Bengaluru: The months long speculation is finally over. The headman of the Rajapaksa family and former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Sunday evening announced the candidature of his younger brother and a military strongman, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in the presidential election to be held in December or January.
Gotabaya, a former defence secretary who is being tried for the excesses he allegedly committed during his brother's authoritarian rule between 2005-15, has reportedly given up the American citizenship he held to fight the Sri Lankan presidential election on an SLPP ticket, a breakaway faction of the SLFP, currently headed by the incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena.
His nomination has met with both shock and celebration across the country.
The ruling UNP leader and finance minister Mangala Samaraweera was the most scathing in his attack.
Describing Gotabaya's nomination as “the most disgusting thing to do”, the outspoken minister warned the people of Sri Lanka that the "barbarians are at the gate", referring to Rajapaksa clan's bloody history of violence and corruption.
"Earlier today, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced the presidential candidate for his family’s new political party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). For weeks he refused to confirm the circulating rumours about who the candidate would be,” he said in a statement.
Samaraweera said that when he left Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government in 2006, “he was a different man than I had once known”.
“As President, his priority had become enriching, protecting and empowering his own family, not his country. Once upon a time, he was a true son of the soil, and a man whose heart beat as one with the ordinary citizens of Sri Lanka. I wondered, after he was defeated in January 2015 by over 400,000 votes, and retreated to Medamulane, whether he had reflected and learnt a lesson from the error of his ways. I wondered if he regretted putting his family in charge of the state machinery and standing idly by as the nation’s coffers were robbed dry, and our journalists were bundled into white vans never to be seen again. I wondered if he regretted buttressing his political position by inciting racial hatred across Sri Lanka, first against Tamils, and later against Muslims".
Samaraweera added, "In October 2018, when he conspired to orchestrate a coup d’état and illegally seize power, I realised that these were not the lessons he learned. The rule of law meant nothing to him. Democracy was only a buzzword to thunder from a stage. When Parliament stood against him, he had his minions try to destroy Parliament. It was only when the courts had the courage to stand up to him that Mahinda Rajapaksa finally aborted his coup and backed down.”
Samaraweera said he has now realised the “terrible truth” about what Mahinda Rajapaksa has really learned during his time in opposition. “He does not feel that he gave his family too much power. He clearly believes that he did not give his family enough power. He does not feel that his merry men pilfered one too many million rupees or public money. He believes there is more left to milk dry. He does not feel that he terrorised this country too much. He clearly believes that he did not terrorize this country enough. He is not worried that he overly threatened the independence of the judiciary. He believes he should not have allowed any independence in the judiciary at all.”
The UNP leader claimed that Rajapaksa does not regret the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda, the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge or the abduction and torture of Keith Noyahr and countless other journalists. “He wants any remaining independent journalists to know that if they cross the man who committed those crimes, they will be next."
With former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumarathunga inactive in politics, her party SLFP under Sirisena is staring at a bleak future.
The SLPP has occupied the space vacated by the SLFP founder by her father SWRD Bandaranaike.
Gotabaya, a former army officer who has been credited with ending the 30 year long most brutal civil war with the Tamil separatist group LTTE in 2009, is liked and loathed in equal measures.
His dislike for democratic processes, constitutional propriety, freedom of the media and an independent judicial system is well-known across the island nation.
With Gotabaya contesting on the opposition side, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe-led UNP is looking confused and directionless.
Even though the UNP is yet to decide on its candidate, the names of Ranil Wickremesinghe and minister Sajith Premadasa are doing the rounds. Sajith is the son of slain President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was also feared and admired.
The UNP feels that minorities Tamils and Muslims won't back Gotabaya in the election because of his past.
Together, they comprise 22 per cent of Sri Lanka's 22 million population.
Even many Sinhalese Buddhists whose population is about 70 percent of the total number of people in the country, are not pleased with Gotabaya's candidature because of Rajapaksa clan's corruption and high-handedness.
But the family hopes that majority Buddhists will back them to keep the Tamils and Muslims under check.
Explaining this, a Colombo-based Tamil on condition of anonymity said, "The Sinhalese know that they are dangerous. But they may sacrifice their freedom and liberties for the so-called "security" that Gotabaya is promising. They want to perpetuate power by always keeping the majority people in fear of the minorities."
Commenting on Rajapaksa's perpetuating power, Samaraweera said, "After nearly five years in Opposition, if Mahinda Rajapaksa’s message to the people is that one of his brothers should be President, he himself should be Prime Minister, another brother should be Speaker, a fourth brother put in charge of the economy and his son put in place as his chosen successor, that tells us all we need to know: in the mind of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka, its land and its people are destined to be the private property of the Rajapaksa family.”
Samaraweera said there are many Sri Lankans whose “hatred for certain segments of our country, in particular religious and ethnic minorities, leads them to gravitate towards the vision of the Rajapaksa family. They will gladly be second-class citizens in a Rajapaksa family dynasty, so long as Tamils, Muslims, Christians and others are forced to live as third-class citizens. Others will support the Rajapaksas out of greed, or to escape prosecution for the sins of their part.”
“From an electoral standpoint, it never mattered who the Rajapaksa candidate for President was. That is my feeling about the announcement of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. I am personally ashamed on behalf of my country to have to concede that for the first time in our history, a serious frontrunner for president is an alleged criminal whose very citizenship of this country is in question. But the question never was, ‘will it be a Rajapsaksa?’. No. It was always, ‘which Rajapaksa will it be?’.”
There are also rumours that a third candidate will emerge from somewhere to take on both the UNP and the SLPP as most people are tired of these two parties.
Some claim that a very well-known public personality will be a surprise candidate closer to the election.
With Gotabaya in fray, the Sri Lanka presidential election could be anything, but peaceful.