What effect will the JVP candidate have on the Presidential poll?
Anura Kumara Dissanayake the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna leader who is the latest entrant to the Presidential race is taking aim at the middle-class Sri Lankan in an outside bid to win the country’s top political job.
The JVP is the biggest party of 28 different organisations that back Dissanayake which have come together in a formation dubbed the National People’s Power coalition.
It brings together a number of left-leaning organisations as well as civil society groups and is spread among all ethnic and religious groups in the country.
Clearly, it would be stretch to imagine that the NPP can beat the United National Party-led coalition or the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna juggernaut which is already on the campaign trail headed by its candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Rarely has the JVP won more than a sliver of support from the electorate and has not put forward a candidate for the Presidency for 20 years.
In 2015, it gave tacit support to the anti-Mahinda Rajapaksa coalition that brought Maithripala Sirisena to the Chief Executive’s post, probably pushing challenger over the line with their votes. The JVP’s unspoken support for Sirisena was a crucial factor in the defeat of the incumbent President that year.
In that way the JVP has been more of “an influencer than a major player says” University of Peradeniya Professor of Political Science Desmond Mallikarachchi.
He told RepublicNext that there is a political vacuum left by the disintegration of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the JVP-NPP is “trying to fill that but I believe the maximum number of votes that they can get at the election will be between six and seven hundred thousand.”
Prof. Mallikarachchi, who was invited to the NPP rally and says he would have sat on the stage, bemoans the loss of the JVP’s true Leftist credentials. “They don’t use that vocabulary anymore,” he lamented.
He is right. The message from the NPP is more middle-of-the-road.
Dissanayake offered new thinking on issues such as National Security.
Taking an indirect swipe at the SLPP’s Rajapaksa, the JVP leader said there is fear and suspicion in our society created on ethnic and communal lines. “But no religious or ethnic extremist can ensure national security. They can only increase police check-points.”
Castigating the current political culture which he says “divides our people according to the language we speak, our faith, our caste and our sexual preferences” must be changed. “These are forms of oppression,” he added promising to change all that and create a new society.
True national security can only be ensured “by leadership that creates national unity by recognizing the value of all communities,” he pointed out.
In a pitch aimed at the younger voters disenchanted with the current political culture, Dissanayake said that it was vital to allow freedom of speech and thought for our society to develop. “A diversity of thoughts and ideas are important and that cannot happen when these creative thoughts are locked up and stifled.”
In another dig at the Rajapaksa camp, he said discipline cannot be enforced by cracking down on people. That can be achieved by giving people freedom of thought and by education he said.
“That is how we can create a disciplined and law-abiding society” he added. By enforcing laws to create discipline you are only oppressing people further, he said.
In a direct appeal to those who he said “remain silent but are sad and angry,” about the current political culture, Dissanayake said they should support the coalition. Paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr, he said “what we will mourn will be the silence of our friends.”
Although many of the speakers preceding Dissanayake attacked the UNP-led government for “dashing the hopes of the many who brought Yahapalanaya to office,” the JVP leader refrained from any direct attacks on the Ranil Wickremesinghe government or the SLPP.
But what effect would such a coalition contesting the main parties have?
One thing is certain, the Civil Society activists that the NPP has drawn such as Saroja Paulraj, Jagath Manuwarna and others are tied closely to the grassroots as opposed to the more visible Colombo-based activists. They will take away voters from a candidate with a Liberal outlook, probably making it harder for the candidate opposing Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
But these are early days. Only the SLPP and JVP have nominated candidates for an election that will take place in at least three months from now. Apart from that, the UNP’s Sajith Premadasa is raring to go.
Anything can happen from now on, but the circus has begun.