Sri Lanka: Is a ‘fourth alternative’ in sight?

OKKAMA RAJAWARU: Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna leader Mahinda Rajapaksa seen with leaders of small parties after he signed alliance agreements with them at his Wijerama Road office on Wednesday. Pic by Indika Handuwela

N Sathiya Moorthy   29 July 2019

With PHU ally of the Rajapaksas’ SLPP, Udaya Gamanpilla, declaring that the US has cleared Gota R’s request for relinquishing his American citizenship and Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa sort of offering a ‘deal’ to his UNP chief and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the stage seems set for a straight-fight in this year’s presidential polls. Of course, it is for President Maithripala Sirisena to decide if he would contest on the SLFP ticket or not, but then there is little or no space for a fourth alternative, to win or even make an impact – unless backed by all ‘minorities’.

There was social media speculation on the US ‘denying’ relinquishing right for ‘citizen Gota’. Going by official records, no such thing had happened. Official statements in this regard had clearly said that Gota applied only in mid-April whereas the last published list of those relinquishing American citizenship pertained to the previous quarter, ending March 2019. Unless, thus, the US authorities, be it in Colombo or Washington, denied Gamanpilla’s declaration, there is nothing to suggest that Gota cannot contest the presidential polls.

Of course, there is a caveat that the SLPP-JO can still look around for another candidate, a decision that they say former President Mahinda Rajapaksa will declare on 11 August after taking over as the SLPP boss that day. If that became the case, why all this dust and noise about Gota having to surrender his American citizenship? If nothing else, the party and alliance could well be seen as deprecating his contribution to the ‘war-victory’ against the dreaded LTTE a decade ago?

Whatever be Mahinda’s decision, a stage at least has been reached where the SLPP-JO can only lose face if they went for a presidential nominee other than Gota Rajapaksa. The fact also remains, going beyond a Gota candidacy, whoever the Rajapaklsas back and field, he or she is not going to get the Tamil votes from among the ‘minorities’, at least the share that is generally believed to be required for them to win the presidency.

Hidden message?

Speaking at a religious function at Divilupitiya, Minister Sajith Premadasa, come out his self-imposed shell of the past four-plus years, as if he would behave like a ‘disciplined’ party soldier. In the long run-up to the decisive Elections-2015, he was seen as challenging Ranil’s UNP leadership, and also all those that his camp seen as an aspiring challenger. He proved to be one when President Sirisena reportedly offered him the PM’s job more than once, going by the former’s public confession, at the height of last October’s ‘twin constitutional crises’.

Sirisena also said that he had offered the job to Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuria, but the latter too would not go against the party’s mandate, which stood in Ranil W’s name. It is another matter that Sajith has had a purported bad experience of backing Karu Jayasuriya against Ranil W on one occasion for the party’s leadership – and felt let down – pre-2015 polls.

At Divilupitia, Sajith P sought to seek votes in the name of his slain father, President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Taking a pot-shot, especially at the Rajapaksas, he said that he would not use religion to covet (Sinhala?) votes, but would take forward the welfare programmes launched by his father before an LTTE suicide-bomber took away his life.

But the hidden message was to Wickremesinghe and to the rest of the UNP, it would seem. Sajith P said that whether given the job of the President or Prime Minister, he would try to implement the (kind of welfare) programmes that his late father had initiated in his time. In political terms, it can be interpreted as Sajith offering a ‘deal’ to PM Wickremesinghe, that ‘you keep one of the two, and I (alone) should be considered for the other job’.

If correct, such an interpretation could well mean Sajith telling Ranil, and also the party cadres over the head of the second line – as directly used to be his style, pre-2015, to keep it all between the two of them. Translated, it could mean that if Ranil would play around with names and allies to scuttle Sajith P, the self-enforced truce of the past four years would be off, at least from Sajith’s side.

Parties, personalities

Sajith’s camp-followers are convinced that he and he alone could cut into the Rajapaksas’ ‘southern Sinhala’ vote-bank, starting with their ‘common stronghold’ of Hambantota district. His adversaries and other detractors within the UNP and in the ‘urban middle class’ (?) are not so sure. They also seems to be convinced that the still-powerful ‘Colombo Seven’ lobby and those that they represent otherwise may feel uncomfortable with the son as they were with the father – even after the latter had become the popularly-elected President of the nation.

The detractors seem to think that the ‘minorities’ won’t vote a Premadasa but then against a Rajapaksa, the Sajith camp, seems confident that the Tamil and Muslim voters may not have a choice. They of course would not have any response to the query if he could take a clear line on ethnicity-centric questions on national security, especially after the Easter Sunday bomb-blasts, which of course has triggered a larger concern than confined to one of the three non-Sinhala-Buddhist ethnicities.

The Sajith camp seems determined to keep the poll campaign, development-centric, which is what incumbent Mahinda R tried and failed in Elections-2015. It is another matter, as Mahinda’s Urban Development Secretary (even while keeping his Defence Secretary’s job), Gota had presented himself as ‘urban developer and beautifier’. But then, to the Sajith camp, as the Sirisena election of 2015, has already proved, Elections-2020, is neither about war, nor about development – it is about parties and personalities.

Not a zero-sum game

Be it as it may, the discourse is not just about who will be fielded by the two main contenders, or even about Sirisena contesting on the SLFP ticket, with or without the Rajapaksa blessing. Media reports have indicated that a Sirisena-Mahinda meeting may be on cards, for taking forward the SLFP-SLPP alliance-talks, which has run into weeks and months now, punctuated by ups and downs, about which neither side is willing to talk, leave alone talking confidently, thus far.

If at the end of it all, Sirisena is not contesting, it would be a loss of face for the man. If he contests against a Rajapaksa candidate (leave alone a UNP nominee), his SLFP-UPFA votes, or whatever remains of them, would be split. If he does not contest, his votes might well go to a Rajapaksa nominee, near-wholesale, and no one would really shed tears for the man.

Going by the 2017 February local government polls, the SLFP-UPFA had polled a substantial 13 per cent vote-share, even while coming third, after the SLPP-JO with 42-45 per cent (depending on which way you looked at it) and the UNP 30 per cent. Technically, it could mean that a SLPP-SLFP combine should comfortably reach the mandated 50-per cent cut-off mark in the presidential polls with ease and poise. But election arithmetic is not a zero-sum game.

Anyway, the figures pertained to a period prior to the ‘twin constitutional crises’. But then, the subsequent Easter bombings may, or may not have, put ‘national security’ on the top of the electoral agenda. If so, it’s advantage, the Rajapaksas. Even without it, they are not to be written off or treated less seriously.

Alternative message

It is in this background, cutting across ideas and ideologies some media analysts have begun writing about the need and possibilities for a fourth alternative, going beyond the presidential nominees of the UNP, SLFP and SLPP. If they have begun well, it may be too late, with the twin constitutional crises and the Easter bombings deflecting the time factor required to launch, spread and strengthen the ‘alternative’ message.

Thankfully, or otherwise, there is no specific news report of anyone taking any serious measure – like having a hidden candidate in the likes of Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka (2010) and Sirisena (2020), for Elections-2020, whose very presence in the fray can upset certain calculations and also make an impact. The idea may not be for such a candidate to win the presidency (as without a supportive Parliament later on), he may go the Sirisena way.

This could also be the message of established political parties if an ‘outsider’ were to be imposed on the nation, of course, through the constitutionally-mandated presidential polls. Well then, no one is talking about a new and established political party or group capable of thwarting the traditional ‘political captivity’ in which the nation has been finding itself for decades since the founding of SLFP in the early fifties, breaking away in turn from the nation’s GOP in the UNP.

Not the first time

But then, independent of such speculative ventures, Upcountry Tamil Minister Mano Ganesan has since called upon the TNA leadership to call for a meeting of all political parties of all minority ethnicities, namely, the Sri Lankan Tamils, the Muslims and Upcountry Tamils. It is easier said than done, considering that this time round even the TNA’s electoral base has seemingly been weakened, going by the LG poll figures of February 2017 and the subsequent TNA split under former Northern Province Chief Minister, C V Wigneswaran.

This is also not the first time that a call has been given for uniting all minority ethnicities. The call has invariably come from an Upcountry Tamil leader, whose ethnicity itself is divided, not really on ideology but owing to personality clashes. The less said about the Sri Lankan Tamils, who used to be seen as on the ‘TNA bandwagon’, but possibly not necessarily any more, unless proved otherwise. The Muslims are more divided than united, and barring their common decision for all the community ministers, cutting across party lines, to quit, in the aftermath of the ‘Muslim harassment’, post-blasts, there is no talk of any effort at uniting the community politically.

Even there, after making bold claims about quitting the Government, all nine Muslim ministers are back in business, as if nothing had happened to their community, now or ever – or, all was well with the community all along. This is not to exclude the post-blasts SLT attacks on the Muslims, and the subsequent Kalmunai sub-division row, which was avoidable to begin with, and unavoidable to have been taken up, as if life depended on that and that alone! A decision that might have lost the UNP and PM Wickremesinghe a share of Muslim votes without guaranteeing any SLT votes in a very big way.

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University