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Candidate fever


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There were no surprises in store on Sunday as former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was announced as the presidential candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) by his elder brother. The SLPP being the first party to officially announce its candidate has put more attention on the UNP to produce a dynamic candidate capable of countering Rajapaksa.    

At the same event Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa accepted the leadership of the SLPP, which raises questions about his parliamentary seat. But these are largely likely to remain in the shadows, at least for the next few weeks, as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) plot their respective campaigns and candidates for the Presidential Election. 

A successful campaign, however, needs a dynamic candidate at its core. The SLPP predictably picked the strongest candidate available and Rajapaksa will likely stick to safe points, given that he has portrayed himself as a non-political candidate, and move away from the more controversial aspects of his brother’s last term as president. This was hinted at in his first speech after accepting the candidacy, which set out a policy framework that essentially reads like a wish list from his core vote base. 

Rajapaksa touched on a range of topics including championing local companies, providing jobs for youth, allowing the public sector to work independently, safety of women and prioritising national security. There is no doubt that the latter as well as his interest in urban development activities will form the largest share of his campaign as they are already areas he has engaged in and were also the strengths of his brother when he was president. It is evident from the video materials displayed at the event that there will be much overlap between Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policies and what was focus on by his brother and this understandable as they are appealing to the same base. But the challenge is to draw in people from outside their core voter category. 

But conspicuously absent in his speech were assurances of judicial independence, media freedom and continuing reconciliation measures that Sri Lanka has engaged in at international fora. Though he touched on unity, the speech was short on specifics and it will be interesting to see how wider concerns of democracy and minority issues will be addressed by the SLPP. Their appeal to moderates and minorities is still limited and it is there that a question mark still stands.

On the flip side of the numbers game is the UNP, which is yet to decide on a presidential candidate. Its voters will be hoping that the UNP charges out of the gate with a strong candidate who can bring moderates and minorities together in a framework similar to what was seen in 2014. But it cannot take this support for granted as many of them have been disappointed by the showing made by the UNP in the last four years. The UNP could also struggle to find an election slogan that will draw large numbers as the earlier ones of abolishing the executive presidency or fighting corruption will now sound hollow. The consensus is that the UNP will have to do something different to get itself ahead of the game. 

As for the SLFP, to all intents and purposes it is unlikely to hold much sway at the upcoming elections, irrespective of whether it fields a candidate or not.


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