THERE were quite a few visitors at the world’s emptiest airport, the Chinese-built Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, just over 200 kilometres south of Colombo, on October 12, just like every other day. No scheduled commercial aircraft has operated from the airport for the past three years. The visitors, all local Sinhalese Sri Lankans, were there to experience the airport, built at a cost of over $200 million.
Since there is no pressure of any air traffic, the airport allows visitors to walk into the concourse and the check-in areas on payment of 100 Sri Lankan rupees.
Some visitors were overjoyed to see two Japanese military cargo aircraft on the tarmac and were busy clicking selfies with their mobile phones from the check-in area. “Yes, sometimes we get flights like these,” a staffer said. Even after it opened in 2013, there were barely any flights. At its “peak”’ there were a grand total of two flights out of the airport. Both ceased operations.
The airport, a pet project of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, never generated revenue to pay back even the interest portion of the loan taken from China. Alhough the Government of India, inexplicably, offered to bail out Sri Lanka by leasing out the airport for training flights (with no strategic component), the Sri Lankan government is still dragging its feet over handing over the facility to India.
At a gathering of professionals on October 14, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, a leader of the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and a presidential hopeful, said: “The total debt of Sri Lanka is 11 trillion Sri Lankan rupees…Many of the assets created in the past were not necessary for the country.” He was not off the mark. The Mattala airport, for instance, has staff from 20 departments stationed there because these departments are required for an operational airport. “This is apart from the personnel employed by SriLankan Airlines, caterers and the others,” said an official at the airport.
This is not the only white elephant created by the second Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, between 2010 and 2014, with Chinese funding. A convention centre, a cricket stadium where the game is no longer played, a port in Hambantota, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s hometown, which was finally leased out to the Chinese because there was inadequate traffic, miles of well-laid roads all across the town, and the extension of the Chinese-built E01 Highway from Matara to Hambantota (the highway initially was between the capital Colombo and the tourist-cum-port town of Galle)—all stand testimony to the gross economic mismanagement caused by a grand miscalculation that Hambantota could be developed as the next urban agglomeration, better even than Colombo.
Work is still on in the final stretches of the E01 Highway, although there is serious doubt if it is required at all, given the light traffic in the sector.
The roads built to cater to the Mahinda Rajapaksa cricket stadium, the convention centre and many such facilities attract near-zero traffic, and local residents use them to dry their crop of long beans. On October 12, there was no vehicle in sight for many miles when this correspondent travelled along the various stretches of these roads.
In a bizarre twist to this story, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been asked to appear before a presidential commission probing corruption between 2015 and 2018. The inquiry in question is over the losses suffered by the Mattala airport because paddy was stored at the facility.
Some employees of the airport were confident that this lean patch was all but over.
“We will have operations in the next few months,” said one of them. Asked if this meant that he expected the Sri Lanka Podujana Party candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa to win the presidential election, he said: “Yes, of course. After that we will have flights.”
This sentiment reflects the continuing support for the Rajapaksa clan in the Sinhala heartland, despite the poor economic decisions that Mahinda Rajapaksa made during his term as President and despite the fear that the Rajapaksas seemed to inspire in civil society activists, opposition politicians and a section of businessmen. Although Hambantota is also home to the main rival candidate, the United National Party’s (UNP) Sajith Premadasa, make no mistake: Hambantota is Rajapaksa territory.
The main contest in any election has been between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the UNP. Both parties have upheld Sinhala majoritarian agendas, though the UNP is seen as slightly softer on minorities. This time, the SLFP, which was weakened considerably by many desertions, has decided not to field a candidate. Instead, a party which is almost a clone of the SLFP, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), has fielded a candidate, who is being backed by the SLFP and a few other political parties. This is the first time that a sitting President is not contesting.
Almost all who did contest had won—J.R. Jayewardene, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa. Only President D.B. Wijetunga had lost, while R. Premadasa was assassinated.
In effect, the main contenders in this election are Gotabaya, brother of a former President, for the SLPP, and Sajith Premadasa, son of a former President, for the UNP. A civil society group has fielded a former Army Commander, Mahesh Senanayake. Sajith Premadasa has made it clear that if he wins, he will favour another former Army Commander, Sarath Fonseka, who led the government forces to victory against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), to secure the country from any threat.
Gotabaya, a former Army officer, was Mahinda’s Defence Secretary until 2014. His name has come up in many cases of abduction and summary execution in the last stages of the Eelam war and in other human rights violations.
Gotabaya and Mahinda have maintained that these charges were trumped up and that they had only protected the country from certain annihilation at the hands of the LTTE. The Rajapaksas blame international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), journalists working for international media houses, and opposition politicians for these “stories”.
What cemented Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s claim as the best candidate from the SLPP was that the most popular face in that party, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was barred from contesting a third term. His prospects have received a boost from the Easter bomb blasts that killed hundreds, reminding people of the terror during the heydays of the LTTE. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is credited with winning the war against the Tamil Tigers, along with President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Going by this correspondent’s conversations with people across the island, barring the Tamil areas of the north, some parts of the east and the hill country—where Tamils form the majority—almost everywhere there is some approval for Gotabaya’s strong-arm tactics as Defence Secretary, though people disapprove of the Rajapaksas lording it over almost all key Ministries and becoming virtually exempt from abiding by the law.
The Rajapaksas, who are leaving nothing to chance in this election, are aware of this fact and are building on the support they have. They got a head start in the election because they announced the candidate early.
The UNP put off announcing its candidate until the threat of a split in the party forced Wickremesinghe to allow Sajith Premadasa to run for the top job. Sajith Premadasa, a Minister in the earlier “unity government” run by the SLFP and the UNP, has largely stayed out of controversy and kept a low profile.
The unity government had scant credibility. From 2015, the country witnessed many strange events: Mahinda Rajapaksa remaining in the SLFP but surreptitiously floating another party, the SLPP; a national unity government functioning with an almost total communication breakdown between the President and the Prime Minister, leading to the most dysfunctional government in recent memory; Mahinda Rajapaksa being sworn in as Prime Minister with Ranil Wickremesinghe still in office; and opposition leader R. Sampanthan being thrown out and replaced by Mahinda in an effort to placate him.
The non-functioning government which barely delivered on any of its promises, the April bomb blasts and the general downturn in the economy would be reason enough for strong anti-incumbency. Yet, in another strange turn of events, the SLFP decided to support the SLPP candidate instead of fielding its own candidate.
Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga was instrumental in bringing together various actors to form the 2015 national coalition that unseated Mahinda Rajapaksa. Although no longer active in politics, she has condemned President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision that the SLFP would support Gotabaya. In a statement on October 14, she claimed that as many as 95 per cent of the party’s organisers were opposed to the decision and demanded that it be rescinded.
But Sirisena, who has been granted a retirement home in the heart of Colombo by the Cabinet (his current official home and two nearby residences), is unmoved by the voices of dissent within the party.
As campaigning heats up, not a day passes without some drama or incident. Until the time of scrutiny of the nomination papers, the main issue was the candidature of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Doubts were raised about whether he had given up his U.S. citizenship (he had dual citizenship) and if the relevant papers had been handed over to the authorities in Sri Lanka. The courts and the Election Commission (E.C.) put an end to speculation over whether he would be able to contest.
The next major issue was the bogey of an LTTE resurrection, with arrests that appeared suspiciously coordinated in Sri Lanka and in Malaysia. The Sri Lankan media played it up, and the threat of a regrouping by the LTTE was a major issue in the campaign.
The latest is the Election Commission launching an inquiry into Gotabaya’s election advertisement featuring the current Army Chief, Shavendra Silva. During the civil war, Shavendra was one of the “blue-eyed boys” picked by Gotabaya, who was fast-tracked and promoted to divisional command position. “We expect the Army Commander to make a statement,” the E.C. said.
The Gotabaya camp strategy is clear: appeal to the Sinhala masses and create enough fear so that they do not vote for any other candidate. In his first campaign speech, Gotabaya said that all the soldiers charged by the government with various crimes during the war would be set free. “All war heroes will be set free,” he told a partisan crowd. Later, he was much more mellow at his first press conference: when asked about war crimes and the assurances given to the United Nations, he began by stating that the country did not need to adhere to these assurances but added: “We always want to work with the United Nations and its agencies to solve issues.”
Former Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris, who was at the press conference, added that some of the assurances given violated the Sri Lankan Constitution and hence could not be adhered to. But he did not elaborate on what these were.
Gotabaya’s camp has the support of the prominent leaders of Muslim political parties and that of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC). But this time around, after the Muslim community was harshly targeted by the state, it is not very clear how much trust the community still places in its leaders, who initially resigned over the harassment but quickly went back to their positions of power after a few assurances. Also, though the CWC leadership is with Gotabaya, more and more plantation workers in the central hill districts are fed up with routine election-time assurances on wage increase which are not made good.
The UNP’s candidate, Sajith Premadasa, who comes to the fray with a clean slate, is trying to get popular attention with some outrageous statements, but these have had little traction. He has tried to seize Gotabaya’s security plank by saying that he will have Sarath Fonseka in charge of security.
“I have suffered at the hands of terrorists,” he said at a rally, referring to the killing of his father, R. Premadasa. “Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, the man who fought the war on the battlefield, will be responsible for national security,” he added. In a tweet in early October, he referred to the need to respect the armed forces. “I will build a country where the armed forces are treated with utmost respect. I will make sure that they can independently do their job while preserving their dignity.” Contradicting the UNP’s official position, he has also promised to implement the death penalty for terrorists and drug dealers. He promised a slew of welfare schemes, including midday meals and free school uniforms for students. “After our victory, we will start a new journey with a new team,” he told a massive rally on October 13. “The corrupt will have no place in that team. That is how we can take the country forward,” he thundered in Sinhalese. Though he remains a Minister in the unity government, he is not affected by anti-incumbency because he is not seen as a decision-maker in the current government. He believes that if moderate Sinhalas and the minorities vote for him, he will be the winner. He has tried to appeal to Tamils with repeated promises such as this: “I will represent the whole of Sri Lanka. I will be the voice of the voiceless irrespective of ethnicity, caste or creed.”
But while Gotabaya has a massive party machinery at his disposal, Sajith’s team does not have the Prime Minister’s whole-hearted support. The party has rallied around him, but within the party there also appear to be doubts about his capacity to pull a miracle. And unlike the cash-rich SLPP and its powerful backers who have massive stakes in Sri Lanka, the UNP has limited resources to bank on.
The Tamil question
For Sri Lanka’s Tamils, it has been one betrayal after another regardless of who the President is. The LTTE’s intransigent ways subverted any real chance of peace in the early 2000s. Soon after the LTTE’s crushing defeat in May 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa made it a point to speak in Tamil at the United Nations, set up a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission on the lines of a similar one in South Africa, and later held elections to the Northern Province.
His government scored high on symbolism, but there was no forward movement on the key question of the political or governance space for Tamils. From 2009 to 2014, his government promised much, including what he termed “13+” (more than just the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution which promises more powers to the Tamil-dominated areas). The government held a few rounds of talks with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the lone symbol of hope for the people of the north. The talks ended in a farce, with the ruling party insisting on going over settled issues; sometimes crucial senior government side members did not turn up for discussions on the mutually agreed dates.
Understandably, expectations were high when the 2015 election put paid to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s quest for an unprecedented third term as President and brought Maithripala Sirisena to power. But four years into government, TNA leader R. Sampanthan and others are deeply dissatisfied with the pace of progress on the questions that are important to Tamils. In the 2015 election, they had asked the Tamil people to vote for change in order to improve their lives. But with next to no progress made on all issues, Tamils now are not sure if any Sinhala at any time in the future will keep his word. This makes it difficult for the TNA to ask the people to vote for Sajith.
Even so, most northern Tamils would not have forgotten the history of Mahinda’s rise to power: a boycott enforced by the LTTE allowed Mahinda to get elected President for the first time, defeating Wickremesinghe. Just under half a decade later, the LTTE was obliterated by Mahinda. Regardless of the fact that the UNP has not been able to keep its promises, Tamils have little choice on whom they vote for. For now, it appears that most northern Tamils, a section of Muslims in the east, the Tamils and Muslims of Colombo district, and a section of hill Tamils will prefer Sajith over Gotabaya. But Sajith’s real test will be how he manages to sway the Sinhala vote in the face of a campaign that reeks of majoritarianism and where extremist Buddhist monks are openly taking sides with Gotabaya.
The India-China factor
Soon after the 2015 election, Mahinda accused India of engineering his defeat. In fact, in the run-up to the presidential election that year, the Sri Lankan government accused the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) station chief, K. Ilango, of trying to scuttle Mahinda’s chances. Ilango was recalled but made Special Secretary, and he headed the Aviation Research Centre, a post from where he could monitor the region even more closely.
In private conversation, the Rajapaksas made no bones about telling prominent diplomats and their friends from abroad that they would have still been in power but for Indian interference.
Because of Mahinda’s preference for Chinese loans and infrastructure projects, it is generally understood that a Gotabaya victory will mean a Chinese victory over India in this geopolitical tussle. Gotabaya has been openly flaunting his preference for the Chinese and has even stated that China will be a preferred strategic partner. There is a slew of Chinese projects in Sri Lanka, including the financial island-city, which will be operational soon. A Gotabaya victory will mean that India will have to intensify its watch along the southern flank.
Sri Lanka goes to the polls on November 16. The E.C. Commission will announce the official results on November 18. A candidate has to rake in 50 per cent of the votes polled plus one vote to win. In case the first two candidates do not manage this number, the second preference votes of the other candidates will be counted. There are 35 candidates in the fray. The candidate who manages to reach the magic number at the end of counting of the second preference votes will be declared winner.
Regardless of who wins, going by the pattern of past Presidents, the next one, too, will disappoint at least a few sections of the people. But this time around, they will have a reasonably good excuse: they can seek refuge under Article 19 (A) of the Constitution, which has limited the sky-high powers of the President. The clamour then, of an underperforming President, will be to repeal the Article so that he can “work for the people.”