Sri Lanka: Battling for the PM’s job

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N Sathiya Moorthy 5 November 2019

Chennai, 31 October 2019What had started off as campaign for the presidential poll, scheduled for 16 November, is now increasingly getting the colour of one for Prime Minister, too, now unlike anytime in the past, it is the latter that seems to be deciding the results of the former. It is not without reason, though at the end of the day, it is the elected President who will (have to) decide who his Prime Minister will be, at least until the parliamentary polls, which are normally due by mid-August 2020, but could be advanced by weeks and months, depending on who wins the presidency, and what are his numbers.

It is not as if the 17-party Sri Lanka People’s Freedom Alliance, with the Rajapaksa-led SLPP and the parent party in President Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP in the lead, was formed after postal voting the for presidential polls commenced on 31 October. Rival UNP-led NDF candidate Sajith Premadasa’s election manifesto was released only after postal voting commenced. To think that Premadasa’s candidacy was doing the rounds within the UNP for weeks and months, if the voter expected that some key issues of the manifesto would have been available to them in good time, the latter should not be mistaken.

The greater problem is and with the TNA-inclusive five-party Tamil political alliance. With the postal voting already on, they are yet to decide whom to support, and whom to ask the community’s decisive vote-bank to cast their lot with. Not just that, one of the five, this one, the ‘prodigal son’ in former TNA chief minister of Northern Province, Justice C V Wigneswaran, issued a unilateral statement on the eve of the commencement of postal balloting, declaring that neither of the top two Sinhala candidates deserved the Tamils’ votes.

Yet, a day later, Wigneswaran’s political aides did participate in the next day’s five-party alliance talks, put together by Tamil students leaders of Jaffna University in the North, and the Eastern University in the Eastern Province. This was so when the other four, including the estranged EPRLF, had not made up their minds.

TNA’s problems

The problem for the Tamil parties is at least multi-fold. On the one hand, the incumbent Government of President Maithripala Sirisena, whom the Tamil vote catapulted to power, and identified with estranged UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, has not honoured their poll commitments from the 2015 polls. The TNA leadership cannot go back to the disenchanted Tamil voter and convince them entirely for and on behalf of one or the other of the presidential candidates, especially the two front-runners.

Two, the TNA leadership seems to have been convinced and has also concluded that a vote for the Rajapaksa candidate in war-time Defence Secretary Gotabaya would not be acceptable to their constituency even though they may be getting disillusioned with everyone around, starting with the community’s divided social and political leaderships. Some TNA leaders, starting with powerful public spokesperson M A Sumanthiran have indicated enough and more in this direction.

The TNA’s position becomes even more complex and complicated, considering their traditional conviction that at the end of the day, the anti-Rajapaksa contender from the UNP will be none other than PM Wickremesinghe. When the internal dynamics in the UNP shifted away from Wickremesinghe and in favour of Premadasa, Jr, they were/are not prepared to accept their change. Considering that Premadasa, Sr, as the nation’s President was slain by the LTTE, there is faction within the Tamil electorate that considers the family as much anti-Tamil as the Rajapaksas are being projected as.

Rival strategies

Needless to point out, the Gota camp would be happy even if a certain percentage of Tamil voters boycott the election, as all of them did ahead of his brother Mahinda’s first election as President in 2005. Of course, there is no LTTE to force the Tamils to stay away (which alone many think had helped the Mahinda ticket at the time), but they can still hope certain hard-liners of the Wigneswaran kind could make at least a part of this happen – just as a long-time loyalist in Douglas Devananda being able to deliver whatever Tamil votes were possible under the prevailing mood and circumstances.

Between Wickremesinghe and Premadasa, the southern Sinhala-Buddhist majority consider the latter a ‘tough guy’ to be up there, may be not as much as a Rajapaksa (whatever the truth of such presumptions on both). But the Premadasa campaign too does not want to lose out on the traditional Sinhala votes that his UNP has in the South, and also add a few hundred thousands more, if only his strategic posturing of the kind could help his candidacy.

If nothing else, the Premadasa campaign seems convinced that they cannot afford to lose more Sinhala-Buddhist votes, as apart from the Tamil votes in their droves, they would also have to have much more of the former, even more, to make it happen. Worse still for the candidate and his party, they would still require (only) the Sinhala votes, barring in capital Colombo possibly, to win parliamentary seats – where they cannot afford to alienate the majority community electorate even a whiff….

Ranil vs Mahinda

It is in this backdrop the presidential poll battle is increasingly moving away from being a Sajith vs Gota battle to one for the accompanying prime ministerial job, for which incumbent Ranil and erstwhile President Mahinda R are the main contenders. Of them, Ranil could not contest the presidential polls because the party and allies favoured Sajith P, Mahinda could not contest because the law would not permit him to seek a third term under the amended 19-A, upstaging revised 18-A from his second term.

To the politically-minded, it could even be a part of the continuing electoral one-upmanship between the constituencies that they respectively represent, or even one between the Upcountry Kandyan Govigama elite vs the Ruhuna Govigama (representing two denominations of the same, upper castes from within the Sinhala-Buddhist majority in the country. In reality, however, it is all this and more, rather, much more…

If analysts say that Gota starts with a solid 40-percent vote-share, it is all the ‘Mahinda vote-bank’ that he had acquired for finishing off the LTTE, which had been at war with the Sri Lankan State and targeted Sinhala places of worship and of work, in Colombo, Kandy, Anuradhapura and elsewhere. Not all of them are ‘Sinhala-Buddhist hard-liners’ as is being made out. They are Sinhala and Buddhist for most parts, but they can also be classified as hard-core anti-LTTE, anti-terror voters.

If Gota can even hope to win, he has to get all of that 40-per cent vote-share. Yet, to make the rest of the 10 per cent, assuming that they get all of that 40 per cent, the entire Rajapaksa clan of politicos, their parties and cadres have to keep working overtime, until the very last minute. And if Mahinda can hope to transfer, much if not all of that 40 per cent (if it came to that), it can only be to Gota, not only because they are brothers but also because the latter proved his ‘mettle’ as the war-time Defence Secretary and later also as Urban Development Secretary in the second Mahinda regime.

For Sajith, likewise, most of the traditional UNP voters are his for the asking, though it may be wrong for either him or even Ranil W to assume that they are his, personally. If anything, between the two, the UNP second-line and also the cadres are now enamoured by Sajith’s candidacy, they having got tired and frustrated with Ranil being at the helm of party affairs for too long, now for his own comfort, and more so that of the party. If Sajith gets more votes from outside the party, it is those of the UNP’s traditional allies, where again party brand, rather than personal brands work.

Where the difference occurs is in the case of the ‘minority’ Tamil electorate, where the TNA has a fair say. Leave aside the TNA, thanks also to their campaigns of the past decade, if at all the Tamil electorate seemingly seem to think positively about any Sinhala leader, it is Ranil, and not Sajith P, and not certainly, any or all of the Rajapaksas.

By promising to be prime minister under a President of their respective parties, both Ranil and Mahinda are actually reassuring their ‘committed voter-banks’ – Tamils in the case of the former – that they will be around and at the top, to ensure that their commitments and the vote-bank’s perceptions of their political behaviour would all be intact even if they arre not going to be the President, personally.

For Gota, it means the full transfer of the ‘core-votes’. For Sajith, it means the possible transfer of ‘minority’ Tamil votes, if at all he is otherwise able to convince that constituency that Ranil would still be Prime Minister, whatever be their differences, pre-poll or from the distant past. It is another matter that both Ranil and Mahinda are also possibly relying on the 19-A provisions that after incumbent Sirisena’s current and only term, the PM would be more powerful than the President.

While the ‘national’ (?) media has been playing down the contents of the two manifestos, a section of their Tamil counterpart seems wanting to put words, but only into Premadasa’s mouth, interpreting the same to imply what they, and possibly the TNA want the Tamil electorate to read, if not hear from the candidate and his party. It is another matter, while Gota has maintained strategic silence over Mahinda’s pre-nomination claims to becoming his brother’s PM, if the latter is elected President, Premadasa, seems to be contradicting his incumbent and party boss. As if to respond to Ranil’s claims to PM’s job for the self, post-poll, Candidate Premadasa has declared that just now he was considering only war-time army chief, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka for a Cabinet berth – and none else!

The article appeared in the Ceylon Today on 5 November 2019.

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