It was past 11 pm when the conference at a community hall in Kattankudy ended. The last three speakers were restricted to two minutes each, much to their discomfiture, as some of them had traveled as far as from Colombo and Matara to be present. One of them had even prepared a forty minute presentation which had to be whittled down to enable the conference to end before the witching hour of midnight. According to the local organisers the conference was the first ever inter-religious one to be held in the Muslim town of Kattankudy in the east of the country.
Just as in the presidential election of 2015 which led to the unexpected defeat of incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa, this presidential election of 2019 is witnessing the rise of civil society into the position of key influencer. The role of civil society becomes more influential when political change emerges as a possibility. At the 2015 presidential election a coalition of civil society organisations and public spirited individuals led by the Venerable Maduluwave Sobitha Thero took on the key role of taking the message of good governance to the grassroots community level. They highlighted the issues of corruption, abuse of power and human rights violations to the people. The incumbent government was unable to make a satisfactory response and lost the election.
The presidential election fixed by the Election Commission for November 16 has the potential to bring about far reaching change to the country both in terms of political parties and the leadership at their helms. It is therefore a double transition that the Sri Lanka faces at the current juncture. Change is generally resisted. Ironically, the last minute attempt to abolish the executive presidential system, which is a radical change, can also be seen as a manifestation of resistance to change. In a meeting with civil society last week, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe cautioned that unless accompanied by electoral reform that permits the establishment of decisive majorities in parliament, the abolishing of the executive presidency by itself could lead to unstable government.
For the past month the issue of who will be the presidential candidate of the ruling UNP has been dividing the party and diverting attention away from its needs to develop an election manifesto that is owned by the party as a whole, and not by a faction. There are two main factions, one backing the Prime Minister and party leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the other backing its deputy leader and Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa. They have different strengths and support bases. Due to the difficulty that the party leadership is having in selecting one over the other there is an attempt being made to seek the abolition of the executive presidency either before or soon after the presidential elections which are due by December this year.
There is increased competition between the global big powers in the India Ocean. The four main protagonists are India, the United States, China and Japan. The challenge to Sri Lanka is how to maximize the benefit to itself from this situation without being overwhelmed by pressures that may be brought to bear upon it. Sri Lanka can become a beneficiary of competition as it has in the case of the USD 480 million grant from the Millennium Challenge Corporation of the United States. However, each of the global powers will see a threat to itself if Sri Lanka were to favour one over the other. The threat perception will grow if Sri Lanka were to permit any one of them a foothold within the country, especially in military terms, that is significantly bigger than what they already have.
When the government was elected in 2015 there was heady anticipation of large inflows of economic resources from Western countries into Sri Lanka that would boost economic growth and bring prosperity to the general population. This expectation was strengthened by the government’s positive response to international pressures to improve the human rights situation within the country. The previous government had confronted the international community led by Western countries to its detriment on these issues. The new government in 2015 reversed its predecessor’s aversion to human rights, and went to the extent of co-sponsoring Resolution 30/1 of the UN Human Rights Council which called for post war transitional justice and accountability.
The main opposition party, the SLPP, was the quickest off the mark to propose its candidate. Their candidate, former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has the advantage of being both a known and unknown quantity. On the one hand, he is known as being one of the primary architects of the military defeat of the LTTE, once believed to be an undefeatable politico-military force and enjoying local and transnational support. On the other hand, as a former army officer and public servant, his performance as a politician is untested and unknown. In the context of the widespread disillusionment against established politicians, this is an advantage to which the SLPP’s political opponents need to find an answer.
The delay in the announcement of the ruling party’s presidential candidate continues. There are reports of negotiations and breakdown of negotiations within the UNP. The open disagreements within the ruling party may be contrasted with the decisiveness of the main opposition party, the SLPP. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa was granted the party leadership and nominated his younger brother Gotabaya to be the presidential candidate of the SLPP. Thereafter he announced that he himself would be the prime ministerial candidate at the general elections that would follow. Such decisiveness fits well with the current emphasis in the country on the need for a strong leader to address the many problems in the country.
The selection of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the presidential candidate of the SLPP will impart enthusiasm in an electorate that has grown discontented at the absence of coherence in governance over the past few years. The UNF government with President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the helm failed to govern with unity of purpose. They each had different advisors and different visions and the clash between the two grew to unmanageable proportions to the detriment of the national interest. A primary casualty was the hope that a political solution to the vexed issue of inter-ethnic power sharing would be found through a bipartisan UNP-SLFP consensus with the representatives of the ethnic minority parties.
The postponement of the inauguration of the new political alliance to be led by the UNP was due to the division within the ruling party on who its presidential candidate should be and on ceding too much power to the alliance members. The two front runners are party leader, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and its deputy leader, Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa, with Speaker Karu Jayasuriya being a possible compromise candidate. When the draft constitution of the alliance was presented to the Working Committee several senior members including had disagreed with it stating that the draft constitution undermined the interests of the UNP.