The state of the race: A sprint to a close finish ahead
The race appears to be closer this week with the principle candidates sprinting to the finish. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is said to be ahead and the younger challenger, Sajith Premadasa closing in fast.
Team Gota had, for a few days, decided to go into a holding pattern as they felt they were comfortably ahead and did not want to push the campaign or their candidate to the fore lest they make mistakes.
With what they thought was a “stagnant” Gota campaign, Sajith’s cohorts went for broke.
Nine days before the day of the Presidential election Premadasa took a leap in the dark by making an “address to the nation” which was broadcast on his Facebook page.
In eleven minutes, the 52-year old Premadasa promised an electorate disgusted with the current political culture, that he would bring in sweeping changes.
He promised a Prime Minister who will be a “first-timer,” and a Cabinet full of vibrant young, qualified men and women who have not been touched by corruption that will “maintain a gender and generational balance.”
He says he was moved to make the promise because on the campaign trail he was asked the question how he would transform the current corrupt political culture of the country.
He said “it became clear to me that there is only one way Sri Lanka’s problems can be fixed and that will be to clean up politics in this country while not sacrificing our cherished democracy and individual freedoms.”
In that, he has said a mouthful and set himself a gargantuan task, and possibly set off a civil war inside the UNP just days before the poll.
This is because at the culmination of his bruising battle inside the UNP to wrest the candidacy from Ranil Wickremesinghe, Premadasa had agreed that the Party Leader will stay in place as the Executive Prime Minister even if and when he is elected President according to sources in Temple Trees.
Constitutionally, as President Maithripala Sirisena learnt, it is not possible to remove the PM easily. So that means to fulfil this promise to the nation Premadasa will have to dissolve Parliament at the earliest opportunity, which is in mid-March, and also build enough backing from the party to handpick the nominees who will contest the poll from the UNP.
The question here is will his promise to take away the trappings of MP-ship, the Duty Free Luxury vehicle, the houses, the ability to give jobs to friends and family pose a challenge in build support around him.
But with trends and polls showing that he is catching up with his rival Gotabaya, he needs a final push to climb the steep hill that will take him over the 50 percent mark.
That is why, while taking the risk of angering some UNPers, he pitched this line aiming at the voters going to Anura Kumara Dissanayake and the outlier candidates such as Gen Mahesh Senanayake, Ajantha Perera. Voters supporting these candidates are mostly disgusted with the people and practices of current politics.
In response, Gotabaya, went on a punishing round of rallies, flying from the plains of Polonnaruwa to the hill country and into the South.
At Polonnaruwa, the serial party crossover artist, State Minister of Foreign Affairs Vasantha Senanayake joined Gotabaya on stage. The candidate appeared a bit miffed that the noisy entrance of Senanayake was made in the midst of his speech, but later smiled as the descendant of the father of the nation D S Senanayake took off his Green cap and put on the Maroon headgear of the SLPP.
At all the rallies, Gotabaya and his brother, Leader of the Opposition Mahinda Rajapaksa kept on offering more goodies to voters. These are pro-poor items that did not appear in detail on the manifesto, which includes free housing which also goes against what he has been expounding at the Viyath Maga discussions that preceded his formal candidateship.
“We will ensure every poor family receives, free of charge, a bag of nutritious food stuff as well as a government job for one member of the family,” he told the crowds.
Gotabaya has also offered free fertilizer for paddy farmers and vegetable growers amid a number of other concessions.
Mahinda also raked up an old controversy that the UNP was cutting deals with the Tamil parties by agreeing to greater devolution than the current Constitution would allow. It was a clear gambit to shore up his core Sinhala-Buddhist Nationalist Base vote.
As a tumultuous week ended, one-time Mahinda confidante former MP Sajin Vaas Gunewardena entered the fray, accusing the former President of threatening his family and showering allegations of corruption against the Rajapaksa family. They ranged from bribing Velupillai Prabhakaran to block votes to the UNP in the Presidential elections of 2005 to siphoning off commissions from the sale of the Army land in Galle Face to the Chinese to build the Shangri La Hotel and Mall. He alleged that the Rajapaksa’s had bought hotels in Tangalle with the money.
The constant thorns in Gotabaya’s side Ministers Harin Fernando and Mangala Samaraweera went on Twitter over the weekend to resuscitate the question of whether Gotabaya has renounced his American citizenship. This was prompted by the fact that Gotabaya’s name did not appear in the list of persons who have given up US citizenship published by the US government this week in the Federal Registry. This has been a controversy that has dogged the former Secretary to the Ministry of Defense for years.
His nephew, MP Namal Rajapaksa and his lawyer President’s Counsel Mohamed Ali Sabri have stoutly defended Gotabaya with Ali Sabri pointing out that the National Elections Commission raised no objections when they accepted his nomination papers.
This has been a Presidential race that has pitted the old versus the new in a way totally unexpected just a few months ago. Many believed it would be a contest between Ranil from the United National Front versus a member of the Rajapaksa family, probably Gota. A fight between Gotabaya who carries the burdens of the authoritarian practices, the corruption and misdeeds of 10 years of Rajapaksa rule versus the unpopular Ranil who squandered the mandate to bring in Good Governance and punish the wrongdoers would have been dull and wearying. We would have been wallowing in the same cesspool, where these opponents have, over the decades covered up for each other.
But the advent of Premadasa and in some way the JVP’s Anura Kumara has added spice and some excitement to the race. New ideas have been discussed, and all of them, except for Gotabaya have been open to the Media and appeared at debates. Perhaps there is hope for our nation after all.
Kithmina Hewage- Institute of Policy Studies