Reading the ‘re-election’ statement
Posted on July 23rd, 2021

MALINDA SENEVIRATN​E

‘The boss has said it loud and clear that he will contest a second time! Now the other side (opposition) would have to nominate Basil. If not, even someone from the tuk-tuk party could also do the job!’

The above is the rough English translation of an FB post by someone who has essentially backed individuals and parties opposed to the Rajapaksas and the SLPP (i.e. Maithripala Sirisena and Sajith Premadasa, the UNFGG and the SJB). He’s obviously referring to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s statement intimating that he would see re-election. He’s essentially saying ‘lost cause.’ He may be implying that the SLPP would have a better chance if it was someone other than the President.

Speculation. Speculation. Speculation. Ifs and buts. What ifs and if nots. Entertaining in its own right of course. Predicting political outcomes is sometimes about positioning preferred outcomes. It has a role in campaigns and this is why we see lots of ‘polls’ when elections are at hand. That said, predictions say more about predictors than about relevant candidates, parties and political realities. Let me elaborate.

Way before the SLPP announced that Gotabaya Rajapaksa would be the party’s candidate for the 2019 Presidential Election, there was an intense back and forth in social media which could be captured as a debate titled ‘Gota or Basil?’ Obviously the participants sided with the SLPP. Most of the more vocal of the debaters pointed out the positive attributes of one as well as the negatives of the other. There was a lot of exaggeration as well. Fun banter, anyway.

It was essentially a battle between Gotabaya-loyalists and Basil-loyalists. Now this is speculation, but I couldn’t help but wonder along the following lines. It made every sense for Gotabaya-backers to want him to contest. Gotabaya contests and if he wins, they profit one way or another. At the very least they have the satisfaction of backing the winner. If it was Basil, they would get nothing, unless he lost and they could say ‘We told you so; Gota would have won.’ Flip names and you get the flip-side.

Now let’s switch to the other camp, i.e. the UNP-SJB or let’s say ‘the anti-Rajapaksa bloc.’ They revelled. For them it was a case of a Rajapaksa split. They believed that once a candidate was announced the ‘hopeful’ who lost out and his backers would back away from the campaign.  This was interesting because they were also among those who ranted and raved about pavulvaadaya (familism?) and insisted that the power should not fall into the hands of a single family. If indeed the Rajapaksas had a clan mentality then it probably meant that they would resolve their disagreements one way or another, decide on the more ‘winnable’ and back him to the hilt.

We don’t even know if this ‘spat’ flowed from the two individuals — neither mentioned anything of the kind. In fact Basil, in an interview, quashed such speculation and jokingly said ‘Gota has less experience than Mahinda; so if he is the President I could have a bigger role than before.’

It was a wish, nothing more. The spat narrative and extrapolations, I mean. Didn’t pan out. Previously, they had speculated that Gotabaya would be stopped by none other than Mahinda. Here’s the ‘logic’ in brief:

‘Mahinda wants to be in control. This is why he got his people to vote for the 19th Amendment. He knows he can’t contest, but he felt that if power is wrested from the Ranil-Maithri combine, he could, as PM, call all the shots.’ [Note: obviously they hadn’t read the 19th Amendment carefully — Patali Champika Ranawaka had done so; he knew all about how much of the presidential powers had been clipped and moreover had a stake in the whole matter given his own presidential ambitions].’

Of course they didn’t address the obvious question: ‘If not Gotabaya then who?’ Anyway, it was the same mind-set that spun these scenarios. Wishes. Preferred outcomes. Extrapolations. Glee.

What happen next? Well, the SLPP picked Gotabaya. And then? Up came the citizenship issue. But why? Simple. They had to find some way to block Gotabaya. Why? Isn’t it obvious? The implication is that if Gota did get to contest, he would win. He did.

So what now? Will the President win a second term? If not, could we conclude that, say, Basil would have had a better chance? Well, whether or not he wins, we can never know if his brother could have bested him, either by securing more votes in a defeat or a greater margin of victory. All that’s speculation. Good entertainment in the main possible but not probably framed by ‘campaign strategy’ as alluded to above.

What should we make of this decision? Power nourishes greed? We don’t know. We could talk however about realities. The President would have had to make an announcement either way, sooner or later and probably sooner rather than later. If he ended speculation by going the other way, reiterating that he would not seek reelection, a scenario that would probably be followed quickly by the ‘emergence’ of an SLPP front runner, that would be a signal to one and all to line up next to him or if not at least behind him.

What would that do to governability? Wouldn’t help, that much can be said. Structures will remain but the people within them would not be as stable — they would move around, there could be foot-dragging and much time and effort will be expended by those who are tasked to get things done to secure their futures. That’s the political culture we live in, isn’t it?

This, then, is about the lame-duck factor. Typically the ‘decline’ in this sense begins the moment after re-election. If ‘no-show’ was announced, the decline begins right there. Then and there. That’s decline in terms of backing from within. It might impact the track-record of the regime negatively, but then again, that does not necessarily translate into an inevitable defeat in the next major election.

It must also be understood that the Opposition is in disarray, moving from one issue to another as though punch-drunk. No talk of Lankagama now. No talk of deforestation. No talk even of provincial council elections. No talk of constitutional reform. No talk of mishandling the pandemic (after all, those who got the jab, especially after saying ‘there won’t be jabs’ and ‘Sinopharm won’t work’ can’t really afford to complain).

Even angst regarding the fertiliser policy is not exactly translating into the rant-rave that is, sadly, the best that oppositions in this country do. A war-analogy would help explain, I believe. Back in the day the so-called peace activists said ‘war is bad’. They then said ‘the LTTE cannot be defeated’. Then they stopped saying ‘cannot’ and instead toned down to ‘do it right.’ Took years. In the case of the fertiliser issue it has reached ‘do it right’ in less than two months!

Back to the beginning. Could someone from a tuk-tuk party defeat the President? Let’s not get into the prediction game. It shows angst at best; says more about the sayer. What’s politically relevant at this point is that it strengthens the President. Loyalists won’t look for another pohottuwa hopeful at this point and unless there’s a significant change in the fortunes of the opposition and/or a series of significant blunders by the government, they won’t look outside the party either.

malindasenevi@gmail.com

[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views.]

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