his hand well during the past five years, furiously building houses throughout the country while making no attempt to be seen as close to Ranil. In fact, to the contrary he cleverly kept the required distance from the centre of power. Gota on the other hand needs to bask in his brother’s glory for his political legitimacy and that asset though is also his drawback.

Premadasa looking ahead and casting fresh vision, is slowly but surely consolidating and creating the ground for a surprising come from behind victory.

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