Why is the world talking less about Sri Lankan presidential polls this time?

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Sri Lankan presidential candidate and former defense chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa is seated next to a billboard carrying portraits of him self and his brother Mahinda CREDIT: ERANGA JAYAWARDENA/AP

There is little or no excitement in global capitals over the Sri Lankan presidential polls this time, unlike during the last three elections of 2005, 2010 and 2015.

by N Sathiya Moorthy 15 November 2019   

Delayed excitement on the domestic front is just picking up even as campaign for the Sri Lanka’s presidential polls ended on Wednesday. Polling is slated for Saturday, 16 November 2019. Given the unprecedented number of 35 candidates in the fray, and given the nation’s ‘preferential electoral system,’ both polling and counting are expected to take more time than usual.  

However, there is little or no excitement in global capitals over the Sri Lankan presidential polls this time, unlike during the last two or three elections of 2005, 2010 and 2015. For most in the ‘international community’ (read: West), one of the two main contestants is ‘unwelcome’ and the other is ‘unknown’.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, wartime defence secretary and brother of then president Mahinda Rajapaksa, was the favourite when the poll schedule was announced. Their SLPP-JO combine had a proven 40 percent vote-share. Against this, ruling UNP candidate and Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa had to fight every inch to obtain the party nomination over the head of his Prime Minister and party boss for long, Ranil Wickremesinghe.

In a way, it is ‘shadowboxing’ of the kind, which neither side could concede. Gota Rajapaksa became candidate after Mahinda was debarred from contesting for a third term after the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (the last one thus far) re-introduced the two-term upper-limit for the presidency. Critics, both political and human rights organisations, have accused the Rajapaksa of wartime crimes against innocent Tamils, whose numbers a UN committee put at a contestable 40,000.

In a way, it is ‘shadowboxing’ of the kind, which neither side could concede.

Premadasa is the son of slain president Ranasinghe Premadasa, and the former seemed to have taken great pains to live down the image of the anti-insurgency measures against JVP militancy (1987-89) that left 60,000-100,000 majority Sinhalas, mostly youth belonging to both genders, dead. Taking a leaf out of his father’s constructive work, Premadasa Jr., deliberately chose the less attractive Housing Ministry, and has gone about distributing free houses to the poor people, Sinhala and the rest, including those with aid and assistance from the Indian neighbour.

The Preamadasa camp hopes that such grassroots-level work over the past five years would keep him in good stead in the presidential polls. Likewise, the Rajapaksa campaign managers refer to the large-scale electrification and road construction works that the Mahinda presidency had undertaken even while fighting the LTTE in a battle unto the end. The subtext is that if previous governments fighting the ethnic war had not undertaken such initiatives, it had more to do with their unwillingness than resource-constraints and the like.

Inherent aversion

There is no denying the inherent aversion of the West towards the Rajapaksas, which took shape and consolidated during the last years of the Mahinda presidency. It has also meant that they have lost much of the communication channels that had existed, both formally and otherwise, with them, after Mahinda Rajapaksa lost power in Elections 2005.

There is no denying the inherent aversion of the West towards the Rajapaksas, which took shape and consolidated during the last years of the Mahinda presidency. It has also meant that they have lost much of the communication channels.

The sweeping popular mandate for the Rajapaksas in the nationwide local government polls of February 2018 shocked the West more than they were prepared for. This was followed by their taking PM Wickremesinghe’s side so very openly at the height of the twin constitutional crises triggered by outgoing President Maithripala Sirisena, in end-October 2018. This meant that the West not only has lost touch with the ground, but also failed to recognise the possibility of Premadasa replacing their favourite Wickremesinghe as the rival candidate.

Wise course

It is in this background the ‘international community’ seems to have taken the wise course of not being seen as favouring one candidate against the other — or, disfavouring one in favour of the other. If nothing else, it has since dawned on them — or, so it seems — that they need to work with the president that Sri Lankans elect for themselves. Maybe, Gota Rajapaksa is not their cup of tea, and maybe, Sajith Premadasa may be an infant in international affairs and geostrategic security paradigms.

Despite heated campaign, which at times borders on mutual hatred, the two main electoral platforms in Sri Lanka have near-similar approaches to international concerns. The West knows the Rajapaksas’ views on war crimes probe and other issues of their concerns, taking over from where the local and Diaspora Tamils have left. They had managed a ‘fair deal’ from the Wickremesinghe leadership, but are not sure of Premadasa sticking to the committed ‘party line’ if elected president.

Despite heated campaign, which at times borders on mutual hatred, the two main electoral platforms in Sri Lanka have near-similar approaches to international concerns.

On China, the strategic irritant for the West in the Indian Ocean and centred on Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksas invited them to create a ‘ghost’ port at southern Hambantota, followed by a ‘ghost’ airport in adjoining Matara district. If the West thought that their backing coupled with expectations from Elections 2010, and later Elections 2015, on would ensure that the Wickremesinghe Government would try and ‘minimise’ if not evict Chinese participation in Sri Lanka’s developmental schemes, that was not to be. Wickremesinghe converted a debt-deal with China into a debt-to-equity deal, blaming it all on the Rajapaksas, saying they had put the nation in a ‘debt-trap’.

It is anybody’s guess why and how the US, for instance, slept on its multi-million MCC (Millennium Cooperation Corporation) deal with Sri Lanka, for investing in developmental projects in the country, as if to try and compete, if not replace China, until almost to the end of the Wickremesinghe term. Today, the MCC draft along with ‘military-centric’ cooperation agreements such as ACSA and SOFA, are before the nation’s Supreme Court.

The Rajapaksas, while opposed to the US projects, in principle, have not said much against the same, personally. Much of the criticism from their camp has come from their allies, not even other leaders of their SLPP. Though the Cabinet did clear the deal towards the end of the term, President Sirisena clarified that it could be signed only under a new president. Whether Gota or Sajith, the US cannot be as sure as it would have been under Wickremesinghe, indicating that there was possibly more than meeting the eye to the MCC, in what otherwise is being touted as a ‘developmental pact.’

Indian ‘withdrawal’?

In comparison, the Indian neighbour seems to have ‘withdrawn’ from active involvement of whatever kind in Sri Lanka’s domestic politics. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the first one in office to visit Sri Lanka for a bilateral for the first time in 27 years — in March 2015 — and also followed it up with another, India otherwise seems to have disentangled itself from the ‘ethnic issue’, where New Delhi found — very long ago — that it had no friends in Sri Lanka.

More than the rest, India seemed to be following the twists and turns in Sri Lankan politics with greater clarity and openmindedness. This has meant that India left it to Sri Lanka’s Constitution Assembly and the local Tamil political leadership in the TNA and the rest, to address the longstanding demands and aspirations of the ethnic minorities in the island-nation. It suited the TNA leadership even more, it would seem, as they were seen moving closer to the West than to their traditional front in the Indian neighbour.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the first one in office to visit Sri Lanka for a bilateral for the first time in 27 years — in March 2015 — and also followed it up with another, India otherwise seems to have disentangled itself from the ‘ethnic issue’, where New Delhi found — very long ago — that it had no friends in Sri Lanka.

Today, India is involved in developmental and social infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, in a big way — as in the case of the two sectors in other neighbouring nations. India’s concerns in Sri Lanka, again as in the case of other neighbours, is security-centric. On the external front, India is concerned about China and Pakistan. On the internal, it is Islamic militancy, spreading out from traditional regional centres, to the neighbourhood. It is this concern that kept the Indian agencies on their toes 24X7, so much so they could alert their Sri Lankan counterparts on the 21 April ‘Easter Sunday’ serial blasts, days in advance.

Pre-judged and more

Independent of what foreign governments have been saying and doing — or, not saying and not doing — the western media has been harsh only on the Rajapaksas, pegging most of their news and analyses on their perceptions of the past. The fact that they have no clue about the Premadasa ticket, as they have also stopped their ‘pro-democracy’, UNP interactions with Wickremesinghe and his camp-followers is also among the reasons.

Barring a solitary newspaper house, most of the Indian media analyses and news coverage, if any, on the Sri Lankan elections are based on past perceptions, where the Rajapaksas remain a villain. Their understanding of Wickremesinghe was/is minimal, and of Premadasa, abysmal. Their coverage of the presidential election has thus been one-sided, without being able to put out positive points in support of the candidate that they may favour or at least not disfavour. Whichever way Sri Lanka votes, most of them will be groping in the dark as to how and why happened the way it happened, come next week, when the Indian Ocean nation would have had a new president.

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