By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“…the elevation of Mr Rajapaksa to the presidency is likely to have a damaging impact on social stability… With a rise in Sinhalese nationalism, there is likely to be a further increase in anti-minority sentiment across the country… Combined with the weakening of press freedoms and civil liberties that we would expect under a Gotabaya presidency, this is likely to be detrimental to long-term political stability. As a result, the country’s economic prospects look set to darken.” ~ What would a Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency look like (Economist Intelligence Unit – 11.8.2019)
Saviours need crises, not the average inflation-unemployment sort, but the existential kind.
It was barely four days after the Easter Sunday Massacre, and the funerals of victims were just beginning, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his decision to run for president.
Politicians use public tragedies for private gain. But the more astute ones don’t thrust I’m the Saviour placards at mourners. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a Trumpian figure who has little respect for political or social conventions, saw an unparalleled opportunity in the Easter Sunday Massacre and jumped at it.
Since then, we are said to be in the midst of a Gota-wave. The Easter Sunday Massacre is supposed to have ensured for Gotabaya Rajapaksa the backing of absolute majority of Sinhalese, including almost all Sinhala-Catholics. With this seminal shift, he is expected to win the next presidential election outright.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is indubitably the frontrunner of the presidential race. But whether he can win it outright, without going for a second count, is far from certain.
The number of registered voters currently is around 16million. If, as in 2015, the turnout is 82% (and rejected votes don’t exceed 2%), this would mean a total valid vote of 12.8million. To win outright, a candidate would have to gain around 6.4million votes.
The SLPP won the 2018 Local Government election polling 5million votes. That 5million votes belong to Gotabaya Rajapaksa. With it, he can come first in the presidential race, but he cannot win it. To win the presidency outright, he needs an extra 1.4million votes.
Given the nature of the SLPP and Gotabaya’s own character and record, he will have to obtain this extra 1.4 million votes from among the Sinhalese almost exclusively.
Can he get this 1.4million from the Catholic Belt (spanning Gampaha and Puttalam districts), as some argue? According to the last census, the entire Catholic population in Sri Lanka (including children) is 1.2million. Close to quarter of this live in Northern, Eastern and Central provinces and are more likely to be of Tamil ethnicity. Moreover, voting patterns strongly indicate that most voters in the Catholic Belt had shifted their allegiance to the SLPP by 2018. At the 2018 LG poll, the SLPP won the absolute majority of councils in this area.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a real chance of winning outright, if he can gain the SLFP’s backing. But will Maithripala Sirisena abandon his demand for premiership, and will the SLFP consent to contest under the SLPP symbol? Currently both prospects seem remote.
In the last four years, many SLFP activists/supporters found themselves pitted not so much against the UNP as against the SLPP. This might have created sufficient bad-blood between the two parties at the grassroots level preventing many SLFPers from backing Candidate Gotabaya. While many of those remaining in the SLFP might feel a sense of identification with Mahinda and even Chamal Rajapaksa, no such feelings can be kindled by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The remaining SLFPers are more likely to vote for a third party candidate or even abstain than vote for a man who had never been a member of the SLFP.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has two other paths to victory. The first is a UNP broken both in spirit and in structure. The second is a stratospheric increase in anti-minority hysteria, which keeps many Tamils and Muslims away from polling booths and convinces an absolute majority of Sinhalese that they face an existential threat from which only a President Gotabaya can save them.
The Madness in the UNP
If an outright victory is difficult for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it would be near impossible for the UNP candidate, be it Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa or even Karu Jayasuriya.
The UNP scored 3.6million votes at the 2018 LG polls. Which means the UNP candidate will have to gain 2.8million extra votes to win the presidency outright.
The argument that a Sajith Premadasa candidacy can assure the UNP of an easy victory is one not based on facts. In 2018, the UNP’s average vote in the Hambantota district was lower than the UNP’s national average. The UNP obtained 29.4% of the vote nationally, while in Hambantota, it got only 25.5%. The UNP won only one council in the district, the Hambantoa Municipal Council – a victory due to Muslim vote than to any Sajith magic.
By 2018, the Rajapaksas’ absolute dominance in Hambantota has eroded somewhat. At the LG polls, the SLPP gained more than 50% of the vote in Galle and Matara districts, but failed to do so in Hambantota (with 49.9% in 2018, down from 53.84% in August 2015). The UNP too suffered an erosion of vote in Hambantota, from 35.65% in August 2015 to 25.5% in 2018. It was the SLFP and the JVP that gained from the Rajapaksa losses. The SLFP scored 10.3% while the JVP got 12.8% (compared to 9.98% in 2015).
If there’s no Sajith-magic in Hambantota, the district he nursed for more than 15 years, can there be a Sajith-magic anywhere else in the country? Logically, factually no.
Sajith Rajapaksa can promise to build a chaithya per village, but his chances of breaking into the Sinhala-Buddhist voter base of the Rajapaksas are non-existent. Instead his open identification with majoritariansim would lose the UNP the minority vote. Many Tamils and Muslims might feel more comfortable voting for the newly enlightened platform of Anura Kumara Dissanayake than for a deliberately parochial Sajith Premadasa.
What about the argument that a Sajith candidacy can win the backing of President Sirisena, together with his 1.5million votes? But the price of obtaining President Sirisena’s support would be a public pledge to make him the Prime Minister. Such a proposal might have been acceptable to the UNP in 2015, 2016 or even 2017, but not 2019. Post-October 26th coup, Maithripala Sirisena is toxic for most UNPers. A pledge to make him the premier would cause a spontaneous split in the UNP. Many disgusted UNPers would either stay away from voting or back a third party candidate, such as Anura Kumara Dissanayake.
So a Sajith Premadasa candidacy is no silver bullet. Perhaps young Premadasa’s greatest weakness stems from his inability to learn from his father’s example. In 1988, Ranasinghe Premadasa didn’t go round the country holding public meetings demanding the UNP candidacy, and proclaiming he will contest the presidential election anyway. And his winning coalition united a majority of urban voters, the rural poor and the minorities.
To prevent Gotabaya Rajapaksa from winning outright, the UNP must stop its infantile squabbling. Currently Sajith Premadasa and Ranil Wickremesinghe are fully occupied with trying to kill the elephant, one with fire and the other with ice. Such infantile conduct would have appalled Ranasinghe Premadasa and JR Jayewardene who always placed party-unity above their personal ambitions. But sons and nephews are not made of the same clay as fathers and uncles. Sajith Premadasa’s vainglory and Ranil Wickremesinghe’s obduracy are threatening the electoral prospects of the UNP, and far more pertinently, the very survival of Lankan democracy.
Terrifying the Sinhalese into submission
The hype around the SLPP’s 2018 victory served to hide a far more nebulous mathematical reality. The party’s average vote did not exceed the all important 50% mark. It won just 40% of the vote. Had that election been a parliamentary election, the SLPP would not have been able to form a government on its own. Had that election been a presidential election, there would have been no outright victor; to find a winner, second and third preferences would have had to be counted.
The infusion of multiple third party candidates can become a serious headache for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They can’t cause even a splinter in the SLPP’s near monolithic base vote, and are more likely to take votes away from the UNP. But they can attract disillusioned anti-Rajapaksa voters back into the electoral contest. This would mean an increase in the voter turnout and a corresponding increase in the number of extra votes Gotabaya Rajapaksa needs for an outright win.
The picture can turn even more problematic for him, if key third party candidates ask their supporters to cast second and third preferences. Since these voters would be of anti-Rajapaksa persuasion mostly, their second and third preferences will not be for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This opens the possibility of Gotabaya Rajapaksa winning a plurality in the first count, but losing the overall election in second or third counts.
The argument that Gotabaya Rajapaksa can win outright by attracting most of the first time voters is a specious one. There aren’t enough first time voters to bridge the 1.4million gap; and some of those voters would be non-Sinhalese…
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has only one definite path to outright victory. A crisis that drives the minorities underground and the Sinhalese mad. A crisis that reduces the overall voter turnout while increasing the Sinhala component of it. Another Easter Sunday CaMassacre or another Black July, ideally both.
While Candidate Gotabaya tries to portray a moderate mien, visiting mosques and kovils, his surrogates are busy creating anti-minority (especially anti-Muslim) hysteria.
Take, for example, the sudden outpouring vitriol around the Muhudu Maha Viharaya in Pottuvil. Last month, a story claiming that Muslim extremists had toppled a number of statues in the ancient temple spread suddenly over the internet. One of the facebok posts claimed that the vandalised statues, depicting the Buddha’s eighty great disciples, were built by the Rajapaksa administration in 2013, and were razed to the ground by Muslim extremists in 2019. The post then went on to warn that if the current government is re-elected the same fate will befall the Samadhi statue, the Tholuwila statue and the statues in Gal Viharaya. The incendiary nature of these claims and their political intent need no belabouring.
The story had since being exposed as a lie by Pathum Kerner (a medical doctor and an author) who visited the temple and provided video evidence, and by the AFP. The construction of the statues had begun in 2017 and is still continuing. Some of the statues are on the ground, because they are yet to be raised.
Like the mythic Hydra, the moment one story is debunked, several more spring in its place. An unknown animal welfare organisation (National Collective for Non-Violence towards Animals) led by an equally unknown Dr. Tikiri Bandara Atipola issued a press release claiming that hundreds of cows (including pregnant cows, sick cows and calves) were being bludgeoned or hacked to death illegally to feed the participants at the recent convention of the Dawood Borah community. Once again there wasn’t a shred of evidence. The aim was to spread fear, revulsion and hate.
Last week, the notorious saffron-robed rabble-rouser Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara broke his self-imposed silence, claiming that there is a plan by Islamic extremists to carry out more attacks. In pro-Gotabaya websites, every unusual sound in the North is reported as a deadly explosion carried out by a resurgent LTTE. A military exercise at foiling a potential attack on the Victoria dam was reported by a Sinhala newspaper in such a way as to give the impression of an actual attack. When the TID arrested a doctor attached to the Palai hospital on suspicion of trying to revive the LTTE, the SLPP propagandists screamed that the doctor was a part of Tamil Diaspora driven conspiracy to assassinate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Eventually the police was compelled to issue an official statement explaining that neither the detained doctor nor any other detainee had made such revelations.
A recent statement by parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa reveals the lengths to which the SLPP and its allies might go to terrify minorities into submission. Speaking at a public meeting in Piliyandala, parliamentarian Weerawansa claimed, “The current government helped and encouraged Tamil and Muslim extremists in the last four and a half years. As a result ordinary Tamil and Muslim people have become unprotected. If you want a secure country where a Sinhala man will come to your shop (kade) to buy something, I ask peace-loving Muslims to vote for Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who can build such a country.” (Wimal tells Muslims traders how to attract Sinhala people to their shops – Lanka c news – 2.9.2019 emphasis mine). If a Gotabaya victory can end the boycotting of Muslim shops, isn’t it logical to surmise that Camp Gotabaya had a hand in igniting the boycott in the first place? Is this the road to stability and prosperity or its opposite?
There are two dangers in this deliberate and systematic stoking of racial and religious hatred. It can ignite outbreaks of anti-minority violence. It can also make a Muslim fanatic resort to another act of terror. Either or both can create a Gotabaya-wave by terrifying the minorities into not voting, and persuading enough Sinhalese that only a Hitler-like saviour can protect them.