Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2019-10-30 10:56:07 Published on Oct 30, 2019
As of now, the two are evenly poised: Sajith Premdasa is popular with the rural voters and the minorities, while Gotabaya is depending on the undoubted charisma of his brother Mahinda and the strong support of the conservative Buddhist clergy.
Families dominate Lankan election scene

Given the dominance of families in South Asian politics, it is not surprising that the coming Sri Lankan presidential elections pit Gotabaya Rajpaksa, brother of two-term President Mahinda Rajapaksa against Sajith Premdasa, son of Ranasinghe Premdasa, who was assassinated by the LTTE in 1993. Gotabaya represents the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and Premdasa, the United National Party (UNP), but is contesting at the head of the Democratic National Front (DNF).

As of now, the two are evenly poised and the result could go either way. Premdasa, the erstwhile housing minister and a deputy leader of the UNP, is popular with the rural voters and the minorities, while Gotabaya, who was Defence Minister in the last stages of the civil war against the LTTE, is depending on the undoubted charisma of his brother Mahinda and the strong support of the conservative Buddhist clergy.

In 2015, Maithripala Sirisena, who had served as a cabinet minister in successive governments of the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa, walked across with the bulk of the UPFA to the Opposition to become its presidential candidate. He won the election and appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party (UNP), as Prime Minister.

By 2018, his relations with Ranil were so frayed that he criticised the Prime Minister for not investigating an alleged assassination plot against the President. Sirisena accused Indian intelligence services for their involvement, but since then, the claim has been denied by New Delhi and the Sri Lankans. Then, in October, he suddenly appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa, now leader of the new SLPP, as Prime Minister and prorogued the Parliament. By his action, Sirisena broke up the coalition that had governed the country and propelled him to power

However, the courts stepped in and suspended Rajapakse's power as PM and ruled that it could not function till its legitimacy was established. On December 15, just about two months after he had been appointed, Rajapaksa resigned. Ranil was reappointed PM and Rajapaksa became the leader of the Opposition.

A great deal of speculation surrounds the events that led to the exit of Sirisena from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s camp to form a coalition with the UNP to take him on in 2015. India, the US and the UK are alleged to have joined hands to unseat Rajapaksa who had taken his country’s policy uncomfortably closer to China.

Rajapaksa inaugurated a phase of massive Chinese-funded schemes, such as the Hambantota port, the Mattala international airport in his constituency, as well as the Colombo Port City project. China also invested in a network of highways across the country, such as the Katunayke Expressway and the Southern Expressway.

But what triggered the alarm was the appearance of a Chinese submarine in the Colombo harbour in October 2014 and a pushback by India. According to reports, submarine Changzheng-2 and warship Chang-Xing Dao arrived at the port on October 31, 2014, seven weeks after another Chinese submarine, a long-range deployment patrol, had come to the same port, ahead of the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

There were expectations that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government would roll back some of the more controversial Chinese projects in the country. Yet, the opposite happened. Initially, the government suspended the construction work on a $1.4-billion port project off Colombo. But when Sri Lanka defaulted in payments for its $1.12-billion deal for Hambantota, the Chinese did not relax their repayment norms, but took over the port on a 99-year lease. However, Sri Lanka did not permit any more dockings of Chinese submarines.

Chinese activity has since led to a marked US response. Washington, which has an Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with Colombo since 2007, has been seeking a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that will protect the rights and privileges of US military personnel if they happen to be in Sri Lanka. The US wants to use Sri Lankan ports and airports as temporary logistics hubs to supply US Navy ships in the Indian Ocean and also mark the political presence of the US.

At the same time, India has stepped up its activities in the island and is working with both Japan and the US to moderate Chinese influence. It has made it clear that while it has no objections to Sri Lanka receiving Chinese assistance, it will not accept any developments that militate against its security.

In fact, this is protected by the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 which says that the two signatories should not allow their territories to be used for activities prejudicial to the unity, integrity and security of the other.

After losing the 2015 election, Mahinda had initially attacked India for conspiring with other western countries to displace him. But months later, he conceded that he had no evidence and he later visited New Delhi along with his son and met Prime Minister Modi.

In his first media interaction after filing his candidacy, Gotabaya said that Sri Lanka would maintain a neutral foreign policy and friendly ties with all nations.

Interestingly, Sajith Premadasa was the minister-in-waiting to Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his 2015 visit to the island, the first in 35 years.

Whether Gotabaya wins or Sajith, they know they can ignore Indian interests at their own peril. The Nepal experience has shown that geography remains a trump card in South Asian politics.

This commentary originally appeared in The Tribune.

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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