If there is one key takeaway from yesterday’s spectacle at the Sugathadasa Stadium is that, no matter who sits on the throne come January 2020, in the eyes of many, Mahinda Rajapaksa will always be king.
It was written in the way he entered the Walauwa-style stage, flanked as he was by traditional dancers and drummers, looking more presidential than ever. It was written in the seat he was in, bigger and higher than anyone else’s, higher even than the seat assigned to the soon to be presidential candidate of his own party. It was written, quite literally, in the instantly catchy backing-track to the festivities. “මිහිඳු රජුගෙ සෙවනැල්ලේ රට රකිනා අවියයි මේ,” went the lyrics of the contemporary-pop sounding song which seemed to extol the virtues of the next in line, while leaving little to the imagination on where true power lies and will continue to lie.
The former president’s well-documented charisma was on overdrive on his younger brother’s big day yesterday. Virtually every utterance of his, teleprompted or otherwise, was met with wild applause. The atmosphere was closer to that of a rock concert than a party convention, invoking a sense of excitement even in the bitterest of his detractors. The energy of the audience and the sense of anticipation in the air was palpable, to say the least, as Rajapaksa worked the crowd like only he can, slowly building up to a crescendo of intensity not felt in an event of this nature in years. It was truly edge-of-your-seat stuff rivalling a generation-defining moment in the same venue 13 years ago, when Kamal Addararachchi infamously teased the crowd with his now mematic “අජිත්ද? මලිත්ද?”
As anyone who has ever met him could attest to, if reading the room is an art, Former President Rajapaksa has well and truly mastered it. Many times during his speech yesterday, Rajapaksa didn’t hesitate to go slightly off-script to graciously accommodate the overenthusiastic shouts from the energised crowd, with a well-timed ad-lib or two of his own. He seemed to have an endless supply of jokes, too, a few of which were at the expense of his friendly rival Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. No occasion is too momentous for the newly appointed Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) leader to appeal to his followers’ baser instincts, to play important issues for cheap laughs, and yesterday was no different. The presence of religious figures or international media didn’t stop him from taking thinly veiled potshots at Wickremesinghe. “The Government is now promising to open gyms for the youth of this country to build their body like the Prime Minister’s,” he said, as the crowd broke into hysterics. One wishes, however, he had shut down the lone voice that shouted “ඌට ළමයි නෑ! (He doesn’t have kids!)” when he was criticising the government for opening schools too early after the Easter Sunday attacks. Although, in fairness, it’s not clear that he heard it.
When the moment finally arrived and Rajapaksa, ending months of speculation, officially revealed Former Defence Ministry Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidacy at the upcoming presidential election, the stadium erupted in applause, with the SLPP audience threatening to bring the roof down. Whatever the outcome of the polls, there is no overstating the significance of this moment. It was history in the making; their beloved leader had bestowed upon them a worthy successor, and every single party member in attendance wanted the world to hear their approval.
The younger Rajapaksa’s speech was markedly different from that of his brother’s. Tonally, it was more matter-of-fact than theatrical and much less of a crowd-pleaser than the previous speaker’s rousing warm-up act. The language was true to his no-nonsense reputation and appeared to be coloured by a borderline anti-establishment approach to politics – a perception that his supporters – à la Viyathmaga – have been only too happy to encourage. The word ‘vinaya (discipline)’ was used at least four times. Neither Gotabaya nor Mahinda Rajapaksa, however, attempted to allay any of the fears expressed in some quarters about the former’s candidacy with regard to human rights and media freedom.
The former bureaucrat’s speech, at over 18 minutes in length, appeared to be deliberately devoid of personal attacks (something the campaign has already started to capitalise on, on social media) and focused instead on the candidate’s not as yet fully formed vision for the country. It would not be uncharitable to call the speech somewhat lacklustre, especially in contrast to the magnetic delivery of the speaker’s older brother, though many of his remarks were met with similar enthusiasm. Rajapaksa’s pronouncements of saving the motherland from “extremists”, in particular, seemed to strike a chord with the largely Sinhala Buddhist audience.
“I love my country. I am proud of my country. I have a vision for the future of my country,” he said in Sinhala, to tumultuous applause.
Much emphasis was laid on his capacity to work outside the confines of his job description, with Rajapaksa claiming to have made every effort to deliver results that go “above and beyond expectations”.
“Thirty-five years ago, when I was a young Army officer, General Cyril Ranatunge, the most senior military officer at the time, bestowed on me a commendation in which he described me as ‘an officer who takes initiative over and above the normal call of duty’. It is this quality that enabled me to provide the strategic guidance and administrative support to the Armed Forces led by Commander in Chief President Mahinda Rajapaksa, to end 30 years of terrorism in just three and a half years,” he said.
“It is this quality that enabled me later on, as Secretary to the Ministry of Urban Development, to drive the transformation of Colombo into Asia’s fastest developing city, and to create an environment that attracted significant investments that changed the skyline of the city,” he added.
Whether or not the former Defence Ministry Secretary can muster enough votes at December’s election, even from the traditional Sinhala Buddhist base of his family, remains to be seen. However, if the confidence exuded by the SLPP leadership in yesterday’s slick, made-for-TV event and the country’s collective reaction to it are any indication – at least going by social media activity – it looks as though a second Rajapaksa era is not far away. As things stand now, particularly with the ruling United National Party (UNP) embroiled in an internal power struggle and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in total disarray, it looks as though 2020 may well be the SLPP’s year.
Whoever wins, the next President is going to have his or her powers curtailed by a fairly significant margin, thanks to provisions in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution; though it would be folly to expect that the Executive Presidency will be too diluted for the victor to continue the abuses of power inherent to it. However, there is no denying that the next Prime Minister will be the envy of his predecessors; and it’s looking increasingly likely that Mahinda Rajapaksa will land the job.
Even if long-time Rajapaksa supporters have their reservations about the candidacy of Gotabaya, the promise of a return of their leader, even if by proxy, is enough reason to vote him into power. Never mind the numerous allegations of corruption and murder and nepotism. Their king, who never stopped ruling their hearts, will rule the land once again.
And why shouldn’t he, his ardent followers – perhaps even some of his critics – might ask. As Rajapaksa himself put so eloquently yesterday, “කාලය විසින් අපිව නිර්දෝෂී කරලා ඉවරයි, රටට නිර්දේශ කරලත් ඉවරයි.” (Time has exonerated us, and also recommended us to the country”).