What Sri Lanka wants from the next president

Saturday, 2 November 2019 00:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


If someone had said on 1 January that the next presidential race would feature a contest between hardliners and moderates trying to appeal to hardliners, it would have been a big surprise, but it would have sounded like good news for the SLPP candidate. 

Both Premadasa and Rajapaksa have big ideas for a progressive overhaul of the economy after five years of unimpressive reign by President Sirisena, and he eyed a larger national role for himself after he retired. Thankfully that is all over. 

To Sirisena’s credit, Sri Lanka has firmly won the confidence of the world for upholding the democratic values and freeing up the media. Sri Lanka had virtually become a pariah state during the last years of the Rajapaksas. 

Many of the plans prior to 2015 were too much, too fast. Not every candidate in the race is progressive. The candidate who will win the next presidency will be the person who can convince 50% of the population that he has the courage to bring change and would require a movement built on a message of youth, inclusion and optimism. The closest a candidates got to that was when Rajapaksa launched his campaign in August. Subsequently he squandered the entire effort by a badly-managed press conference and public meetings and surrounding himself with the corrupt of the last regime.

His poorly-managed performance generated slogans for supporters to turn into shareable content, which was eventually used to knock down his iron man appeal. It is very clear that Rajapaksa has no real base of his own, his fortunes now entirely depends on the performance of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the nonperformance of the Government in the economy. He even squandered his only trump card – national security – by saying he was not in charge during the war. 

Young Premadasa has already countered the national security gap by publicly saying that Field Marshal Fonseka will be in charge of national security. A man who had successfully fought the battle on the ground. 

Meanwhile, young Sajith Premadasa has done remarkably well on his own. His understanding of the economy and other critical issues has stunned the skeptics in Colombo 7. His performance at a recent business forum won him many new friends. But the team surrounding him on the stage did very little to help him to give his message of optimism. 

The audience who had come to hear young Premadasa’s message of hope seeing the group of people who had managed the economy for the last five years and brought economic growth down to 2.7% were clearly worried that nothing much would change if he won, if he continued with the same team. 

Premadasa has many advantages over Gotabaya Rajapaksa. That still remains to be exploited. Meanwhile Rajapaksa’s biggest asset is his brother. Sajith Premadasa like Barack Obama needs to demonstrate with evidence that he is a man of change, that he will as publicly declared seriously drop the corrupt from the current lot of ministers and get rid of the nonperformers from his administration. 

Polls clearly show that Rajapaksa’s personal popularity is far below the party popularity. The SLPP’s popularity is totally dependent on Mahinda’s charisma and Basil Rajapaksa’s campaign machine. Premadasa has none of those advantages other than the base of the grand old party, that is now fully energised. He now needs some champions to complement Sarath Fonseka. Who is his Basil equivalent? 

But he can surely swing the undecided voters with his youthfulness and a clear message of change for the middle class and a message of hope for the poor. He is 20 years younger than his main rival. What more does he want to be attractive to the youth? No one in the current campaign can do that better than young Premadasa. The question is, will he and can he do it given the limited time?

But given that the man can work 24/7, he may stun the nation like what Barack Obama did in 2008. Or he can also end being the first to congratulate Rajapaksa on 17 November. It is now less than 20 days for both candidates to decide the fate of their future and also paradise.