01 August 2018

The specter of ‘The Outsider’ in a Presidential Election

A little over a year ago when I announced that I would be contesting the next Presidential Election, some people laughed, some took it seriously and many, including those who know me, were confused. 

‘Are you serious?’ was a common question. My response was simple: ‘when I think about all those who were serious about contesting, including the winners, when I think about their track records and what they actually did after the particular election, I am wary of using the word “serious”.’ 

A good friend, after speaking with me on the subject for about half an hour, said ‘I am not sure if you are serious or not!’ I responded, ‘neither am I’.  We both laughed. Let’s leave my presidential ambitions and their seriousness aside. It’s not important. Let’s talk instead of the outsider-phenomenon.  

‘Outsider’ can be understood in many ways. Maithripala was an outsider to the party machinery that backed his campaign in 2015. Sarath Fonseka was an outsider in that he was not a politician when he decided to take on Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010. Mahinda Rajapaksa was treated like an outsider by the leader of his party in 2005. Chandrika Kumaratunga was an outsider to the SLFP not too long before that party decided to back her candidacy in 1994. Ranasinghe Premadasa was an outsider to the UNP’s inner circle despite the positions he held in that party; support was offered grudgingly. 

In other words being an outsider doesn’t necessarily mean that the odds are stacked against you.  However, what’s common about the above personalities is that they were all placed in the driving seat of a big vehicle, i.e. either the UNP or the SLFP or coalitions led by one of these two parties. Those who drove smaller vehicles were non-factors; they couldn’t prevent eventual winners from getting the 50%+1, an eventuality that would have required consideration of the second preference.  

There are names doing the rounds. From the major parties there is Ranil Wickremesinghe (UNP) and Maithripala Sirisena (SLFP). The latter’s chances hinge on a replay of 2015 and this under severely reduced circumstances. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has not announced a candidate, but it seems likely that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa would be the choice of that party.  Gotabhaya is an outsider but less so than Fonseka was.  Patali Champika Ranawaka is spoken of as a possible UNP candidate in the event that Wickremesinghe declines on account of probable defeat.  

Then there are the ‘total outsiders’ (as of now). Nagananda Kodituwakku and Rohan Pallewatta have already announced that they would contest, the latter registering a party and hiring an advertising firm to do brand positioning (for now). Kodituwakku is a strident and relentless voice against corruption and has made the courts his battle ground, even taking the custodians to task.

Kumar Sangakkara’s name has come up but he hasn’t said ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (so far). Then there is Halpage Madhusanka Nuwan (Madhu Roxz) claims on his Facebook account that he is an actor, singer, lyricist, music producer and film maker. Madhu Roxz has also ‘announced’. 

This morning (August 1), a young man named Ravisha Thilakawardana posted a status update on Facebook that has generated a lot of comments. This is what he said: ‘If you want to take revenge on anyone, all you need to do is say that the person is going to take on Gotabhaya Rajapaksa at the next presidential election; immediately that person would be ridiculed before the entire country by bayyas (roughly, Rajapaksa supporters) who would sling mud beginning from the time the person defecated in the pants in the kindergarten.’ 

Someone made a post to the effect that the UNP’s Working Committee has decided to nominate Ravisha to represent the liberal camp headed by the UNP at the next presidential election. This prompted many posts supporting Ravisha. There were congratulatory messages, expression of support and some neat ‘campaign visuals’ of the man.  

As someone said, the success of Maithripala Sirisena has made any idiot think that he/she can become President. It also seems that the anti-Rajapaksa camp is stumped; they simply can’t find a candidate who has a reasonable chance of defeating Gotabhaya Rajapaksa — hence the Kumar Sangakkara ‘Option’. Whether Pallewatte’s campaign ends up with him being the choice, we do not know. As of now, he is indicating (like Kodituwakku insists) that he wants to steer clear of the two major political parties and/or the coalitions led by them.  Madhu Roxz echoes these sentiments. 

While part of all this is pure fun and part of it is clever media work to test waters as well as throwing off balance the perceived political ‘other’, some of it is dead serious. Just because those who didn’t get into a big vehicle failed, there’s nothing to say that this would always be the case. 

The rise of ‘outsiders’ in other parts of the world have made many believe that such a phenomenon is not impossible in Sri Lanka. Those who for whatever reason back the major parties have already started asking ‘well, can he win?’ which implies that the particular ‘he’ is not unsuitable. The counter question is also being asked: ‘shouldn’t we be thinking more about whether someone is suitable, rather than focusing on whether a person can win?’ After all the winnability-factor hasn’t exactly delivered a civilized, democratic country where the fundamentals of good governance (yahapalanaya) have been consecrated.  

What all this indicates to me is that people are now getting sick of ‘same old, same old’. Sure they’ll vote for the candidate put forward by the major parties if that’s all the choice they have. Many will no doubt let ‘winnability’ and ‘worse evils’ frame thinking when it comes to it. However, if anything was learned in the 2015 ‘decision,’ it is that there’s room for surprise. 

While on paper the SLPP seems poised to win, the very fact that the yahapalanists are in disarray means that an outsider can make a decent run. What’s crucial is for the outsider to remain outside. If there’s momentum created then such a momentum-creator could be wooed by the anti-Rajapaksa camp. Then it boils down to a battle between personal glory and genuine need to turn things around. If the former is chosen, then we are at ‘same old, same old,’ but if the particular person declines, there is that outside chance that his/her campaign will get an extra boost which could wreck the political equation. 

Once that happens, who knows? There is palpable disgust at the two major parties (and I could the SLPP as more blue than any other color, taking into consideration the recent political fortunes of the SLFP). So here’s to Rohan Pallewatta, Nagananda Kodituwakku, Ravisha Thilakawardana and Madhu Roxz: steer clear of the UNP and SLFP/SLPP so we can hope that a different future can be charted for our nation.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com



සෙන්නා said...

add my name too.. if all of them can, why not me ? let's make it an election of 20 million candidates.... lol