On October 9, 2019, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) formally announced that it would support and campaign for Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). The presidential election has been scheduled for November 16. The decision seems to have sealed the outcome of the election in favor of Gotabhaya. More, on this later.
The decision was made after a prolonged struggle within the party. The SLFP had been grappling with the question, how to approach the presidential election, ever since it became clear that an SLFP candidate cannot win. President Sirisena, leader of the SLFP, was keen to contest the election and return to the office for the second time. However, his party did not have a chance to win the election on its own or in alliance with smaller parties. He needed either the SLPP or the United National Party (UNP) to achieve this objective.
The UNP, in what could be termed a political coup, convinced Sirisena to challenge his boss Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 election and fielded him as the common opposition candidate. Sirisena won. The rest is history. Soon after the election, it became clear that the UNP will not support Sirisena for the second time. Hence, Sirisena’s only option was the SLPP.
President Sirisena was negotiating with the SLPP to convince the party to accept him as the common candidate of the proposed SLPP-SLFP alliance. The SLPP did exceptionally well in the 2018 local authority elections. Hence, the Rajapaksa faction was confident and did not concede. As an alternative, Sirisena strived to secure the prime minister position in the anticipated new government headed by the SLPP. That also failed.
Eventually, the SLFP decided to demand a symbolic change. It wanted to change Gotabhaya’s election symbol from lotus to a neutral figure. That was also rejected. Lotus is the SLPP party symbol, as well. Hence, the need to contest on the lotus symbol, the SLPP argued.
Now, the SLFP has extended unconditional support to Gotabhaya for president. Hence, one cannot be wrong in characterizing the SLFP’s current position as an “almost total surrender.” The parties have agreed for specific arrangements regarding the parliamentary election, which will follow the presidential election. President Sirisena has announced that he will remain neutral and has relinquished the leadership of the SLFP. This intriguing position does not mean anything, as it will not impact how the SLFPers will vote on November 16. At the same time, it won’t be surprising, if he gets into the fray and campaign. In the last five years, Sirisena has proved that he cannot be predicted.
Gotabhaya and SLFP
It seems the SLPP has about 45 percent national votes. In the 2015 presidential election, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the current leader of the SLPP polled 47.58 percent of nationwide votes. The party polled 44.65 of the total national votes in the 2018 local authority election. Therefore, it is safe to assume that the SLPP candidate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has a vote bank consisting of about 45 percent national votes. A candidate needs 50 percent national votes plus one vote to win the election. Therefore, when Gotabhaya’s name was announced, he was five percent votes short to reach the target.
The SLFP and its allies won 13 percent of the national votes in the 2018 local authority elections. Therefore, one can assume that the SLFP on its own has about a ten percent vote base. Members and supports of the SLFP will find it easy to vote for Gotabhaya and the SLPP-led alliance because until recently, the SLFP and Rajapaksa group are not two different entities. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family were longtime members of the SLFP and have held offices on behalf of the party. It is Sirisena’s ascendancy that influenced the Rajapaksa family’s exit from the SLFP. One can argue that Rajapaksa perhaps is a more popular personality within the SLFP than Sirisena.
Hence, when the SLFP campaigns for Gotabhaya, almost all SLFP votes will automatically go to the SLPP candidate. The SLFP’s decision to support the SLPP-led alliance will deliver about 55 percent votes, more than enough to win the election, to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
In a recent essay titled, “Sri Lanka: State of the Presidential Race,” I pointed out that in order to win, Sajith Premadasa needs to (1) get President Sirisena’s endorsement, (2) get Anura Kumara Dissanayake to withdraw from the race, and (3) get the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) support.
Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) received 4.87, 6.27, and six percent votes in the 2015 parliamentary election, 2018 local authority election, and October 2019 Elpitiya Pradeshiya Saba (regional council) election, respectively. Hence, one may assume that the party has about five to six percent national votes.
Sajith Premadasa should have tried hard to get Dissanayake to withdraw from the race with adequate incentives. The JVP’s six percent votes would be crucial to reach the 50 percent mark. Perhaps moves are underway to engage Dissanayake. However, publicly available information does not suggest that Sajith faction is negotiating with Dissanayake or the JVP. Moreover, now it is little too late to get the JVP to withdraw as the Dissanayake campaign is in full swing.
Sajith Premadasa’s failure to get Sirisena’s support and motivate JVP to withdraw from the race takes about 60 percent votes (SLPP’s 45 +SLFP’s 10 +JVP’s 5) from the equation.
The TNA, which supported the UNP-led coalition candidate (Sirisena) last time, has not made up its mind about the presidential election. The party, a proxy of the UNP until very recently, has announced that it will engage all candidates and make a decision in due course. Supporting one or the other candidate is the only option the TNA has as it has not nominated anybody from the party to contest. Theoretically, it could boycott the election or stay neutral.
Nonetheless, conventional wisdom is that the party will eventually endorse the UNP candidate directly or indirectly. However, even if the TNA and Tamils in the North-East eventually support Sajith Premadasa, he will be working with only about 40 percent votes, which is insufficient to win the election.
Fear of Militarism
Despite the problematic electoral arithmetic, Sajith Premadasa’s campaign continues with considerable enthusiasm. His inaugural campaign rally in Colombo drew large crowds. It seems Sajith faction believes that fear of militarism under Gotabhaya would encourage Sinhala voters to vote for Premadasa.
The effective termination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009 bestowed Gotabhaya, the image of a military strongman. In the immediate postwar period, he retained a tight grip on the Sri Lankan society. Moreover, the Rajapaksa government from 2005 to 15 was considered highly authoritarian. These factors could ignite a sense of fear about a future under Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.
However, would it discourage a vast majority of the Sinhala voters from voting for Gotabhaya? Highly unlikely. According to a survey undertaken in 2011, 69.9 percent of the Sinhala people believed that the country was “most democratic” under Rajapaksa rule. Therefore, Rajapaksa voters may not view concerns about democracy as a legitimate problem. The possible defections may not be enough to take Premadasa to the finishing line.
Therefore, barring any major unanticipated incidents or changes from now to November 16, Gotabhaya is more likely to win the presidential election with about 55 percent of votes.