Gotabaya and Rajapaksa: A tale of two elections

Friday, 6 December 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



In 2018, during the time when then-President Sirisena and now-PM Rajapaksa got together on stage, someone made a comment that became very important later on. It might even have been one of them, but someone said that with them getting together, it combined both MR’s 2015 voters and MS’s 2015 voters. 

Of course, that wasn’t true. While Mahinda Rajapaksa’s voters definitely voted for him, the votes for Sirisena were more on an anti-Rajapaksa/pro-reform agenda. But this statement is important today, because the 2019 election was pretty much a combination of those two.

Was the election racist? No, people just had different expectations

After the election, a lot of people started calling the election racist and polarised. They said that the Sinhalese voted for then-candidate Gotabaya because they were racist. Others said that the north and the east voted for then-candidate Sajith because they were racist. 

We’ve already handled why the majority vote in the country was not due to racist factors, but largely economic and security driven. Regardless of the validity of such a claim, security was probably a main reason for the vote swing in the north and east as well. This isn’t too important anymore, and there’s nothing to be gained from bringing it up anymore.

In the middle of all the vitriol thrown about after the election, something very interesting was hidden. We think there were two distinct groups that voted for now-President Rajapaksa.

President Rajapaksa: The base vote of yesteryear

One group voted for him because he was a Rajapaksa. He upheld the underlying values and traditions of the Sinhala Buddhist culture that a majority of the country holds true to themselves, and he made sure this was clear. When UNP MPs made statements against what people perceived was their identity (Mangala, for anyone confused to who we mean), then-candidate Rajapaksa made sure the people knew that he was against this.

Of course, while part of this was made by actually and directly catering to the specific needs of these people, a huge part of this part of the campaign was actually not run on the basis of ‘Gotabaya for President,’ but by actually putting Mahinda Rajapaksa forward. 

The moment you move out of the urban areas of the country, you saw Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s face becoming progressively smaller on the banners and posters, until there was only the older Rajapaksa visible. In fact, talking to supporters of the SLPP outside of urban areas gave this idea as well, since they were “going to vote for Mahinda Mahaththaya”.

President Gotabaya: The swing vote of 2015

Another group voted for him, because he is Gotabaya. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Defence Secretary who beautified Colombo, who built parks, who oversaw the infrastructure drive before 2015. This is the same Gotabaya who supported the IT industry and who was now proposing reforms that the people could understand, but did not treat the people as in poverty and needing handouts. 

Now this was a campaign that directly put Gotabaya the technocrat at the forefront instead of Rajapaksa the politician. Through Viyathmaga and the people there, quite an efficient campaign was run to target swing urban voters that want change and are willing to vote for whoever provides them with that. 

We can see how this aspect of the campaign actually defined President Gotabaya. From letting go of the kurakkan shawl to appointing a selection committee for State institutions, President Gotabaya is keeping to this aspect very well.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa: A man from two worlds

Coming into power from both of these aspects has given President Gotabaya Rajapaksa a unique challenge and also a unique opportunity. The challenge he faces is in balancing both these vote bases. At the end of the day, it is unlikely that he would have won the election if he wasn’t a Rajapaksa.

It’s also possible that a different Rajapaksa who wasn’t Gotabaya might not have fared as well as he did (especially if the other Rajapaksa wasn’t as strong on national security). Then, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa can’t let go of one group’s needs for the other, however much he might want to. In fact, while he got his 15 (16 with the PM) cabinet, almost everyone else in the party got State ministerships.

But this also is a unique opportunity, because President Rajapaksa has almost double the political capital that anyone else does. He can use it. The good thing is, he has started to do so. Most of his programs so far have been very much Gotabaya driven. 

He also has the unique position of being the best person to actively help the Tamil national question, and in his interview to the Hindu, he claimed that his success in this matter should be determined by economic development in the (still-poor) north and east of the country – a position that should very well result in success.

Conclusion: A tough road to navigate

Now, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a lot to do. Perhaps Gotabaya will prove all this critics wrong and turn the country into, maybe not a Singapore outright, but at least into somewhere like maybe South Korea. But perhaps Rajapaksa will go down the same path as the last time a Rajapaksa was in power, and make Sri Lanka a little better economically, but with a lot of restless anger. Only time will tell. And results, of course.