Photo by Buddhika Weerasinghe via PRI

Who is winning? This seems to be the question many people these days are keen to find an answer to.

Whenever this question is put to me, my usual answer is one that disappoints the interlocutor: “It is difficult to say. But I can tell you a little bit about what I speculate as the current trend…” Such an imprecise answer can hardly please those who are impatient to hear something to confirm what they wish to be the outcome of the presidential election scheduled for next Saturday.

The difficulty in predicting possible election outcomes is largely due to the rapidly changing dynamics of the on-going election campaign. The fact that Sri Lanka does not have credible and professional public opinion surveys at election times only adds to the difficulty. What we occasionally hear as survey results are nothing but calculated election propaganda.

Even without weekly data from sample surveys of the patterns of changing voter preferences across the country, some facets of the electoral dynamics can still be discerned.

Although the campaign has started with three dozens of candidates, four candidates quite expectedly emerged leading – Gotahhaya Rajapaksa, Sajith Premadasa, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, and Mahesh Senanayake.  The final race is now narrowed down to one between two candidates, Rajapaksa and Premadasa.

Nevertheless, the significance of the role of Dissanayake’s and Senanayake’s presence in the fray should not be underestimated. They have aroused a great deal of enthusiasm among independent voters who are looking for alternatives to the dominant political establishment. As the election campaign progressed, Dissanayake and Senanayake seem to have managed to expand their respective support bases.

Even assuming that the duo shares between them around 8 to 10 percent of votes, it will create a significant impact on determining who among the two front runners will have the statistical advantage to win.

The Premadasa camp has every reason to worry about the fact that Dissanayake and Senanayake would garner considerable support from the disenchanted independent voters who backed the yahapalanaya coalition in 2015. Similarly, the Rajapaksa camp is quite uneasy that Senanayake is penetrating into Rajapaksa’s urban middle-class vote base.

Late starter advantage

In terms of the dynamics of the election campaign, the most important comparison has to be between Rajapaksa and Premadasa.

Rajapaksa had launched his presidential campaign unofficially a couple of years ago and Premadasa a few months ago. When Premadasa actually got his candidacy officially from the United National Party, amidst much uncertainty prevailing over weeks, Rajapaksa had already completed much of his campaign. As a late starter, Premadasa actually began from a position of disadvantage. The indications at that time were that Rajapaksa had had already run much ahead of Premadasa in the Presidential race and the latter had a great distance to catch up in a relatively short time.

What is quite remarkable in the politics of campaigning between these two main contenders is the way in which Premadasa has managed to transform this disadvantage into a position of advantage. Just one week to the election day, the gap that earlier existed between Rajapaksa and Premadasa seems to have disappeared to the latter’s advantage. Some observers are suggesting that Premadasa is now surging ahead of Rajapaksa.  It is not yet clear how this will impact on the final result.

From a purely statistical point of view, Mr. Sajith Premadasa has two challenges to overcome. First, he has to continue to maintain a clear gap ahead of his main rival. Then, he has to ensure that he gets over 50% of votes at the first count.

These are formidable challenges for the simple reason that most of the votes that both Dissanayake and Senanayake are to get would otherwise have gone to Sajith Premadasa. Indeed, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa stands to gain from the disunity of his rivals who have failed to sustain the democratic and governance reform project they launched in 2015.

Campaign Comparison

As any student of election campaigns might have noticed, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s campaign has now reached a climax beyond which it cannot move further, despite the fact that it is well-organized and well-funded. The main reason is that Rajapaksa’s policies, promises, and slogans are a bit stale. He had launched his campaign many months ahead of his main rival and let all his campaign slogans out in the public domain. They have ceased to excite the electorate any longer. Even the sympathetic TV screens cannot hide the fact that at his election rallies, his supporters get excited not by listening to his speeches, but by sighting the late arrival of his elder brother.

In contrast, Premadasa joined the race late and as an underdog. Therefore, he had to re-invent his policies, slogans and promises anew to suit the realities of the presidential campaign. This he began just a week before his nomination as the candidate of the newly formed New Democratic Front, under the resurrected symbol of the Swan.

It is this re-invention of policies, promises and slogans as part of a belatedly begun election campaign that seems to have worked the magic for Mr. Sajith Premadasa.

As it appeared so clearly during the past two weeks, Mr. Premadasa has designed a range of new ideas, slogans and promises to present to the voters as effective alternatives to those of Mr. Rajapaksa. Mr. Premadasa’s election campaign appeared to be one aimed at re-inventing himself as a man of new ideas.

Caught unawares, Mr. Rajapaksa himself seemed to have stranded with no new ideas to offer to the electorate.  Mr. Rajapaksa’s campaign continued to revolve around four somewhat old and excessively familiar thematic ideas: ensuring national security, building a disciplined society, bringing economic prosperity through economic modernization, and establishing efficient, no-nonsense style of governance.

New Ideas

A week or so after he began the election campaign, Mr. Premadasa seems to have sensed that he had got the chance to gain the momentum in such a way as to re-orient the core debate of the election campaign by offering new ideas.

Four of his ‘new ideas’ seem to have captured the imagination of the voters at varying degrees.

The first is his repeated iteration is that he is the presidential candidate of the poor — poor men as well as women. He began to direct his main social appeal primarily to the poor, separating himself not only from the urban business-friendly Gotabhaya Rajapaksa but also from the UNP’s elitist old guard. Meanwhile, the promise of free sanitary pads to poor young women made him a presidential candidate of women too. The usually masculinist Rajapaksa brothers had no answer to this gender-sensitive move by Sajith Premadasa.

The second is Mr. Premadasa’s projection of his own image as one which is larger than his political party, the UNP. He is the official candidate of the UNP-led New Democratic Front. At the same time, he is also presenting himself to voters not as a candidate wholeheartedly committed to continuing the UNP policies of the past five years. He, like his father did in the late 1980s, promises to transform the policies of the UNP so that he could reinvent the UNP as a vehicle for his own policy priorities.  His message is that if he wins, the party will have to embrace the new ‘Premadasa policies.’

Economic and social policies, with an emphasis on state-led redistributory justice, are the main areas where Mr. Premadasa promises a major shift away from the neoliberal orthodoxy of the UNP under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. The fact that the JVP has made a strategic shift to focus on the urban middle-class constituencies as well, incorporating the middle-class anxieties and demands in its election platform, is a plus factor for Mr. Premadasa. It has allowed him to virtually monopolize the social welfare discourse during this election.

The third, linked to the second, is his highlighting of the state-led social welfare policies as the centrepiece of his economic and social reconstruction project.

Mr. Premadasa seems to have realized, quite genuinely, that a shift from the neo-liberal, free-market reforms is urgently needed, to achieve two of his key objectives; (a) to make a clear break from the economic and social policies of the UNP’s old guard, and (b) to serve his own specific social constituency –the urban and rural poor and a vast congeries social strata with low and fixed incomes.  They are a vast social constituency that has fallen victim to the ravages of market-centric reforms in all aspects of social and economic life – peasant agriculture, smallholder agriculture, health, education, employment, self-employment, small business, small industry etc.

These marginalized social groups seem to be the core social base of a regime that Mr. Premadasa has begun to talk about using the metaphor of ‘a new social contract.’

The fourth is his delicate handling of the anti-incumbency factor. Mr. Premadasa has been a partner of a regime which has suffered a crisis of public trust on issues of corruption, inefficiency, weak governance, economic mismanagement, and self-destructive in-fighting. He has also been careful not to identify himself with the inner policy-making circle of the government.  He maintained a tactical alliance with President Sirisena even after the constitutional coup of October last year. With all that he had to manage the anti-incumbency dimension of electoral politics because many citizens who had voted for the Yahapalanaya alliance in 2015 have been waiting for an opportunity to punish both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe for their colossal failures.

Mr. Premadasa has slowly and not-so-discreetly, introduced, at the very end of the election campaign, the idea that his presidency would mark a clear break from the old regime dominated by an elitist political class. He has been hinting to the inevitability of the potential shift of the social bases of political power quite dexterously.

Gotabaya’s campaign promises

 Although lacking in such innovation to observe in his campaign, Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has been sticking to an old formula which he thinks will work effectively.

Its focus is on (a) his capacity as a former military officer to ensure national security by military means, (b) his vision of rapid modernization of Sri Lanka, and, (c) his promise to set up a system of running the state in which public opinion, citizen activism, right to dissent, systemic checks and balances, and the rule of law will have no place.  Rajapaksa also promises to set up a national security regime in which the state of emergency is most likely to be made into a normal condition of governance. The emergency laws are most likely to be re-invented as ordinary and regular laws, as a means to ensuring state and regime security and of course citizens’ compliance.

Gradual transforming Sri Lanka’s weak democratic state into a ‘state of exception’ is very much in the Rajapaksa agenda.

In reality, Mr. Rajapaksa, along with his family and his core-support groups that come from the class of new business tycoons, media barons and the ex-military officers, offer a qualitatively new political alternative. One may call it an oligarchic regime that is committed to transforming Sri Lanka’s politics and the state in a distinctly post-democratic direction.

This will be a regime change that will also reflect a current global trend, the new coalition between the neoliberal global capital and those who hate liberal democracy. This gives a new meaning to the possibility of a presumably ex-US citizen becoming Sri Lanka’s President.

What is quite interesting is that there are also takers in Sri Lanka to this approach to governance that emphasizes (a) strong ruler and strong-government over liberal democracy, (b) primacy of national security over individual rights, (c) a good measure of authoritarianism over democracy as essential to resolving Sri Lanka’s current crisis of governance.

In the Sri Lankan society, there are a few social constituencies that demand and back such a transformation of the country’s politics, regime, and the state. They come from the ranks of (a) urban business class and the elite, (b) urban professionals of high income brackets, (c) officer-grade public servants and middle-level professionals, (d) Sinhalese citizens across all social classes who are converted to Islamophobic sentiments and ideologies after the Easter Sunday attack, and (e) catholic citizens who felt abandoned by the government by its failure to protect them from Islamic terrorism.

Surprisingly, many young voters are also in this league. They have no memory of politics before 2015 and whose political judgement is shaped by two traumatic events, the Central Bank bond scam, and the Easter Sunday terrorist attack. Their political awareness and the world view are easily influenced by global Islamophobic propaganda.

However, it is wrong to assume that all these constituencies of insecurity are demanding a shift to a new form of autocratic government. Their clamour is for the safety and security of the civilian populations, and not for a transformation of the state, or suspension of their rights, freedom, and democracy, to the whims and fancies of aspiring ‘strong rulers’ or their national security business lobbies.

What kind of a regime is likely to emerge after the Presidential election? This question is important in the sense that this presidential election, similar to the one held in January 2015, is certain to define the nature of the politics and the state in Sri Lanka. In 2015, there were two competing paths available before the electorate, a hard authoritarian, Sinhala majoritarian regime, and a weak democratic but politically pluralistic regime. In 2019 too, we have the same two competing alternatives, with some changes, of course.

Thus, the presidential contest between Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa is more than a competition between two individuals. Rather, it is a contestation between two mutually opposing political projects. The week that begins today will be the week that will really shake Sri Lanka’s future in a decisive manner.