To prevent the slide into darkness

By Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu

It has finally happened. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a candidate for the presidency on the ticket of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) – the party of his family and their loyalists. At a mass meeting at which his brother and former President assumed the party leadership, Gotabaya was presented to the country as the future president. He in turn vowed to serve it to the utmost of his abilities and in particular, to protect women and the environment and to never sign agreements with foreign governments that would infringe the sovereignty of Sri Lanka.

The election may well be another three months away, but the Gotabaya campaign is in full swing with the candidate doing the usual things expected of him – the obligatory visit to the Mahanayakas and to Anuradhapura.

It is, after all, a campaign that started some time ago and one which has secured fraternal blessing for the moment, despite some apparent reluctance earlier on. As to whether the issue of citizenship has been resolved is yet to be definitively clarified and the cases against him remain, if not increase. The question of eligibility aside, the key question is as to whether it is going to be a shoo-in for Gotabaya or as to whether it is going to be one helluva tough fight.

There is no reason to assume that the latter cannot be the case. Gotabaya is liked, even loved, according to some and disliked and feared according to others. His name is synonymous with the white van abductions, extrajudicial killings, beatings, and intimidation, all adding up to allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He is widely suspected of giving extremists government sponsorship and shielding them with the culture of impunity and for all intents and purposes, the people in the North were either treated as second-class citizens or potential terrorists. There is no doubt that he contributed to his brother’s defeat in 2015 and there is nothing to be gained by pointing to others’ atrocities – and there are atrocities to be sure – to whitewash him. Gota as “gonibilla” has quite some traction.

Gota is at the helm

He is liked and even loved because of his military defeat of the LTTE, the reputation of strong and decisive leadership that this has earned him, and the consequent promise of a clear course for government and strict discipline for the people. That he was able to do what he did because his brother was President aside, Gotabaya answers to the need of populist authoritarianism. One does not need policies or programmes or indeed ideology. All will be well because Gota is at the helm and all who challenge him will have hell to pay. Back to the future and how!

Gotabaya’s task is of course being made a lot easier by the unnecessary disagreement within the UNP of those who argue for the alliance first before the announcement of a candidate or vice versa. Between the Prime Minister, Sajith Premadasa, and the Speaker, surely this question can be resolved quickly and privately, so the party can present a united front to the people.

All things taken into account, popular opinion appears to be strongly in favour of a Premadasa candidacy. This would energise the UNP base in addition to holding onto the anti-Rajapaksa votes of the minorities. According to some calculations, Gotabaya will need to win anything between 68-75% of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist vote if the minorities vote against him en masse in full strength.

Too slow

The UNP does not seem to be in any hurry to announce its candidate although Sajith loyalists are getting impatient. Perhaps the leadership does not want its candidate and campaign to peak too soon. Time is running out and time is not on the UNP’s side if the time taken to announce its candidate only demonstrates divisions within the party.

Gotabaya, so far, has been short on specifics and Sajith short on everything apart from housing and being his father’s son. True, the presidency is not the most powerful position in the country, but it still provides leadership at a national level. Should not the holder of this position be the spokesperson and champion of a vision of Sri Lanka for this century and beyond? Accordingly, should not this vision, these competing visions, be presented to the people of this country in the upcoming presidential campaign for debate and eventually, for choice?

What are the positions on a new constitution, new anti-terrorism legislation, and reform of the Office of the Attorney General and family laws? What is the position on transitional justice? Is it worth pursuing? How about private universities and the use of the English language? And how will we navigate the geopolitical seas between China on one side, the US, India, Japan, and Australia on the other?

Gotabaya defines this election because of his record as Defence Secretary in the war against the LTTE, and Mahinda Rajapaksa because the Prime Minister’s is the more important job and because he has said he will be the Prime Minister after the general election.

The opposition to the Rajapaksas has to repeat 2015 with conviction and renewed vigour, by talking about what has been done since then and what more will be done; by talking about the Rajapaksa past and the recent Sirisena past. Indeed, by promising to bring to account both of them not as vengeance or vendetta but because democracy with transparency and accountability demands it.

Let us hope, pray, and work to prevent the slide into the enveloping darkness…