Gotabaya Rajapaksa addressing his maiden press conference on Tuesday – Pic by Daminda Harsha Perera
By Vidushan Premathiratne, CFA
It is just about a month for the people to select their next leader. In that contest, it seems more or less evident that Gotabaya Rajapaksa remains far ahead of his closest rival from the United National Party (UNP), Minister Sajith Premadasa.
A similar situation was observed in the US Presidential Election of 2016, where Trump completely surprised many election pundits and experts to defeat Clinton for the Presidency. The election of 2016, is marked as one of the most extraordinary elections in US history as the people of the US showed their utmost anger and protest against the existing political establishment.
Even on the day of the election many predicted a Clinton win with a moderate margin. However, the result was the complete opposite. Donald Trump, a strategist and experienced marketer managed to convince enough voters in sufficient states that he offered a fix to their problems.
The billionaire entrepreneur presented himself effectively as the definitive outsider against the ultimate insider. He was the candidate for those against the political establishment, while Clinton represented the status quo.
Clinton struggled always to advantageously inculcate or position her vision for America under the slogan ‘Stronger Together’. This was never dynamic or flamboyant as ‘Make America Great Again’. The Trump campaign slogan mainly aroused deeper emotions of the people with their patriotism more vividly portrayed.
Trump highlighted what America had lost under the political establishment and what they were losing as the country stood now and stand to lose if such administration was to continue. Such rhetoric penetrated key blue states in Trumps favour, which eventually resulted in his victory.
In the context of Sri Lanka and this election, there remains a significant anger among the people with the politicians and the detriment they have done for the country for the past 71 years, since independence. However, due to the poor political literacy among the majority of the voters, there seems to be no opportunity for any candidate to be elected outside the political establishment. In simple terms there remains no room for change in this election.
In the battle for the top most post in the country the tussle rests between two political families. Gotabaya Rajapaksa enters this election as the shadow candidate of President Rajapaksa, while Sajith Premadasa would represent the political dynasty of his late father President Premadasa.
Despite the lack of political experience, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stands out from the pack, due to his heroics as the Defence Secretary during the war years and his efforts to beautify the city along with the manner in which such works were carried out and administered. Many people perceive these attributes are sufficient to prove his credentials for the presidency, given the need for the hour being security and development.
How can Gotabaya Rajapaksa loose it from here?
Inability to portray his vision
The initial indication of Gotabaya Rajapaksa does resemble that he is a figurehead representing a broader spectrum of lobbyists. As far as perception is concerned, Gotabaya Rajapaksa seems to have a heavy dependence on his brother President Rajapaksa to answer key questions or lead the propaganda efforts of the campaign.
The Viyathmaga program initiated by his campaign was another good way in which Gotabaya Rajapaksa was able to bring together scholars, professionals and academics and use their standing in society to portray his vision, rather than by himself.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not a natural campaigner. Understandably as he is a decorated soldier and not a lifelong politician. His speeches are often flat and somewhat robotic. His speeches sounds like prefabricated and, to some ears, insincere. The dependence on a teleprompter for his speeches, on instances also does not score well in his efforts in portraying himself as a leader with a vision.
Having a teleprompter is not a bad thing given the number speeches one candidate has to do in an election environment and importance of highlighting specific key points to the relevant audiences. As witnessed in the past, many Sri Lankans embrace and endorse good orators. President Rajapaksa was an excellent orator, that many listeners immediately embraced his patriotism.
Vulnerability as a politician
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the missing candidate in a recent public forum organised with the participation of most of the presidential candidates. At the time of this article was sent for print, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa campaign has also not confirmed on another independent business forum with the presidential candidates, planned to be held in the coming weeks.
Usually such forums have not been held in Sri Lanka where key presidential candidates have been bought to one platform. However, history provides ample evidence, especially in European countries, where such forums not only enhance the public image of one candidate, but also reach the neutral and independent voters or business community that could be the key voter base deciding the election result.
The dearth in political experience of Gotabaya Rajapaksa might weigh in on his campaign experts that might foresee many vulnerabilities of Gotabaya Rajapaksa that could be exploited by the experienced and mature political opponents.
Being a decorated soldier that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is, we cannot by any means assume that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is scared to attend such forums. It can be merely termed as a tactical move by his campaign, in the fear of them losing their perceived lead in this election.
As history proved in the 2015 Presidential Elections and the 2016 US Presidential Elections and in many elections all over the world, perceived election leads can be misleading and mostly result in the defeat of the candidate that avoids attending. The best case is the victory of President Trump. Most candidates should look to address forums of independent audiences as they represent the swing voters or key decisive factors in an election.
Overemphasising security as the key problem of the country
Sri Lanka was free of any threat of terrorism until April, where terrorism again rose its head. Security is paramount and it is well understood that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the best person to handle the security of the country, when compared with the rest of the candidates.
However, up until that point the key issue rested on the economy, where the growth numbers were sluggish and many businesses faced a dull and challenging market environment. This situation in the eyes of businessmen have not subsided even to this day.
Irrespective of the solutions put forward by opposing candidates, Gotabaya Rajapaksa would score high in the field of security and would require no additions. 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. What most people want to hear from Gotabaya Rajapaksa is his plan for the economy and most importantly how he will implement it with many of the stakeholders.
Despite the disappointing four-and-a-half years of a UNP and SLFP coalition Government, people’s perception of the UNP in terms of economic policies seems to be steady for moment, despite the decline in confidence compared with previous Presidential Elections.
People do not want to be in fear or see such an environment in their advertisements. People are looking for answers to make their life better and that can be achieved only by creating a better economy by enhancing innovation, harnessing technology advancements through FDI and developing a skilled labour force.
Perceived fear of the ‘white van’ culture and a military regime
Accusations of disappearances, killings and abductions casted an ugly grey cloud on the term of President Rajapaksa. This environment still haunts to this day. Many opposing candidates will use this factor in their propaganda to embark fear among the voters.
Irrespective of the economic debacles the Good Governance years, the freedom of speech and democracy was at a good standing during the period.
Policy on fraud and corruption
There is significant mistrust with the Good Governance Government on their inability to punish the crooks that they proclaimed to be in the Government of President Rajapaksa. Most cases are still pending and no major culprit has yet been convicted.
Even Gotabaya Rajapaksa was one of the main suspects in certain cases in financial mismanagement, some of which he has been proven not guilty. However, many investigations are ongoing as well as cases against the henchman of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and President Rajapaksa.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa must present a clear policy on the pending cases and investigations, and that he would never interfere in their independent conduct. Further, he must seek to impart the maximum legal punishment for those proven under a court of law, irrespective of their loyalty to him. In addition, he must expedite the legal cases of the Good Governance era as well, and punish those who are responsible, at the earliest.
Reconciliation and enhancing goodwill with the communities
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is on the back foot on this front and it would seem no different in the election to come as well. Gotabaya Rajapaksa seems to be targeting a majority Sinhala Buddhist audience with a small section of the minority at heart.
As it was case in the last Presidential Elections, the fate of President Rajapaksa ended up being the decided by the minorities. Providing fruitful solutions and most importantly addressing their grievances at presenting a solution framework for reconciliation would serve as a good starting point.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa would have to reverse the perception held about him by minority communities and strive to resolve the lost relations among the ethnicities. The situation that the country finds itself would present the ideal platform for him to prove his worth.
One can argue that the Gotabaya Rajapaksa campaign has splintered and narrowed its electoral rhetoric to address specific demographics, instead of reaching out to the communities as a whole. While targeted rhetoric has indeed helped create policies that have benefited past campaigns in the favour of the Rajapaksa presidency, this should not overshadow the larger issues that all Sri Lankan’s care about, namely peace, reconciliation and harmony.
Sajith leads in this front as he will garner majority of the minority support for his election. In terms of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the challenge would be to bridge the differing opinion among his target audiences and minority ethnic groups on a way forward to this matter at the earliest. If our policymakers 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.
Failing to champion the youth vote
The youth or new voters will exceed a million at this election. Sajith Premadasa’s campaigns have identified the importance of this factor and have driven many efforts in this respect. Since Sajith Premadasa is the youngest presidential hopeful to emerge in recent times, many of the youth may be inclined to back a young leader for a change.
The youth vote would also serve as decisive factor as this election could be the time to transfer the political leadership to a new generation of leaders and for the old folks to handover that baton.
The prevention of brain drain and encouraging youth to return from abroad, after their higher education is a paramount need of the hour. Creating better jobs for the educated youth and developing the education system to build a skilled work force would be answers the youth will want to be addressed from their future leaders.
Safeguarding the family support
The solidarity among his family is vital, as a majority of the campaign is operated by them. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is a party created around the Rajapaksa family and its existence depends largely around President Rajapaksa.
Basil Rajapaksa is the main organiser and President Rajapaksa serves as his main asset to drive the entire voter base in favour of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Namal is also a key figure in garnering the youth support in favour of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Also, if Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to succeed as President, if elected, then his ability to ensure the solidarity among his family members is going to be key to a successful presidency. If a scenario of a fallout, like what we saw with President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe happens, then the country would also head to a another debacle in the offing.
How Hillary Clinton managed to lose an election to a candidate as divisive and unpopular as Donald Trump will baffle observers and agonise many for years to come. The shockwave of her defeat still passes although some have presented their view of a rational explanation. Trump was also aided by controversies surrounding Clinton by way of the email scandal and the alleged Russian infringements.
Despite the initial indications and overwhelming support to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, can Sajith Premadasa pull off what is unexpected by most and incomprehensible to many at this election? May be we have another Donald Trump moment in the waiting.
(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.)