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Meet the also-rans

As anti-establishment sentiment reaches unprecedented heights in the run-up to the presidential polls, who are the "alternative" choices for Sri Lanka?

By Himal Kotelawala

As the all-consuming presidential distraction looms ever closer, Sri Lankans’ disdain for party politics appears to be at an all-time high. For the first time in recent memory, at least anecdotally, a significantly large section of the populace appear determined to see the backs of their supposed representatives. So disillusioned are they with the major parties’ mutual back-scratching approach to governance – particularly in the wake of the Easter Sunday bombings – that many are willing to vote just about anyone outside the political mainstream.

Against this backdrop, a number of “alternative” presidential candidates have emerged,  promising to rid the polity of corruption, abuse of power and other meaningless words one hears ad nauseum in the run-up to any national election.

There is also an increased interest in, a fetishization almost of a perverse kind of pragmatism, of “getting things done” at whatever cost. Names of larger than life individuals have been thrown around, from business tycoon Dhammika Perera to cricketing legend Kumar Sangakkara, many of them appealing to that all too pervasive technocratic wet dream of a “professional as president,” with nary a thought for social justice or human rights.

Some of these angels of reform have promised to introduce a fair and just meritocracy, free of the ignorance and sheer incompetence that have long defined the powers that be. Some swear they will abolish the executive presidency (pinky promise!) and leave with dignity, no doubt congratulating themselves on their profound originality.

Other, less egalitarian aspirants are looking to sneakily usher in an ethnostate or theocracy, perhaps not realising there really isn’t much left for them to do in that regard. Still others have threatened miraculous foreign policy interventions that would make Dick Cheney blush.

Then there are those running – allegedly, of course – with the objective of splitting the vote one way or the other, in exchange for some monetary or other reward. There are also those who – again, allegedly – are simply looking to make a quick billion or ten.

Either way, the lofty goals of these would-be saviours of the nation notwithstanding, the fact remains that it is all but impossible to win a presidential election in Sri Lanka without the express or tacit backing of one of the major parties. If history is any indication, no matter how strong or widespread anti-establishment sentiment may appear among the public, come election time, most will have no qualms about casting their vote for the very leaders they otherwise long to replace.

Regardless, the cast of characters in the now-tired උනුත් එකයි මුනුත් එකයි narrative is unusually crowded this year, and a not-insignificant number of voters seem to be taking them quite seriously. Nominations have yet to be officially announced, but the conversation around the candidacy – or possible candidacy – of these alternative leaders is gaining some momentum, at least on social media. This is a brief look at some of the more prominent faces in that particular lane of the race.

Nagananda Kodituwakku

Perhaps also-ran is too unkind a term to describe a person of Nagananda Kodituwakku’s drive and ambition. Of all the potential alternative candidates who have thrown their hat into the ring, he is probably the most likely to walk away with a decent tally of votes – protest votes or otherwise – on election night. Kodituwakku has been quietly campaigning for some months now, on a platform of reform built on his decade-long career as a public litigation activist. While he will be lucky to win a fraction of the votes polled by JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Koditwukku appears to have carved out enough of a niche for himself to do reasonably well – at least in terms of saving face – in the coming election, provided his campaign doesn’t lose steam over the next few months.

The activist-turned-politician has proposed a new ‘autochthonous (or homegrown) constitution’ that he hopes will bring about a new system of governance under which, among other sweeping changes, Parliament will be limited to 60 members. His election to office, he has said, will serve as a people’s endorsement of his seemingly utopian document. However, a number of legal experts have questioned the legal basis for this grand vision.

The attorney-at-law, who in March this year was barred from practising law for three years over charges of contempt, has been in the centre of a controversy surrounding campaign funds. He has denied the allegations and has so far not shown any signs of backing down.

As of 23 August, however, Kodituwakku is officially part of the Abiman Lanka Peramuna (ALP), an alliance of some 11 minor-league political parties that is expected to announce its presidential candidate before 10 September. Discussions are ongoing, and whether or not it will end up being Kodituwakku remains to be seen.

Rohan Pallewatta

As a self-proclaimed believer in the capacity of the middle class to drive social and economic change, businessman and presidential hopeful Rohan Pallwetta seeks to build a “strong middle class” and develop the economy with private sector contribution.

Such contribution, however, should be within a “free and fair market” regulated by state policy, according to his policy document released online. Pallewatta also advocates private sector participation in essential services such as health, education and transport under strict state supervision. The delivery of these services, he says, should be supported by state subsidiaries, and private investments into the sectors ought to be on the basis of not-for-profit ventures, managed as public corporations or boards of trustees.

Pallewatta is the Executive Chairman of Lanka Harness Co. (Pvt) Ltd, a company that manufactures impact sensors for automobile airbags and seat belts for a number of international clients that include Toyota, General Motors and Aston Martin.

The guitar-playing entrepreneur represents the Social Democratic Party of Sri Lanka (SDPSL), which partnered with the ALP coalition in late August when he formally joined hands with Kodituwaku – leading to expectations of a possible Kodituwakku-Pallewatta ticket from the ‘worker bee’ alliance.

At the time of writing this piece, the webpage on Pallewatta’s official site dedicated to his campaign’s focus returns a 404 error.

Ajantha Perera

For the first time since President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga ran for re-election in 1999, a woman has come forward to run for President of Sri Lanka.

Dr. Ajantha Perera, who announced her candidacy on 27 August, is a renowned environmentalist credited with promoting solid waste recycling in Sri Lanka, in addition to initiating a number of programmes and projects to find solutions to the problem of garbage.

She has served as an advisor to several Environment Ministers and is also known for numerous social work activities including vocational training, dengue-prevention, refugee welfare and consumer rights advocacy.

Having spent nearly 17 years abroad – with stints in universities in Germany and the US – she has dedicated much of her life since returning to Sri Lanka to educating and uplifting marginalised sections of society.

In a recent interview given to BBC Sinhala, Dr. Perera articulated her vision for an economy that equips the poor with the financial capacity to fulfil their own housing needs rather than depending on government handouts – an apparent dig at Housing Minister and UNP Presidential hopeful Sajith Premadasa. She also expressed her scepticism of the need to enhance national security, the election promise SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s entire campaign rests on.

Gamini Wijesinghe and Ajith Colonne

The National People’s Movement (NPM) this week submitted the names of Former Auditor General Gamini Wijesinghe and Former Deputy Director of the Directorate of Internal Intelligence Ajith Colonne for consideration to the ALP alliance as potential candidates.

The two candidates are being touted as “professionals” who are interested solely in turning the economy around and not at all concerned about personal gain.

Dr. Colonne is a military and business studies academic who has conducted lectures on economics and intelligence analysis, among other things. Apart from his stint at the State Intelligence Service, he has held a number of senior positions including Senior Trade Representative for Sri Lanka at the Australian High Commission in Colombo and Director–Administration and Corporate Affairs of the Institute of Policy Studies. He was also the Advisor on Military Intelligence Analysis at the Ministry of Defence for a while.

Wijesinghe, meanwhile, served as the 40th Auditor General of Sri Lanka. A fellow of the Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka, he was previously appointed Director-General of the Sri Lanka Accounting and Auditing Standers Monitoring Board.

The senior bureaucrat has advocated stringent fiscal management and eliminating corruption, particularly in infrastructure projects financed by foreign debt. Wijesinghe has gone on record saying that the reason Sri Lanka has incurred huge debts is that a significant chunk of the borrowings is directed towards fulfilling personal agendas.

The policies and credentials of the two presidential hopefuls will be presented to the public in the coming days, according to the NPM.

Anoj De Silva

No presidential election is complete without its go-to comic relief candidate. In 2005, that dubious honour went – perhaps unfairly – to Dr. Victor Hettigoda, also known as the Siddhalepa Vedamahattaya, who famously promised a cow for every household if he won. A decade and a half later, another Vedamahattya is set to give him a run for his money.

Anoj De Silva is a doctor of indigenous medicine whose ability to heal supposedly borders on the miraculous, earning him a cult-like following around the island. Originally from Kandy, De Silva has claimed to be a descendant of the legendary King Ravana; and to say that he is something of a nationalist would be an understatement.

De Silva’s Facebook page, which has over 52,000 likes, is replete with posts and videos of the bejewelled, bearded medicine man professing, in no uncertain terms, the need to restore the Sinhala Buddhist hegemony to its former glory.

There is no room for ambiguity in his message. “We need a true Sinhala Buddhist state. When that day comes, Muslims, Tamils and everyone else will live happily in this country,” he says in a video posted a week ago.

Ever since he was seen at a Bodu Bala Sena-led rally held in Kandy in July, speculation has been rife in the more, shall we say, patriotic corners of the internet that De Silva might run for President. The good doctor has indeed been publicly toying with the idea for some time, though he has yet to make a formal announcement of his candidacy. Going by his latest video, it appears as though he has had a change of heart, but it’s hard to imagine that the mighty Ravana progeny would abandon his beloved people in their hour of need.

One thing is for sure: If De Silva does decide to run, mass shootings will be the least of America’s worries.

Image credit @KushLiveNow / Twitter

Cover art by Akila Weerasinghe.