On Thursday, after a month-long bitter inner-party struggle, Sajith Premadasa was nominated as the ruling United National Party’s candidate for the November 16 Sri Lankan Presidential election. The entrenched faction led by party Leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had to bite the dust eventually, and grant Deputy Leader and Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa the party nomination “unconditionally.”
With the issue of UNP’s candidature settled at last,there are two main contenders for the Sri Lankan Presidency, namely, Sajith Premadasa of the UNP-led Democratic National Front (DNF) and Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-led front of ten parties. For convenience, one is leaving out minor candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayaka of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).
With Sajith and Gotabaya in the arena, two questions arise in one’s mind: (1) What are the issues on which the campaign will be fought? (2) What will be the policies of the Lankan government under Sajith or his principal rival, Gotabaya?
Since Sri Lanka has a Presidential form of government with a powerful, directly elected Executive President at the helm, (despite the watering down in 2015 through the 1 th Amendment ), the President is the fulcrum of the Administration. Parliament is relevant only to the extent that it passes laws and holds the purse strings.
As of now, Sajith is at a disadvantage because he belongs to the ruling UNP which has not at all done well in the past four and a half years whether in the developmental or the national security field. Although Sajith can get away by blaming Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena, he will still be carrying the cross of incumbency. Sajith himself has little to show by way of achievements as he has not held any major portfolio.
On the other hand, Gotabaya, has entered the electoral arena with significant successes under his belt. He was a very successful Secretary of Defense during the war and an efficient and creative Urban Development Secretary after the war. But Gotabaya has a major drawback. He is accused of committing serious human rights violations against the Tamil minority during the war and the Muslim minority after the war. His continued association with the military even after becoming a politician, puts off lovers of democracy.
Gotabaya’s failures on the human rights front add to the support base of Sajith. Thus, Sajith has the support of the Muslims and will eventually get the support of the Tamils too, though the latter were rooting for Ranil who is seen as a genuinely non-communal person. Sajith is yet to speak out on national security and national sovereignty in the context of the April 21 Jihadi bombings and pressure from the US to sign a military pact and an economic pact. These issues having been agitating the majority Sinhalese community but Sajith is looking only at rural development.
On the other hand, Gotabaya is building his campaign on the plank of national security, better intelligence gathering and a better decision making and implementing governmental apparatus . Though Gotabaya is silent on the developmental and military pacts with the US, it is widely acknowledged that the Rajapaksas did not and will not compromise on sovereignty.
As regards the nature of the Presidency under Sajith, it is said that what Lanka will get will only be more of what they are getting now. After all, those backing Sajith now have been staunch Ranil acolytes, enthusiastically implementing his internal and external policies. They abandoned Ranil in favor of Sajith only because Sajith has better mass appeal than Ranil which is needed to win the Presidential election.
Sajith is a hardworking professional politician but it is doubtful if he has the commanding personality which Gotabaya has to keep his ministers and officers on the go. He could be pulled in various directions by his key supporters. Or he could be under the thumb of some moneybags who financed his bid to get the party nomination. Sajith has the compulsion to work with Ranil as Prime Minister till at least the next parliamentary election in mid-2020. Retaining Ranil as Prime Minister was not part of the deal when the UNP Working Committee closed ranks unanimously backed Sajith for the Presidency. But it is understood that Ranil will continue as PM till mid-2020.
But the ride with Ranil is not guaranteed to be smooth if the past is any indication. First of all, it has been proved that there can be no cohabitation between people or political forces of equal strength. Secondly, cohabitation is not possible if there is no genuine commonality of interests or ideological goals. A Ranil-Sajith cohabitation will fail the commonality test. A sidelined and humiliated Ranil might continue to be arrogant, aloof and arbitrary in his decision making as he had been under the Presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga and Maithripala Sirisena. The cohabitation government will be crippled if Ranil does not take the backseat and let Sajith rule.
However, Sajith-loyalists say that Ranil will not be a powerful Prime Minister as party MPs will flock only to Sajith, the powerful Executive President, leaving Ranil high and dry.
A government under Sajith will be more rural and small industries and agriculture development-oriented as compared to a government under Gotabaya. Sajith is mostly talking of housing and drinking water for all, besides building 1,000 Buddhist temples. But Gotabaya is expected to be more macro-oriented wanting big projects including massive infrastructure development projects to put the country on the path of rapid economic development.
Investments from China, India, Japan, South Korea and the West will be welcomed and every facility will be provided to them. After all, it was under the Administration of the Rajapaksas (namely President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa and Urban Development Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa) that the Hambantota port, a second terminal in Colombo port, the Mattala airport and many excellent roads and railways were built with Chinese, Indian and other external assistance. It was Mahinda Rajapaksa who put up the Norocholai power plant against stiff opposition. This plant now supplies 50% of the electricity used in Lanka.
As regards foreign policy, Sajith is expected to toe a pro-Western line as his key supporters like Malik Samarawickrema, Mangala Samaraweera, and Dr.Harsha de Silva are pro-West. He might be forced to sign the controversial Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) agreement with the US to make land given by the government to peasants on lease saleable.
Sajith might also sign the controversial Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US giving the US military extra-constitutional rights in Sri Lanka , thus virtually turning the island into an US military base. This could arouse anxieties in China which has a deep economic interest in Lanka. The entry of China will doubtless draw the attention of India and the West making Lanka a cockpit of international intrigue.
As regards Gotabaya, he is expected to walk the right-rope vis-à-vis the contesting world powers. The Rajapaksas appear to have to learnt a lesson from their experience between 2010 and 2014 when they tilted too much towards China, causing anxieties in New Delhi and Washington. The Western powers backed the opposition in the January 2015 Presidential election which resulted in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat.
Rajan Philips: “Party Leaders and Presidential Candidates: Twists & turns in Sri Lankan politics,” Sunday Island, 29 September 2019, http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=211287