President vs. General – Let the Bout Begin

Preview of the election from an outsider’s point of view

By Ranga Welaratne

(January 14, Lyon, France, Sri Lanka Guardian) I visited my beloved country during the recent festive season, the land of my forefathers, where due to my extended sojourn overseas, I no longer have the right to vote. I have now lived exactly half of my life away from this island nation so I can look at the country from a different perspective to someone living and breathing in Sri Lanka everyday. This is I think especially true when it comes to politics. I don’t think I have preconceived ideas of the politicians or their respective policies but have the best interest of the country at heart. It is for this reason; to put forward a different point of view that I decided to write of my observations during my two-week sabbatical.

After a series of one-sided elections, during which Sri Lanka ended the bloody war, UFPA has rendered the other parties ineffective. This time around UNP and JVP has a shot of redemption largely because this time they have put forward a genuine war hero as the presidential common candidate on the UNF. Two true leaders are going at each other in the upcoming election and it is going to be a contest of giants.

In this corner the title holder:-

Team President:

Incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa is riding into battle on the back of the famous war victory over the LTTE. He managed to achieve what none of his predecessor’s had, complete an almost mythical task, a feat which makes him the eyes of many, superhuman. If you asked many Lankans a few years back very few would have said that the LTTE could be defeated. Certainly the main opposition party had given up on the war and according to many islanders the UNP had almost written off part of the country to the LTTE in 2002 (in hindsight this seems a true statement). However one of very few that thought the war could be won was General Sarath Fonseka, now the President’s main challenger. He not only believed the war could be won but he was one of the major players in devising and implementing the whole winning strategy.

Even though I have lived half my life in the island and am a frequent traveler to Sri-Lanka I have never dared to travel to the north or to the east. In the past every time I stepped on to public transport, attended a public gathering, traveled on Sri Lankan Airlines, or even just going to the airport gave me the shivers. I am certain this feeling gripped every Lankan soul during those long war years. But this time around I never felt any of that. I did not even realize how nervous I had been in the past until I came back from this trip.

While I was on holiday I traveled to Batticola, Trincomalee, Passikuda, Kuchchaveli, Pullmudei, former no go zones. I visited large exclusively Tamil communities, ate in their restaurants, visited their villages and shared a joke with them. Now, when I relive my memories and ponder the surrealism of that situation I just lose the words to describe how happy, proud and relieved I feel. It does not matter what anyone says I have to take my hat off to the troops, the government and to the president who were responsible for achieving this miraculous accomplishment for my motherland.

During the war, the defense spending, as could be expected sky rocketed, so one might think the rest of the requirements of the country would have lagged behind and would now be struggling. However, as I traveled through the country I noticed that the development of the country had not come to a standstill. Even if the government has not done well, at least they are maintaining the status-quo from previous administrations. In addition, when the current government came into power Sri Lanka’s GDP was US $1244 per capita in 2005 and 2010 the predicted GDP per capita is estimated to be $2400. (Du ring the same time India has gone from $691 to $1240). So, one might say economically the quality of life of people in the country has risen. According to the new economic figures military victory over the tigers should deliver reasonable growth through the inward investment in coming years. 2010 Sri Lanka should have a 6.3% of GDP growth which would put it in 8th place in the world ranking of growth for 2010 (ref. International economist / IMF data).

Weaknesses of Team President:

When I talk to many Sri Lankans I find they seem to be rather fond of the President for eliminating terrorism from the island nation and they feel they are indebted to him. They are quick to mention, how they can now travel around the country without worrying, a fact to which I can attest to myself. Most mothers tell me that they no longer worry till their kids come home, not knowing what could happen in a bus, train or at school.

But even with all these positive sentiments around, even the most devoted Rajapaksa supporters say the current government is corrupt. I was lucky enough to talk to some of the prominent supporters of the Rajapaksa government and they themselves were pointing fingers at their mates. According to them even though the GDP and other indices have gone up in the country the money is being pocketed by a few people around the President.

It is no secret that a Rajapaksa’s political dynasty has been created during the past few years and Colombo’s political circles seem to detest this trend and are frequently mention this should be stopped. I personally believe there is nothing wrong with competent political dynasties that achieve success of the people’s choosing. The Kennedys of the United States have all been elected and has been competent. But the question is can you put all the Rajapaksa’s in the same category?

Among the Colombo circles I constantly hear the names of the President’s brothers and his closest friends allegedly at the top of the pyramid of corruption. They are apparently making the deals for any major contract in the country and through them the money is been funneled to the very top of the government. Another supposed claim is that the government needs funds to stay in power hence this black money is being used to pay millions of dollars to buy the opposition parliamentarians. I’m not sure about the validity of these allegations but they are certainly doing the rounds and don’t seem to be doing the president’s cause any benefit in Colombo. However when you witness someone who has a qualification of GCE (O/L) was appointed as the chairman of the Sri Lanka petroleum corporation or appointed to run Mihin Lanka you can conclude that nepotism is running down the spinal cord of the existing government.

There has been rampant criticism locally and internationally over the media freedom under the current government. According to media reports there had been 34 media personal deaths during the reign of the current government and there was none or very little investigation. In addition to that the government has neglected to appoint due independent committees such as parliamentary executive committee or the police commission. Such investigations or commission may not matter in the villages but people seem to be talking about them in the streets of Colombo.

Another factor to consider is such individuals who self titles themselves as a ‘Doctor’ and claim to be a descendent of the bloodline of King Dutugemunu. I don’t imagine the election will be decided on such persons, if it is, it will be a very sad day. However, it’s doing enough damage to the cause and everyone in the party and the government seems to be aware. But why is Rajapaksa risking everything by having such individuals in the government? Many say they know too much and it is best having such lips on your side than against. It seems little do these power hungry politicians realise their actions disgrace the already rickety political system of the country

Surprise Package for the Government

People across the country seem to be singing praises of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Even the people whom openly say they are going to vote against the government state that if it was Gotabaya who was running for the presidency they would vote for him. That statement alone tells me that Gotabaya was indeed the real ‘man of the match’ in the battle against the LTTE. So I can’t stop wondering, that if the election was Gotabaya vs. Fonseka, would Gotabaya get the nod easily? But this time again it is not him running for the presidency, but Mahinda.

During my visit I saw plenty of billboards, posters, cut-outs of the president, Basil and many other government politicians. And every night the television is packed with the same faces. However I did not see much of Gotabaya in the forefront. If I were part of the blue brigade I would certainly put Gotabaya in front.

In the other corner the challenger:-

Team General

Former commander of the Army general Sarath Fonseka was instrumental in the war against LTTE. Like the president, the General had visions of defeating LTTE even before the current government was elected. The General had been in the armed services for 39 years when he retired and has won every medal that can be won in the Sri Lankan Army. He was the only serving officer to be promoted to the four star rank in the Sri Lankan Army. He was so good at what he did that the Indian Defense Secretary M.K Narayan named him the best army commander in the world for his role against LTTE. When it was time to retire the president, Rajapaksa himself extended his serving period and offered him the post of Commander of the army.

General Fonseka’s supporters are claiming that he is tough and is the right person to eliminate corruption just as he eliminated terrorism in Sri Lanka. They claim during his time as the commander he was able to put the discipline back into the armed forces and they even point out that during the last phase of the war even alcohol was prohibited in the camps near the war zone. While I was talking to many supporters of the General it was evident they are keen for a tougher leader in the country, not necessary a politician but a true leader. These supporters seem to be disgusted not just with the people who are ruling the country but also the country’s political system which seems to breed corrupt politicians decade after decade. These people are seeking a political ideology which is a combination of radical and authoritarian nationalism with a commercially oriented economic system, in essence an authoritarian system united with democracy.

For years I have heard many past and present politicians claim they will bring the economic prosperity to Sri Lanka similar to that which the Singaporeans enjoy. But these have always been but mere claims. However the political system that Lee Kuan Yew adopted in Singapore is what I would call an Authoritarian system which many General Fonseka supporters believe would be created if the General was elected as the president. These supporters go even further and say even the political allies near to the General will not be safe if he becomes the president. They believe he will lock-up all the corrupt politicians whether they are on his side or in the opposition.

He seems to be wooing the Tamil political parties too, one would think if he can get the majority of the Tamil votes that he will be able to topple the government but it remains a big if.

Weaknesses of Team General:

On the 20th of May 2009 the whole country was behind the president and the General together as they shared the joyous centre stage side by side. Now eight months later the story couldn’t be more different. Critics of the General are saying that he is running in this election out of resentment for the president not giving him a well deserved position in the government rather than a genuine love for country. Others say he is power hungry and is happy to go down to any level to reach his ultimate goal. The General did not do himself any favors by pointing fingers at the defense secretary Gotabaya and his fellow officers in the war crimes allegations. Conspiracy theorists even go one step further by alleging that the western powers are funding the General’s campaign to discredit the government and trying to bring war crimes charges against the defense secretary and the others. Progressing on this same line of thinking these theorists allege those powers wants to create a monolithic environment for minority Tamils in the North and East of Sri Lanka and their best chance to achieve this is with the spent Rajapaksa regime.

My intention is not to argue either way about the afore mentioned claims, but what I know is this election is fought by two ultra nationalists claiming they alone should deserve the credit for the winning of the war. So any such reports discrediting the legitimacy of the sovereignty of the country could jeopardize the patriotic vote.

To everyone’s surprise JVP and UNP are holding hands together to support UNF. But what strange bedfellows they make. While JVP is originally of Marxist orientation who claim to be representing oppressed communities, the UNP is considered to have a right wing pro-capitalist ideology. So why would such two factions from extreme ends of the political spectrum come together without any consideration to the fundamental differences in their policies? Could it really be for retribution against the president? So even if they win an election would they survive as a political entity or a coalition?

It is no secret that the TNA was a front for the LTTE. The LTTE tried to assassinate the General and their ultimate downfall came at the hands of the General himself. So why is TNA now backing the General’s campaign? Could there be a grain of truth to conspiracy theories espoused by some?

Surprise package of the General

Going by the past election results it is safe to say that Sri Lanka is a long way away from having a president from the JVP Party. One political commentator stated that ‘JVP cannot make a king of themselves but they are capable of making a king from another party’. This is quite true when you look at the past election. President Rajapaksa’s message was taken to the villages by the JVP. This time around they are batting for the opposition, can this make a difference? I believe it can!

Mangala Samaraweera was instrumental in bringing past President Chandrika Kumarathunga to the centre stage as well as making the deal between UFPA and JVP in the past election. But in the 2010 election Magala Samaraweera is backing the General.

Last election UNP lost by 250k votes and many believe that if it was not for the Tamil communities boycotting of the election the UNP would have won in 2005. To my surprise the very same people who asked Tamils to boycott the election in 2005, are in the current election demanding that Tamils vote for the General. Can this make a difference? I do not think the Tamils will follow the TNA recommendation blindly but still their say may matter.


If I had sat down and written this a month ago I would have claimed without doubt that it would end in a landslide victory for the president. But according to recent opinion polls the General has begun to gain some ground. Usually Sri Lankan elections are decided in the last few weeks. Diehard supporters have already decided whom they are going to vote for but in Sri Lanka there are plenty of swing voters who decide in the last week or even on the day of the election.

My personal opinion is that this is going to be a hard fought election which may come down to the wire unless unforeseen events were to occur in the next week or so. Hence it becomes too border line to predict. The bookies would put the incumbent ahead of the race at this moment in time but I doubt that the General would be classified as an outsider in the race.

However, if the president gets re-elected and he cannot get his house in order to tackle the corruption in the government he may face a bleak future in two years time when it comes to budget approval.

The one thing I feel confident about is that the Sri-Lankan people will expect more from the next government. It has been a long time since we had a peace time administration. The war excuse is valid no longer. It is time for the real Sri-Lanka to please stand up and go forth into this brave new world of opportunity, to prosper.

Whichever way the dice rolls on the 26th of January, the citizens of this country is due for a fresh start, to turn over a new leaf and look forward to the high level of growth and prosperity my motherland so truly deserve and can achieve under the appropriate leadership and it is high time it happens!