Presidential Election 2019: The ‘Promised Land’ awaits us?

Wednesday, 13 November 2019 00:36 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

In respect of the ability to achieve outcomes, particularly in making the country more secure and uplifting the economy, the Gotabaya/Mahinda combine has the edge over Premadasa and Wickramasinghe, although Premadasa has more than hinted that Wickramasinghe will not be his Prime Minister and it will be a newcomer – Pix by Shehan Gunasekara


  • The equal right of all citizens to health, education, work, food, security, culture, science, and wellbeing – that is, the same rights we proclaimed when we began our struggle, in addition to those which emerge from our dreams of justice and equality for all inhabitants of our world – is what I wish for all – Fidel Castro


Most observers will probably agree that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s campaign has edged Sajith Premadasa’s for its drive, organisation and area/region specific campaign promises and slogans. The Rajapaksa campaign has not resorted to gimmicks such a buggy cart rides, but have had a sleekness to it with him and Mahinda Rajapaksa projecting an image of confidence and unity. Their surrogates have entertained audiences with dust rousing speeches attacking the opponent as campaign are wont to do, but with less mud-slinging than the Premadasa campaign. 

The non-politician in Rajapaksa has been very evident compared to the politician in Premadasa in their delivery of speeches. However, substance vs. rhetoric might prove to be a problem for Premadasa, as no doubt the voters are educated enough to separate the speaking flourish from the content. Premadasa too has presented well-crafted speeches but has at times lost the advantage of such speeches with speeches of nothing but mundane nothingness. 

All meetings have crowds and that is not an indication of voting intentions. The enthusiasm at Rajapaksa rallies appear to be at a higher decibel than at Premadasa’s and Rajapaksa’s campaign team has managed to do better imagery than Premadasa’s team. All this however might prove to be cosmetic when votes are cast and none of the above would be the measure of how voters will or should vote.

Being the leader of the country does not mean the leader could govern alone, and despite the perception of authoritarianism in Rajapaksa compared to Premadasa. The battle against the LTTE required a degree of authoritarianism although what may affect voter sentiment and intentions might be the sense of authoritarianism or at least the perception of it, after the war.

In respect of the ability to achieve outcomes, particularly in making the country more secure and uplifting the economy, the Gotabaya/Mahinda combine has the edge over Premadasa and Wickremesinghe, although Premadasa has more than hinted that Wickremesinghe will not be his Prime Minister and it will be a new comer. 

If this is the case, the country will have two untested leaders at the top if Premadasa wins. That is a matter for the voters come to terms with. Premadasa is at the same time in a bad place if Wickremesinghe becomes his Prime Minister as the latter is not a popular leader nor a leader who has accomplished much. Wickremesinghe will also bring in his own team that is even more unpopular than him.

Security, the economy, social and societal well- being

There are several issues before the voters and if security, the economy, social and societal well- being is taken in that order, the issue of security is balanced to an extent as both sides have a war veteran in Sarath Fonseka and Rajapaksa. 

Perhaps, Rajapaksa has an edge here as he along with Mahinda Rajapaksa gave the political and military support to the Army Commander Sarath Fonseka during the battle against the LTTE. 

The UNP leaders are known for the belittling of the war effort, and none but Sarath Fonseka should know that. The Mahinda/Gotabaya and Sarath combination was instrumental in winning the war along with other Forces commanders and the Police. They had the political support and the confidence of the then President. The UNP on the other hand behaved as if they were on the side of the LTTE if one were to go by their comments against the Armed Forces. 

Sarath Fonseka is part of the UNP led combine, and although Premadasa states he is a different leader, the irony that he is part of UNP that ridiculed Fonseka and the Army is not lost on people. 

The economy

Who is best suited to lead the economic recovery really rests with the team that is backing each candidate and the all-important political stability within and without. There seems to be a greater chance that Rajapaksa and his team will have greater political stability within their political combine compared to Premadasa and his combine. 

It would be different for him if the UNP gives him a free hand to select his team commencing with his Prime Minister and the old guard calls it a day or supports Premadasa without reservations. Will they do it is the question that is probably uppermost in the voter’s minds. 

Both candidates however have not spelt out how water fills into the tank when the tap is open and water is gushing out of the tank to fulfil the election promises made. Both should have been more responsible and treated the voters with more respect. 

Unfunded promises can only make matters worse for voters in the longer term. Increasing the public sector workforce who do not pay any personal taxes, reduction of VAT, increase in plantation sector wages without a corresponding increase in productivity (Premadasa’s promise Rs. 1,500 per day and Rajapaksa’s Rs. 1,000 per day), more universities and therefore more graduates and therefore a need to find more jobs, although Rajapaksa has linked this to economic imperatives, are all measures that are commendable from an individual point of view, but they could be detrimental to the same individual unless these measures are sustainable in the longer term.

An economic direction that is focused on exports and import substitution seems to be lost on both candidates.

Besides economic problems, lack of opportunities, and a lack of direction, social problems have become acute despite the outwardly show of false pretences. A recent report on hotel occupancy painted a bleak picture with many hotels without guests, and staff struggling to make ends meet. Despite the hoopla about the health system, it is not serving the public as it should. There are drug shortages, staff indifference and poorer patients having to bear the brunt of this breakdown. 

The past five years have not helped and the beneficiaries of the current regime has been the segment of the population that has the economic strength to meet their own expenses. This situation has and will create tensions within the social structure. 

Both Premadasa and Rajapaksa have given some recognition to this situation. The problem for the former is that unless he manages to get a new team together, the old team led by Wickremesinghe will give the country more of the same, and make things worse. No wonder he has reportedly imported another bullet proof vehicle for himself

Social problems, societal problems have not been addressed as they should have by the current Government and many who are supporting Premadasa probably are hopeful that he will address them as President. His record as the Deputy Leader of the UNP and as a senior Minister does not give much hope that he will. Once again, if he is able to make a fresh start with a different and a new team, he may be able to demonstrate his yet unknown and untested capabilities. 

The biggest negative for Rajapaksa is the perception that he is associated with authoritarian practices and human rights abuses. He could have introduced initiatives to dispel fears people have, justly or unjustly, that he is a man to be feared. 

As this writer suggested in a previous article, he could have stated that if elected, he would create an independent Ombudsman entity with sweeping powers to receive complaints from the public and to investigate them and file indictments in the Supreme Court against any politician or public official if a prima facie case exists that the accused has violated the human rights of an individual. Public assurances that the law of the land will be obeyed and the independence of the judiciary will be assured, are not adequate to dispel fears that people have about Gotabaya Rajapaksa and even for that matter, contender Sajith Premadasa, if he emulates even one tenth of what his father is alleged to have done during the second uprising of the JVP.

What will Sri Lankans vote for? Proven dynamism or the promise of dynamism? Fear of the known or a hope against fear? Promises that are measureable or promises that have no measure? Capacity for renewal or capacity for more of the same?

Who will take us to the Promised Land?

We will know on the 16th night.