Sajith or Gota; who’s ahead in the race

In twelve days’ time, Sri Lankans will go to the polls to choose a new president in what increasingly looks like a very crucial election.

The question on everyone’s mind is who’s ahead in the race, Gotabaya Rajapaksa or Sajith Premadasa.

In this report, we look at the two front-runners.

In the absence of valid, scientifically conducted polls we journalists cannot point you in any direction, but we can weigh the pros and cons and try to guess what the majority of voters are thinking.

Mothers of missing persons protest against Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Jaffna/Twitter.com

The road to candidacy for the two men were in sharp contrast. The Rajapaksa’s decided on their candidate literally around the dinner table. Former two-term President Mahinda is ineligible because of term limits and the next choice was Gotabaya.

Premadasa however, had to fight a bruising battle against his party leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to become his party’s candidate.

Gotabaya the Candidate in a cocoon

Gotabaya, 70, is a former military officer with a fearsome reputation developed during his stint as Secretary to the Ministry of Defense in his brother Mahinda’s 10-year long Presidency. He is dogged by various allegations of corruption as well as whispers of complicity in high-profile murders and abductions.

He projects himself as a man who is ruthlessly efficient, someone “who can get the job done.” He promises to bring in discipline, protect local industry and above all ensure that Sri Lanka is safe from terror attacks.

Gotabaya is backed by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna the recently created political party that swept last year’s Local Government elections winning more than 40 percent of the popular vote and many councils along the way. A well-organized party, they have been working on the Gotabaya campaign for many months.

The SLPP is now allied with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, at least on paper becoming a formidable grouping that dominates the majority Sinhala Buddhist community. A number of smaller parties representing minority groups across the country are also supporting Gotabaya.

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Gotabaya with Buddhist Monks in an event held in Colombo in October/ SLPP Media

The candidate, however, is being cocooned by his handlers after a less than poor showing at his only press conference. Media has little access to him and in many cases, reporters have been refused entry to events he is attending.

Yet, because of the organizational strength and the allies he has gathered around him, Gotabaya is currently the front-runner in this race.

Sajith riding a fresh wind but swimming against the tide

Twenty years younger than Gotabaya, Premadasa presents a different face to our jaded political culture which is riddled with corrupt individuals who have been covering up for each other over the decades.

Seen as a hard-working Housing Minister, he has leveraged his father the late Ranasinghe Premadasa’s reputation for being on the side of the poor to bolster his candidacy.

It is a fact that Premadasa’s advent as the candidate has rejuvenated the moribund UNP grassroots organizations. Whether that energy can translate into actual votes at the ballot box is not known.

Sajith Premadasa / facebook.com

Premadasa has however upended the Neo-liberal economic policies followed by the UNP government in this four-year stint in power. He has laid out a social-democratic agenda where he is promising government intervention to help the poorest of the poor.

His charter for women is far-reaching; promising an independent Women’s Commission and more efforts to increase the percentage of women in politics. His promise that he would give sanitary napkins to girls and young women was treated with derision at first but he stuck to his guns. The study Menstrual Hygiene Management In Schools In South Asia,  Wash Matters, 2018, found that in Sri Lanka girls lose 1.3 million learning days a year due to this issue.

Premadasa has an open attitude, willing to address press conferences and other events where he has been questioned by experts, journalists and audience participants. He also appeared in an event that came closest to a candidate debate.

Premadasa’s party is the second biggest next to the SLPP, and is backed by strong allies in the Muslim and Tamil communities. On Sunday the biggest Tamil party on the Northern Peninsula the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi endorsed him.

Sajith Premadasa mingling with the crowds at a rally/Amith Tennakoon RepublicNext

But Premadasa still has a struggle ahead of him. The power struggle within the UNP for the candidacy has left bad blood and “Team Sajith” made up of younger party-men and women appear to be working on their own from their office in Vauxhall Street in Colombo. The Prime Minister’s team ensconced at Temple Trees are running their own campaign.

Many insiders told RepublicNext that the campaign is “not cohesive.”

However by Monday Nov 4, the campaign had agreed that Wickremesinghe would lead the charge in Colombo and the North and the East. This would free up Premadasa to work in the Sinhala-majority areas.

The task ahead for both parties

To become the President of this Republic the candidate has to win 50 percent of the votes, plus one. If that does not happen then the Returning Officers will count the Second Preferences indicated on the ballots cast for the other candidates as valid votes and a winner will be chosen.

In the last Presidential elections Maithripala Sirisena beat Mahinda Rajapaksa by less than four percent of the votes or 449,072 ballots.

In that contest the race was between the two horses, but this time there are a record 35 candidates running.

While the others are bit players Anura Kumara Dissanayake of the National People’s Movement is a more serious contender. Dissanayake, the country’s top-rated Parliamentarian according to Manthri.lk, is leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and has put together an alliance made up of Leftist parties and Social activists. He could garner more than 5 percent of the vote.

While Gotabaya will get most of the majority community votes, Premadasa will have to ensure he attracts a significant percentage of the Sinhala Buddhist while ensuring he retains the minorities as well.

At the moment Gotabaya’s team believes they are ahead and need to run a steady ship and not make mistakes to win easily. Sajith’s team, on the other hand, believe they are catching up but know they have to work hard in the little time ahead.

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