The main opposition party, the SLPP, was the quickest off the mark to propose its candidate. Their candidate, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has the advantage of being both a known and unknown quantity. On the one hand, he is known as being one of the primary architects of the military defeat of the LTTE, once believed to be an undefeatable politico-military force and enjoying local and transnational support. On the other hand, as a former army officer and public servant, his performance as a politician is untested and unknown. In the context of the widespread disillusionment against established politicians, this is an advantage to which the SLPP’s political opponents need to find an answer.
The inability of the government to deliver on its key promises to boost economic growth, fight corruption and to address war time grievances had eroded its popularity even prior to the Easter Sunday calamity. The synchronized bombings of six high profile targets that day and the killing of over 250 people added another failure to the list, this one being national security. This last failure in particular, and the widespread and systemic culpability of the political leadership, has been its death knell. It is in this context of widespread disillusionment with the established political leadership that the current presidential elections are taking place.
The ruling party, the UNP, has been grappling with these issues in its own search for the best candidate to present at the presidential elections. The first choice of its leadership appears to be its leader, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has become an outspoken champion of liberal causes at the present time. He has supported the reform of Muslim personal laws, gone to the North and spoken about constitutional reform and the need to strengthen devolution of power and is attempting to push through the US government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation grant that would upgrade the road and land registrations systems. However, there now appears to be a realization that these matter less when getting the people’s vote than a heady mix of patriotism and bread and butter issues.
The rise of the UNP deputy leader, Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa is related to the recognition that votes are what matters in an election. The person who can mobilise the people to vote for the party and its candidate will be the candidate that the party will need to put forward to win the election. Ironically, over three decades ago at the presidential elections of 1988, the UNP party leadership was faced with a similar situation. It nominated Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa to be its presidential candidate despite the president himself wishing to contest again. There were also other favourites of the party leadership. But only Prime Minister Premadasa was seen as having the capacity to mobilise the voters and rally disheartened UNP supporters in the face of the JVP insurrection, where the JVP threatened to kill those who voted at the election.
At the present time, the deep disillusionment that the people have with the government would make it a challenge for the UNP to mobilise the voters. At the community level, matters of constitutional and legal reform, transitional justice and foreign policy are not much understood or of interest to them. At the elections of 2015, they were promised a corruption-free government and economic development, which was not delivered. In this context Minister Sajith Premadasa has a special relevance as a politician who has been able to convince the masses of people that he is for uplifting the poor and will focus on their wellbeing. The houses he has been building and providing them with is seen as hard evidence of his intention to serve their interests. There is a demand for him from the grassroots where the bulk of the country’s voters and who believe he will deliver to them what they want and need.
On the other hand, amongst the party leadership and the intelligentsia, there are questions about Minister Premadasa’s overall policy direction. So far there is little to say where he stands on controversial issues such as constitutional reforms, dealing with the past and foreign policy. His speeches at the rallies which are seen as the launch of his campaign are pitched in general terms about his commitment to the welfare of the poor and to unifying the country and its people. His statements that he will spend more time in the villages and not live in mansions goes down well with the people who attend his meetings. Despite his public silence on controversial policy issues, he has always gone along with the party decisions which gives an inkling of where he stands.
One of the less savoury features of Sri Lankan politics has been the willingness of politicians to cross over to rival parties that offer them a plum position. Another unsavoury feature of Sri Lankan politics is to believe and accuse others of being engaged in conspiracies. Like his father, the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, Minister Sajith Premadasa has fought within the party for his due position. During the period of the constitutional crisis in October-November last year, President Maithripala Sirisena mentioned on several occasions that he had offered Minister Premadasa the prime ministerial position which he did not accept. He also came out publicly to denounce the constitutional coup attempt. But this has not deterred those who wish to undermine him to accuse him of being willing to split the party.
A recent example is the rumour that President Sirisena was plotting yet again last week to appoint Minister Premadasa as prime minister after replacing incumbent Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. This may or may not have been a plan in the mind of the president. He has been growing increasingly concerned about his inability to find a secure niche for himself after the forthcoming presidential election. However, it is unlikely that Minister Premadasa would have been in agreement with this unworkable plan, as it would have required a majority of parliamentarians to support him, and this would have included his arch rivals in the opposition, the SLPP.
Another criticism is regarding Minister Premadasa’s alleged lack of interest in the devolution of power. This is akin to an article of faith to the Tamil polity and essential to win their support. There are only a handful, such as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga who have been unwavering in their public support for this reform. During the past four years as housing minister Sajith Premadasa has gone along with the party leadership’s decisions. This is the team that needs to work together to meet the nationalist challenge posed by the former Defence Secretary and SLPP presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.