By Amrit Muttukumaru –
The antics of virtual UNP leader for life and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe although appearing to deal a body blow to the presidential electoral prospects of UNP deputy leader Sajith Premadasa, could be a blessing in disguise for Sajith if wisely handled by him and his backers. The reasons for this possibility include:
1) Dyed in the wool UNPers would realize that the best hope for a UNP Executive President is Sajith Premadasa who is the only candidate at present who could pose a real threat to the frontrunner – former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Gotabaya is fielded by the recently constituted Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) due to the constitutional inability of his charismatic elder brother former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to be a candidate.
2) Gotabaya by a long shot lacks the charisma, oratorical skills and stage presence of MR. Although Sajith too is not too great in these attributes, it could be said that he has a clear advantage over GR in these aspects.
3) There is the real possibility that the greatly reduced UNP electoral base and those who have abandoned the party due to the lackluster ‘leadership’ of Ranil will get ‘fired up’ by a Sajith presidential candidature and those abandoning the party returning to the fold.
4) The more UNP leader Ranil behaves in a manner inimical to rational thinking to sidetrack Sajith by the brute force of the powers vested in him in the UNP constitution in his capacity as ‘leader’, more the likelihood that Sajith will get traction in the country on a ‘sympathetic’ wave even ‘outside’ the UNP fraternity.
5) There is the real possibility that a Sajith candidature may hasten the electoral ‘fatigue’ of the Rajapaksa ‘brand’ among the majority Sinhala Buddhists due to factors which include (i) MR not being the candidate (ii) GR in relation to MR being a ‘dull’ candidate (iii) some apprehension due to the perceived ‘violent’ disposition and arrogance of GR (iv) the extravagance displayed at Namal’s recent wedding receptions (v) Sajith’s far superior ‘pro poor’ image.
6) Ranil’s deplorable antics are giving Sajith ample ‘free’ media coverage which may to some extent endear him to the voters who may have Rajapaksa ‘fatigue’.
7) Even if Sajith does not address minority concerns, the chances are that those who will vote from this category will support him instead of Gotabaya. The catholic vote base in the context of the Easter Sunday carnage is up for grabs. The ground reality is that of the 30% non-Sinhala Buddhist category, 7% are Christian of which 6% are Roman Catholics.
8) Even if Ranil through the brute force of the powers vested in him as leader by the UNP constitution makes an attempt to prevent Sajith from being nominated as the UNP presidential candidate, the likelihood is that either the powerful ‘working committee’ with his dwindling supporters will ‘ditch him’ or Sajith will contest from an ‘alternate’ entity while retaining the core of the UNP party hierarchy and voter base.
The most potent strength of Gotabaya Rajapaksa among the majority 70% Sinhala Buddhists is his signal contribution as Defense Secretary to defeat (albeit controversially) the armed conflict with the LTTE. Tamil grievances still remain largely unaddressed.
He is also perceived as a no-nonsense disciplinarian who gets things done such as the perception of the beautification of the city of Colombo. The jury is out on whether it is superficial or not.
He being the brother of the popular and charismatic former President Mahinda Rajapaksa gives him an electoral advantage. On the flip side there is belief in some circles that perceived Rajapaksa ‘family politics’ with MR’s son Namal waiting in the wings with high political ambition could be a ‘spoiler’ for GR.
Here too the jury is out on whether the much vaunted ‘model village’ housing schemes promoted by Sajith Premadasa are sustainable and whether they create a ‘dependency’ culture? Although the ‘sins of the fathers’ should not be ‘visited upon the sons’, controversies which include extra judicial killings such as that of Richard de Zoysa under the Ranasinghe Premadasa presidency should remind his son Sajith if elected of the immense power and responsibilities of the Executive President even in the Post-19th Amendment scenario.
Sajith Premadasa is the perfect foil to Gotabaya Rajapaksa. If Sajith is able to overcome the impediments of not being the UNP nominee by building on and communicating his strengths which include (i) perception that he is not the preferred choice of the much derided Ranil Wickremesinghe and his coterie of supporters (ii) perception that he has a far greater pro-poor image (iii) perception that on the yardstick of the country’s widespread political corruption and abuse of power he stands relatively tall (iv) perception that he does not personally have a violence prone background (v) his people friendly image devoid of arrogance in spite of being the son of a President (vi) electoral ‘fatigue’ of the Rajapaksa ‘brand’ particularly since MR is ineligible to contest.
There is unsavory speculation as to why UNP leader / PM Ranil Wickremesinghe and Parliament’s Speaker Karu Jayasuriya who do not have a ‘snowball’s chance in hell’ (particularly Ranil) in defeating Gotabaya Rajapaksa are toying with the idea of being the UNP’s Presidential candidate.
The bottom line for the country is that irrespective of who becomes Executive President, unless there is a highly unlikely miracle, the prognosis for the country is dire both socially and economically. None of the candidates – Gotabaya, Sajith or other known aspirants have presented a credible plan of action which even if presented would be implemented. For example, although it is obvious to everyone that a sine qua non for any progress is (i) all citizens being treated equally (ii) the rule of law having no exceptions, none of the aspirants will ‘bite the bullet’ even on these basic parameters. Do we have a selective application of the ‘rule of law’? To what extent is the ‘rule of law’ being applied even to Presidential candidates? I sadly rest my case on the prognosis for the country.