The case for a ‘unity’ candidate | Sunday Observer

The case for a ‘unity’ candidate

1 September, 2019
Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa at the ceremony to lay the foundation stone for the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero village in the Anuradhapura District in May 2018
Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa at the ceremony to lay the foundation stone for the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero village in the Anuradhapura District in May 2018

The searches for presidential candidate in both major parties, this year, are marked by a curious insurgent phenomenon. The former Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa was formally anointed as the SLPP presidential hopeful on August 11, but for over a year, the Gotabaya faction of the SLPP has been mobilising support for his presidential bid. This faction organised at multiple levels, with powerful financial backers, a media powerhouse and the Eliya and Viyathmaga movements that canvassed support with glitzy conferences in the capital and pocket meetings around the country. In April 2019, the former Defence Secretary’s presidential dreams dimmed slightly when Ahimsa Wickrematunge, the 28 year old daughter of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge filed a civil lawsuit in California, accusing the former Defence Secretary of authorising and instigating her father’s murder in 2009. But the Easter terror attacks two weeks later put the former bureaucrat back in the running. That there was resistance – and continues to be resistance – to the Gotabaya candidacy within the SLPP is a public secret. Career politicians have deep reservations about the former Defence Secretary, his backers and their role in a future administration. Confidants say Mahinda Rajapaksa, a seasoned politician, harbours personal reservations about his brother’s presidential ambitions. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidacy would be riddled with problems straight out of the gate, with lingering questions about his citizenship status, a corruption trial scheduled to be underway during the polls campaign and a lawsuit in a foreign jurisdiction accusing the would-be presidential aspirant of extra-judicial execution.

But by the time the fateful August day dawned, the insurgency had gone too far. SLPP insiders admit that if the former President Rajapaksa had announced the name of any other candidate during the party convention last month, he would have paved the way for a serious revolt. For the moment, Mahinda Rajapaksa appears willing to lend his larger than life popularity to the Gotabaya campaign. But the first signs of trouble emerged with reports this week that during talks with President Maithripala Sirisena, the former President allegedly hinted that the nomination of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as presidential candidate for the SLPP was not set in stone. The reports were vehemently denied by Hambantota District MP Namal Rajapaksa, but it has already sent waves of uncertainty through the party. With an election yet to be declared however, in theory, the freshly minted chairman of the SLPP has every opportunity to change his mind over the next three or four weeks.

The United National Party’s unprecedented tussle for the presidential candidacy makes the SLFP-SLPP troubles look like a storm in a teacup. With every passing day, the faction led by UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is diminishing in strength, numbers and influence. The Sajith Premadasa faction has gathered serious momentum in the past several weeks, and political analysts now point to a ‘para-candidacy’ happening inside the Grand Old Party. Strategically, the Premadasa faction has already launched a de facto presidential campaign, in many ways as if the Deputy Leader’s nomination is already a fait accompli. Powerful ministers supportive of a Premadasa candidacy believe this is the only approach that will send a clear signal to the UNP Leader, that the party will not countenance a Wickremesinghe candidacy at the 2019 poll. Yet privately, the same ministers express some concerns about where to position the party on issues that matter to important sections of the UNP’s traditional constituency, such as the executive presidency.

Over several years, the UNP has taken a public stand against the executive presidency and in 2015, the position made the UNP a viable choice to lead the progressive common opposition alliance that framed its entire election campaign on the single issue of abolition. In a field that already includes the popular JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the UNP candidate’s commitment to abolishing the presidency will be a key decider of what percentage of progressive forces will rally behind the party at the 2019 election. Overt signs that the UNP candidate favours the executive presidential system or seeks to enhance its powers, will result in a critical mass of progressive votes migrating to the National People’s Power movement, led by Dissanayake. Already, the ‘AKD’ phenomenon is threatening to channel voters and groups disillusioned with the current Government and yet dread a Rajapaksa return to power away from the UNP.

Last week, Premadasa tried to articulate a clear stance on the Tamil national question. During a Q&A session at the Lighthouse Auditorium, Premadasa ticked all the right boxes. While his sentiments about national unity struck a chord with moderates, especially in the capital, he called for “maximum devolution within an unitary state” still leaving open details of what a permanent solution to the Tamil demand for political autonomy should entail. These comments echoed the position he took at a meeting was held between the Tamil National Alliance and the UNP Deputy Leader at Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s Stanmore Crescent residence on August 21 to iron out some of these issues.

The TNA who had previously found Premadasa largely inaccessible and silent on the Tamil issue throughout this last term in Parliament were swayed by his policy positions and moved to support his candidacy, according to senior UNP sources. The sources said that Premadasa was also able to provide context about his previous pledges to abolish the provincial council systems when he assumed power, remarks that had previously caused serious concern within the main Tamil party. Tamil politicians representing the North and East also acknowledge that Premadasa’s initiatives to combat poverty and provide shelter to war-affected communities have endeared him to many voters in the North and East, in stark contrast to the mass detention camps and rights abuses they associate with the SLPP frontrunner during the post-war era. The war-torn regions are still home to some of the country’s poorest districts, and Premadasa’s poverty alleviation credentials hold strong within rural communities across the island, including electorates that were out of bounds for the UNP during his father’s presidency.

Tamil voting patterns in presidential elections over several decades have remained consistent. Two trends are abundantly clear. The first is that the constituency tends to vote en bloc. It is unclear whether Tamil political representatives consistently choose to endorse candidates that their people are most likely to vote for, or whether the constituency makes up its mind and the politicians simply back that choice. The tendency has been for Tamil voters to trust its political leadership and divergence has been extremely rare. Whenever such a divergence has taken place, the percentage of the divergent vote has been too negligible to impact the outcome of an election. The sole exception was in the November 2005 presidential poll.

In 2005, even with the LTTE enforcing a polls boycott in regions of the north and east under their control (allegedly in exchange for monetary benefits from the SLFP candidate), wherever the Tamil people were allowed to cast their votes freely, they voted for the UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe. Wickremesinghe lost that election by less than 180,000 votes, giving his opponent Mahinda Rajapaksa the slimmest margin of victory ever in the history of presidential elections in Sri Lanka. Tamils risked their lives to vote for the UNP in spite of the LTTE’s propaganda and rhetoric that the UNP Leader was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The separatist rebels were angered by Wickremesinghe’s refusal to concede to the LTTE demand for Interim Self-Governing Authority until peace talks were complete. Blame for Col. Karuna Amman’s defection that seriously hampered the LTTE’s battle capabilities in the Eastern Province was also laid at the UNP’s door. These concerns drove the LTTE campaign to defeat the UNP candidate by calling for a boycott.

A second notable trend is that the Tamil constituency has routinely voted for candidates strong on the devolution issue, even when their challengers offered development, infrastructure and economic support for the war-torn areas. The voting history indicates that political rights remain a front and centre issue for Tamil voters – even those still grappling with livelihood and shelter problems, a brutal legacy of the war that ended a decade ago.

With a 20 percent bloc vote, the TNA has the potential to play kingmaker in a presidential election, where the entire country polls as a single constituency, making the ethnic voting bloc crucial to tipping the 50% + 1 vote mark for any candidate. For the UNP, which will likely command a smaller share of the Sinhala vote at a national election than the SLPP, even with Premadasa on the ticket, the bloc Tamil vote becomes crucial to being a real contender in a presidential race.

It is in this backdrop that in a bizarre twist, the TNA has started discussions with Dissanayake and the NPP, as the country’s largest Tamil party contemplates its endorsement of a presidential candidate. Dissanayake is already hitting all the right notes on devolution, diversity and equality and social justice for all communities living in Sri Lanka. Having worked closely together during the October 2018 constitutional crisis, the TNA and JVP have found common ground on several key issues. The two parties have been strong on anti-corruption and transparency – the JVP MP Sunil Handunetti chairs the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) while TNA Jaffna District Legislator M.A. Sumanthiran chairs the Committee on Public Finance. Their courage, integrity and commitment to democracy in times of grave political turmoil have elevated the national standing of both parties.

Collaboration between the TNA and the JVP at a major election seems less and less far-fetched, especially if progressive movements and civil society groups remain unconvinced about Premadasa’s commitment to abolishing the executive presidency and are driven to the JVP-led NPP ahead of the 2019 poll. Naturally, this would dampen the UNP’s chances at the presidential election, but with enough support, Dissanayake’s backers believe his candidacy could prevent either of the two main candidates crossing the 50% mark, and drive a second count. Securing the floating, urban moderate vote at the 2019 presidential election may well be the UNP’s biggest challenge, if various factions do not unite behind a candidate who can inspire the people and hold the party machinery together.

By last week, with two highly successful rallies in Badulla and Matara under their belts, the Premadasa faction remained perturbed about the party leadership still refusing to give way and make an announcement on the candidate. Civil society groups that strongly supported the common opposition candidate in 2015, remain hopeful that the gridlock within the party will eventually pave the way for a compromise candidate in the form of Speaker of Parliament Karu Jayasuriya.

In 2014-2015, the movement was led by scholar monk Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero, whose obsession with the single issue of abolition became the rallying cry of the 2015 rainbow alliance that fielded Maithripala Sirisena as presidential candidate. The monk’s untimely demise in late 2015 left civil society groups he had mobilised fractured and disillusioned with how far short of the promise the Yahapalanaya project had fallen. Searching for answers five years later, at the cusp of another do-or-die election, the movement wants to turn to the man who was Sobitha’s first choice of candidate in the 2015 poll, before his party dictated otherwise. These groups remain convinced that of the 2015 Yahapalanaya political champions, Jayasuriya alone has stayed trued to Sobitha Thero’s values, still committed to abolition, good governance and democratic reform, and proving it every day by his actions as the Speaker of Parliament.

The Speaker’s courageous conduct during the October 2018 political crisis and his determined defence of the 19th Amendment and independent commissions since, has increased his stature among urban moderates and the intelligentsia– a small but highly influential part of the UNP’s post-2015 constituency. While parties like the TNA remain wary about Jayasuriya’s positions on devolution, they have no reason to doubt his credentials as a democrat and reformer. The same may even be true for the JVP, which has thrown its hat into the ring in protest against the Ranil-Sajith options in the UNP and the prospect of democratic regression and rollback in the event of Candidate Gotabaya being successful in the 2019 poll.

Within the UNP, many MPs privately acknowledge that Jayasuriya could be a unifying candidate. But they remain unconvinced the Speaker can pull off an electoral victory without Premadasa’s full-throated backing. A Premadasa - Jayasuriya combination in some way, shape or form maybe the party’s best hope to evade serious internal fracture and stay competitive in the 2019 presidential race, according to MPs refusing to align with either the Wickremesinghe or Premadasa factions embroiled in the candidate war. Jayasuriya has been coy about his prospects, and while his determination to abolish the executive presidency is well known, the extent of his ambitions to run a Government for a full term remain unclear.

Five years after the Rajapaksa regime was defeated, the 2015 democratic revolution has come full circle. Architects of the idea are no longer among the living. Yahapalanaya proponents and champions have abandoned the project. Sri Lanka is at the cusp of a counter-revolution that threatens the very foundations of its democracy and the progressive alliance is handicapped by the incumbency of the political party that must lead it.

Obsessed with victory at all costs, the UNP is threatening to further alienate the moderate and liberal constituency by trying to beat Mahinda Rajapaksa at his own game. The reality is that the threat of Rajapaksa redux demands a ticket that will re-energise the UNP base and challenge the SLPP on the values. Recreating the 2015 Rajapaksa Vs. The Rest formula is the only way for progressives to stand a chance at the 2019 presidential election and prevent the slow but certain slide into authoritarianism and tyranny. The current political contradiction requires a unifying candidate for president, supported by a prime ministerial prospect who can match Mahinda Rajapaksa in popularity; a duo who together will represent everything the Rajapaksa ticket stands against; democracy, freedom, good governance, de-politicisation of the system.

If they are backed by their party and the Tamil and Muslim parties, Jayasuriya and Premadasa could unite the 2015 forces in the way no other UNP ticket could. Their campaign for abolition of the presidency should stand in direct contrast to the SLPP’s ‘benevolent disciplinarian’ candidate and could have the potential to rekindle the spark that captured the political imagination of a nation five years ago.