By the time this column appears, the trends, if not the results, of Sri Lanka’s presidential election should be known. It is always hazardous to anticipate the outcome of an election since voters are often — though not always —inclined to defy conventional wisdom and opinion polls. Not that the Sri Lankan election industry has evolved as much as India’s where opinion polls and exit polls have acquired an independent life, sometimes quite distinct from the election itself. Yet, based on a brief visit to Sri Lanka last month and some previous experience of politics in that charming island, some forecasts are in order.
My reading of the polls suggest that the SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the younger brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, enjoys a distinct advantage over his UNP rival Sajith Premadasa, the son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa. How clear that advantage is and whether the election will go into the counting of the second preference votes — where the first preference votes of the JVP and an Independent candidate promoted by a few NGOs will matter are difficult to anticipate. However, barring the truly unexpected, it would seem that President Sirisena will be succeeded by another member of the family of the man who was defeated in 2014.
My reading of the presidential election is based on three observations.
First, it was pretty apparent that Gotabaya ran a streamlined, professional campaign. This was in sharp contrast to the UNP campaign that suffered from a relative shortage of resources and internal cohesion. Initially the UNP nomination was supposed to go to Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe. However, the party felt that rather than bear the entire burden of a strong anti-incumbency, it was preferable to go with Premadasa, who, despite being a Minister in the Sirisena Government, was not too strongly identified with the regime. The desire to make a fresh start was understandable but Premadsa has not been able to rope in many of the traditional UNP voters.
Secondly, despite being very closely identified with his elder brother’s presidency, Gotabaya has an image that is more technocrat than political. He is seen to attach a great deal of emphasis on governmental efficiency, education and technology. Moreover, his plans to slash personal and corporate taxes are quite radical. Indeed, going by the manifesto, Gotabaya seems to be making a big pitch to transform Sri Lanka into another Singapore — originally a dream of President JR Jayewardene that was scuttled by the civil war.
In electoral terms, this suggests that Gotabaya may be able to prevail in Colombo and some of the adjoining Sinhalese-dominated towns that had tilted the balance against Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2014.
Thirdly, the Islamist bombings last April had a devastating effect on Sri Lanka’s economy and its tourism industry. The fear of terror attacks reviving once again has put national security back on the political agenda. As the architect of Sri Lanka’s military victory over the LTTE in 2009, Gotabaya is seen to be a tough no-nonsense politician. It is an image that will stand him in good stead in this election.
In 2014, the loss of a chunk of the SLFP vote and the huge 80 per cent turnout in the Northern Province where Tamils predominate had contributed to Sirisena’s victory by a narrow margin. This time there is no reason to suggest that Tamil regions are sufficiently motivated to turn up in such large numbers. The feedback suggests that there is a palpable mood of disappointment with the Sirisena Government over regional autonomy. This would mean that while Premadasa will win a majority of Tamil votes in the Northern Province, this might not be enough to offset the lead Gotabaya is likely to secure in the traditional Sinhalese area. Indeed, it is nothing short of curious that many of Colombo’s Left-liberals have suddenly begun singing praises of the “progressive” credentials of the JVP candidate. Earlier, the JVP was debunked as the voice of extreme Sinhala nationalism.
The facile view is that India will be very upset with a Gotabaya victory, in case it happens. This assumption is centred on the post-defeat comments of Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2014 when he accused R&AW of interfering to secure his defeat. Moreover, the Rajapaksas are seen to be
pro-China, while the UNP is understood to have good relation with India.
This assumption forgets a few cruel truths. First, the civil war against the LTTE was won in 2009 by the Sri Lankan Army thanks to some tacit support from India. Gotabaya was the man who maintained links with the national security establishment in India. Secondly, the generous contracts to China, particularly in Hambantota, followed India’s own unwillingness to participate. Thirdly, the sale of the facilities in Colombo and Hambantota were negotiated by the UNP and not the Rajapaksas. In his manifesto, Gotabaya has promised an independent foreign policy that avoids being linked to any of the great powers.
How a relationship is negotiated depends ultimately on diplomacy rather than either the past or stated positions. If the Modi Government can reach out to the winner and persist with an economy-first approach and support for counter-terrorism, relations with Sri Lanka are bound to be healthy. It does not matter if Gotabaya or Sajith Premadasa wins. That is a choice for Sri Lanka’s voters.