Gotabaya is SLPP’s presidential candidate

Published : September 20, 2019 17:04 IST

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s former Defence Secretary, after he was nominated as presidential candidate at the SLPP party convention in Colombo on August 11. Photo: Dinuka Liyanawatte/REUTERS

The race for the election of the next Sri Lankan President has begun, with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), whose patron is former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) announcing their candidates and the Election Commission of Sri Lanka setting the date of the election as November 16. As many as 16 million people will vote a President directly. A candidate will have to get 50 per cent plus one vote to win. If not, a run-off will be held.

Like the previous presidential election, which witnessed a unique combination of warring political parties coming together, this time too the election is different from the ones that have gone before it. Rajapaksa’s SLPP appears strong in the perception of political watchers. This is the first time since its independence that Sri Lanka’s two major alliances, one led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the other by the United National Party (UNP), will face another serious rival. In the 2015 presidential elections, the SLFP and the UNP joined forces to beat Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose followers later founded the SLPP.

The SLPP went on to prove in the local body elections in February 2018 that it was a force to reckon with, garnering over 40 per cent of the votes, leaving the SLFP and the UNP red-faced and blaming each other. The so-called national unity government of the SLFP and the UNP did not recover from this poor showing. Both the SLFP and the UNP are yet to announce a candidate for the presidential election.

President Maithripala Sirisena is unlikely to seek a second term. The question left is if Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will choose the popular Sajith Premadasa or the wily Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya for the contest.

With vast resources, some backing from the officialdom and with the advantage of being the first off the blocks, the SLPP candidate, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has created enough hype to be considered a front runner.

But he has a few skeletons in his cupboard. “How can Gotabaya, who left the Sri Lankan Army on medical grounds at the height of the war in 1993 when he was 43 be a fitting candidate to be President of Sri Lanka now, when he is 70 years old?” asked Samantha Vidyaratna, a senior JVP leader. “Is he medically fit?” There are also questions directly pointed at him relating to both the massive human rights violations during the end stages of the war and the white-van abductions across Sri Lanka.

The JVP-led alliance is fielding 50-year-old Anura Kumara Dissanayake as its candidate. Although the party does not have a serious chance of winning the race, it has the potential to be the spoiler.

Gotabaya has sought to present the image of an efficient technocrat who has the answers to fix the economy, security, foreign relations and even strengthen democracy in the island nation.

“We must strive to maintain cordial relations with all countries without ever compromising our independence. Therefore we must once again establish a governance that does not juxtapose before any foreign power over diplomatic relations or international trade agreements,” he said at a meeting of professionals in Colombo. “We need a government that will at all times safeguard our sovereignty, maintain international relations on equal footing with all, ensure our national pride and rule with dignity. We especially cannot allow our territory or natural resources to fall into the control of foreign hands,” he added, though fully aware of the fact that China has already gained control over a port, Hambantota, a free trade zone next to the port and will also have an artificial island up and running in the next few years.

The Tamil National Alliance, repeatedly let down by both the major Sinhala parties, has a very tough choice to make in these elections. The opportunistic Muslim political parties, too, have the same problem. Both the groups believe that their rights are often trampled upon by the major political parties as they seek to appease the majority Sinhala community and the Buddhist hardliners.

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