The Prime Minister finally conceded to his ambition of contesting the Presidential Polls, amidst him realising his absolute fate of a certain defeat upon contesting. The Prime Minister’s concession has meant that the United National Party (UNP) has now got a significant boost to its chances of winning this election. The road won’t be as smooth and easy for the firm favourite Gotabaya Rajapakshe (GR) as it once indicated a few weeks back.
What is the perception behind the notion that GR is the favourite?
GR was among the frontrunners to be nominated from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) as their presidential candidate for some time after the defeat of President Rajapaksa. His nomination was assured with the recent Easter Sunday attacks that put the spotlight back on security as the primary issue of the country.
The defeat of the LTTE and the establishment of peace within the country was a key achievement that GR is constantly admired, even today. Further, the people of this country endorsed the beautification programs carried out in Colombo during his tenure, as well as the discipline in which such developments was administered.
With the eviction of President Rajapaksa from the leadership of the SLFP and the subsequent demotion of the Rajapaksa family from numerous positions within the party, President Rajapaksa was inclined to form another political force to sustain his political desire of returning to power and paving the road for his children to succeed to positions of high authority in government. However, the constraint to re-contest for the presidency beyond two terms by the 19th Amendment diminished the hopes of his re-election to the top post.
President Rajapaksa then turned to his immediate choice of succession and selected GR as he was the most preferred among his brothers and also was still very popular among the masses in relation to the war victory. Further, he trusted that GR would pave the way for the political succession of President Rajapaksa’s eldest son Namal in the long term, compared with his other siblings.
There remains a belief that a country such as Sri Lanka requires a dictatorial leader if sustained progress is to be achieved. The years of President Rajapaksa resembles such a style of administration where the country achieved visible progress through the cessation of the war and commencement of large-scale development projects.
However, the country was overshadowed by a family rule in which decision making was confined to the family dinner table. The authority of the Cabinet and the other Government positions were made redundant for most part of the administration. Significant allegations of corruption and malpractices was placed on key members of the Rajapaksa family. Even to this day “the white van” concept perceived to have been placed on the disappearances that took place during the Rajapaksa regime remains a dark cloud among the voters in their decision to return another Rajapaksa to office.
GR’s ascendency to the top as the immediate favourite was clearly endorsed with the ‘Good Governance’ concept championed in the lead up to the 2015 Presidential Election faltering to a mere fallacy. The past four plus years witnessed the economic progress at a sluggish pace with the brunt of the impact felt by the corporates and the people. In addition, allegations of corruption and malpractice, which was home to the Rajapaksa regime, have overshadowed this Government, through incidents such as the bond scam. Still no convictions have been proven on many such allegations of both regimes.
People mainly witnessed no visible developments or progress within the country and had to contend with the internal power struggle of the Government orchestrated by the President and Prime Minister. Added to this, the Easter Sunday attacks more or less sealed the deal for GR and his ambitions for the presidency. The majority Sinhala Buddhist voters are expected to back GR along with key businessman previously in support of the UNP, whom of which are still reeling from the financial bruises of the last four plus years.
How would the two main candidates excel in key issues facing the country?
Change to the political system
The change to the current political system is of primary importance and some would consider this to be the main reason behind many of the issues faced by the country, today. The current system has bought about cronies, crooks, thugs and unqualified representatives to public office.
The incumbent Government’s political conflict between the President and Prime Minister has catalysed constraints on reform, policy implementation and treats to democracy, as witnessed with the recent political coup in October 2018. The grave dependence on minority parties for the critical minority share of the vote has meant that key ministerial positions along with many other benefits have to be given to garner their support and sustain them in government. This has meant that the leading parties and candidates are always at the mercy of them to secure the crucial fraction of the votes to cross over the line.
As championed in the constant rhetoric that we hear during the times of each election, neither elected representative follows suit on their promise to correct the political system. The incumbent governments move to reduce the powers of the executive created more confusion through the 19th Amendment and the recent amendments to the elections system commencing the Local Government elections was merely flawed and at times even more challenging to form a governing party in the house.
The writer believes that neither candidate will take an active step towards the correction of the political system; even if it is proceeded with, with good intention, the Opposition will try its best to block the passing of the bill in Parliament.
Sri Lankan politics and governance have revolved around a political elite or family, over a number of years. GR is a continuation of the Rajapaksa family dynasty, the political family that has a firm foot hold in the country’s political domain for the past 15 years.
The SLFP has revolved around Bandaranaikes and Rajapaksas ever since its inception and the SLPP seems to follow suit in this regard. The SLPP can be termed the Rajapakshe family party, in which the leaders for at least the next decade have already received their virtual appointments.
In contrast, Sajith Premadasa (SP) resembles the return of the Premadasa dynasty to topmost position in the governance of our country and the UNP. His father was the last UNP president and he would be hoping that he would be the next from the party. The UNP in contrast has not had leaders based on a family origin for prolonged periods. The imposition of the incumbent Prime Minister to the position of leadership of the party in 1994 was a mere result of the assassination of key prospective leaders of the party.
GR is perceived to be better equipped to handle and place the country in a more secured environment than SP. Due to the recent surge in security as the top most priority of the country, it is evident that the largest share of voters may perceive or favour a leader capable of inserting a strong control to the security of the country to a greater extent than in the last two Presidential Polls.
It is a sad occurrence that the security of the country is at the limelight and the key determinant of the next President, again, after a 26-year brutal civil war. For things to work in favour of SP, he should garner the support of Field Marshall Fonseka, his most qualified lawmaker in the field of security, and as well as foster the expertise of other brave war heroes to trim the gap GR has over him on this issue.
SP should garner the voter base supporting for a candidate that needs to address this issue. The UNP was considered the most business friendly political party in relation to their policies. However, the perception has been superseded amidst the disappointing 4.5 years of rule, since 2015.
The inability to form an independent government under the leadership of the Prime Minister has meant that the UNP governments were always under threat of being overthrown from office or have their policies not been implemented. This was the case with the Governments of both 2001 and 2015.
The ailing economy of the country needs refinement and many do hope the change would come from GR, given the nature of the developments carried out during the Rajapaksa era. This perception is in the backdrop of the nature of our countryman who tend to have a short term memory, value visible developments and more or less selfish in their objectives. The Government did not take any swift measures to resolve this issue until recently where the SMEs were greatly aided with loan schemes such as Enterprise Sri Lanka, Arabuma loan schemes and so on.
Sri Lanka faces a great treat to many industries with the advent of artificial intelligence and robotics.
The notion holds for the garment industry, with the risk that it would shift back to developed countries. Further, a significant portion of our exports tend to be commodities and such need significant investment for innovation and value addition to stay competitive.
The country needs to employ more favourable investment terms to attract FDI, as well as reduce the red tape and political interferences that such investments are faced with when entering the country. Policy must enable businesses to integrate into high value added global production networks, which could also bring along technological know-how related to diverse industries.
Reconciliation and ethnic unity
Both leaders have the ambition to resolve this perennial issue. Sajith leads in this front as he will garner majority of the minority support for this endeavour.
However, the challenge for him would be to convince the majority ethnic groups on a way forward to this matter at the earliest. If our policy makers delay to find a fruitful solution to the issues of the other ethnicities, the country would not press ahead to prosperity. No country will get reconciled by passing laws.
As for GR he would have to reverse the perception held about him by minority communities and strive to reconcile the lost relations among the ethnicities. The situation what the country finds itself would present the ideal platform for him to prove his worth.
The country is in grave need for reform that has served as barriers to growth. The introduction of growth enhancing reforms in the areas of export promotion, attracting FDI, reducing budget deficits and debt levels, reforming factor markets, strengthening public administration, and ensuring the rule of law will avert the continuous economic stagnation of our country will enable our economy to progress rapidly with peer economies.
Both candidates will face a stiff challenge when it comes to implementing reform as it would be challenging to secure the votes required, as many law makers will be fearful of the depletion of their voter banks, rather than the betterment of the country. President Rajapaksa and the Yahapalanaya Government had two great opportunities to drive the required reform. However, neither lawmaker did pursue such reform for the betterment of the country, but only to increase their survival chances. It would be to the advancement if such reforms aimed at driving growth is pursued, despite the challenges faced.
As mentioned and taking a caption of the writer’s article, ‘Sri Lanka’s next president: Let’s get it right this time,’ the time has come to transfer the political leadership to a new generation of leaders and for the old folks to handover that baton. The next battle will be a technological war and not a conventional war and we do not need old generals to lead that effort.
Our country has youthful smart officers in our defence forces and they should be the ones leading the security measures in the years ahead. It is only the Constitution and law that must hold us together and not a dictatorship.
The country does not need to return back to dictatorship on the grounds of a security lapse, but taken actionable steps to make a democracy work.
Given security at the forefront of this election, GR will be tipped to be elected president. However, the perception of a leader being elected on the backdrops of security is certainly not a good sign for our country as whole as no one wants to relive the war years. SP represents the most youthful choice Sri Lanka has had for a while and should resonate the next generation of politicians the country should welcome, disbanding the family rule.
Given GR won’t face any impediment from the revocation of his American citizenship, the contest for the presidency will remain with these two candidates. Due to the low political literacy of our people, the other candidates on offer would not be of serious consideration for a vote. Despite GR emerging as the frontrunner to the presidency with the recent terror attacks, the advent of SP to the candidacy can swing in favour of the UNF, if many other aspects are considered such as economic development, democracy, transparency, equality and freedom of speech.
[The writer is the Managing Director at Elon Venture Catalysts Ltd., a financial and investment banking services firm operating in Sri Lanka. He is also the founder of accounting and CFO services firm Cotlersys and Retinue. He has a BEng (Hons) in Chemical Engineering degree from the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom and a MBA (Marketing) from the University of Colombo. He is also a Chartered Financial Analyst.
Vidushan holds a Certified Management Accountant (Australia) and Certified Global Business Analyst (Australia). He is currently reading for his Doctorate in Business Administration from the University of Colombo.
He can be reached via email on firstname.lastname@example.org or www.elonventure.com]