Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • November 2019
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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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