For some, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is cast in the image of a strongman who destroyed the rebel Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka and ensured the return of peace to the Indian Ocean island nation. For others, he is an alleged war criminal who reportedly thought nothing of ordering extra-judicial killings.
The man accused of being ruthless, yet credited with bringing to a close his country’s 26-year bloody civil war was Sri Lanka’s defence secretary in its closing years while older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa was the President.
With Sri Lankan presidential polls slated to be held towards the year-end, Gotabaya has thrown his hat in the ring. His party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), was the first one off the block to declare Gotabaya as its nominee for the upcoming elections at rally in Colombo on August 11. Other political parties are yet to announce their candidates.
Perhaps the most scathing remark on Gotabaya’s nomination came from Sri Lankan finance minister Mangala Samaraweera of the SLFP who was once part of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. Among the remarks Samaraweera made in a long statement was this: “The ‘Terminator’ was chosen for a different reason: to terrify the media, police officers, judges, and public servants with a simple message: cross us at your peril.”
The former defence secretary appears to be the frontrunner in the electoral battle, regardless of charges of brutality levelled against him. Gota, as the SLPP leader is popularly known, maintains that the allegations against him are politically motivated.
His image of a strongman, regardless of his controversial past, is now being seen as a positive. Battered and bruised by the Easter Sunday terror attacks and sectarian tensions thereafter, many in the Sinhala-majority island nation see in him a strong leader who can focus on matters of national security.
The attacks, carried out by the local National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) with suspected ISIS links, came as a shock to ordinary Lankans, with killings and security checks a thing of the past after the end of the civil war in 2009. Shocking still was the fact that Indian intelligence agencies’ warning of an impending terror hit went unheeded amid a feuding President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Gota, well aware of a nation still struggling to come to terms with the devastating attacks that left over 200 dead, pitched his candidature shortly after his party named him its nominee. In a speech that read like his party’s manifesto he said: “My first task will be to ensure complete safety and security throughout the land… we will once again be able to make Sri Lanka one of the most peaceful, secure and safe countries in the world.” He also said he would “never allow room for extremist terrorism in this country”.
The presidential nominee also appeared to be reaching out to his country’s minorities as he declared, “Buddhism teaches us to respect all religions… We are a nation that has lived together in friendship with respect for each other’s religious beliefs and cultural identities… I pledge to create a safe and secure environment in which all Sri Lankans, irrespective of their race and religion ion, will be able to live in peace.”
But this outreach is unlikely to find any support among Lankan Tamils or for that matter Muslims. The latter comprise around 10 per cent of the population and are likely to back the (UNP) United National Party. The Christian vote which was earlier with the UNP is expected to shift to the Rajapaksas’ SLPP as the community seeks justice for those killed in the Easter Sunday attacks that also targeted churches.
While the Rajapaksa clan appears to have got its act together swiftly, announcing both the candidate and the party’s vision for the country well on time, other parties are still grappling with who they will field. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who belongs to the UNP is currently engaged in a power struggle within his party. His rival is UNP deputy leader Sajith Premadasa who is also Sri Lanka’s housing and construction minister. Sajith, who is the son of former Lankan PM and later president Ranasinghe Premadasa, has declared he will contest the presidential polls. Ranil, though, is averse to the idea as this will mean a challenge to his leadership of the UNP too.
The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by Lankan President Maithiripala Sirisena leads too is yet to declare its nominee. Sirisena has been coy so far about contesting the polls, possibly because he’s well aware that he’s not a winning horse anymore. His government has not only faced considerable flak over the Easter Sunday strikes but also is seen as being inept and one that has failed to deliver. And the Easter Sunday strikes were probably the last nail in his coffin.