GP Insights # 125, 17 August 2019
On 11 August 2019, Mahinda Rajapaksa announced his brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the presidential candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) for the forthcoming election. Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former President and currently the leader of Opposition also officially took charge as leader of SLPP. This party is founded by his loyalists in 2016, breaking away from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), of which even Mahinda Rajapaksa was previously part of.
The Presidential election which is due before the end of the year is expected to be crucial given Sri Lanka's political environment. The ruling United National Party (UNP) is yet to announce its candidate, due to the disagreements between its leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the party’s deputy leader Sajith Premadasa. President Maithripala Sirisena, leader of the SLFP, is most likely to support Rajapaksa.
What is the background?
Gotabaya's as SLPP's Presidential candidate is not surprising; Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot run for Presidency due to a 2015 legislation that places a two-term limit. He would be SLPP's prime ministerial candidate in the general elections scheduled in 2020. Although not founded by Mahinda himself, the SLPP is synonymous with the Rajapaksas. The party is founded and comprises of Mahinda loyalist including his brothers, Basil and Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The SLPP performed well in the 2018 local elections. On the other hand, the current coalition of UNP and SLFP, that came to power in 2015 is under threat. The difference between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena became public in a Parliamentary coup by the latter in 2018. It also made evident Rajapaksa's zeal for coming back to power. Wickremesinghe was reinstated later; however, the failure to prevent the Easter attack in 2019, has dented this government further.
What does this mean?
Firstly, Gotabaya may have the support of SLFP and may face a weak UNP candidate; however, he may not have the support of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the Tamil party coalition. Gotabaya is credited for the end of Sri Lankan civil war and is also blamed for the war crimes and violence against the Tamil community. He may not have significant support from the Tamil vote bank.
Secondly, Gotabay may get the Sinhalese vote, but his record may discourage some. His involvement with the civil war linked to Sri Lanka’s infamous “white-van abductions” targeting dissidents, anti-Rajapaksa voices and media, will not help. He has also faced trial for financial fraud and murder which he has denied. His support for the radical Sinhala Buddhist groups, who are notorious for provoking violence against minorities, may play a role.
Thirdly, in case Rajapaksa comes to power this election, it will ensure the impact the democratic process in Sri Lanka. The present government though weak but has been successful in reinstalling a rule-based order. Gotabaya's victory will also ensure a long-lasting reign of the Rajapaksa family.