Following much speculation that that there is friction within the Rajapaksa family and the new party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa over the early start on ‘campaigning’ by brother and former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, eyeing the 2020 Presidency, the latest is Mahinda Rajapaksa declaring that SLPP is ‘considering the popularity of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and his suitability for the post of Presidency.’
This comes in the wake of the former Defense Secretary launching his 2020-2030 economic vision for the country and his consistent courting of professionals and notably the Muslim minorities of Sri Lanka, seen in the grand Iftar parties being organized by the inner circle of prominent Lankan Muslims connected with Gotabhaya Rajapska.
Days after Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) senior member G. L. Peiris stating that they are yet to consider an individual for Presidential candidacy and have not confirmed a candidate for the 2020 Presidential election, Mahinda Rajapaksa has acknowledged the rising popularity of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to be the Presidential candidate.
The former President Monday declared that public calls for his brother to be considered as the Presidential candidate of the SLPP at the next Presidential Elections are being considered.
He was responding to a question by a journalist over the growing public support for former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to be Presidential candidate, and Rajapaksa responded that he was aware of this phenomenon.
Mahinda Rajapaksa however insisted there was no “power struggle” between his brothers and maintained that his new party, the SLPP consisted of many senior politicians.
“When the time is right, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa will inform us of who our Presidential candidate should be. Thus far, we have not considered anyone,” Professor Peiris, a senior minister under the former Rajapaksa regime was earlier quoted in the local media as saying.
Joint Opposition Parliamentarian Vasudeva Nanayakkara was also on record stating to the Lankan press that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was not a suitable presidential candidate for reasons including the latter’s military career and inability to attract votes of the minority Muslim and Tamil communities. But soon after he recanted stating that he will be ‘reserving his statements’ on the matter.
Something to be noted is that it was popularly believed (or was a version that Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted to be popularly bandied about) that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa when he was Defense Secretary with a decided unflinching nationalistic mentality on Tamil and Muslim rights issues was the ‘hardliner’ compared to Mahinda Rajapaksa.
“Rajapaksa sometimes used to half jokingly throw up his hands and say “I don’t know – it is Gotabhaya,” on some matters concerning Tamil or Muslim minorities,” a source recalls.
One of the key allegations against Gotabhaya Rajapaksa when he was serving as Defense Secretary is that he failed to control the riots spearheaded by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) monks and supporters against the Muslims in 2014 in Aluthgama, South of Colombo. It is alleged that although the Special Task Force of the Lankan police and the military were in large numbers in the town areas, they did not take any action to prevent the blatant burning of homes because they were under direct orders not to intervene.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is also currently being investigated in the case related to the assassination of Sunday Leader newspaper editor, Lasantha Wickrematunga in 2009.
Despite these and several other allegations, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa nevertheless has a high popularity especially amongst the Sinhala Buddhist majority of the country and also has some of the liberals in the opposing political camps ‘converting’ to be a Gotabhaya supporter with the excuse that he has an economic and development-based vision.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, although known to be autocratic as Defense Secertary, was also seen as an ultra efficient planner of urban projects under the previous regime.
With the 19th Amendment that was introduced in 2015 debarring any person from contesting the Presidency for the 3rd time, Rajapaksa who has already contested three times is out of the race anyhow but has nothing to prevent him from becoming Prime Minister. Although the SLPP of Rajapaksa does have senior members there is none of the stature and command of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa for the candidature of Presidency.
While there may not be a serious rift within the Rajapaksa family over the Presidency, there is likely the faint reluctance by Mahinda Rajapaksa to be seen as ‘over-shadowed’ by his younger brother although he will be well aware that any serious friction will lead to the disintegration of the popularity of his new party which won handsomely at the local government polls of February 10 this year.
Meanwhile, the 16 ex-members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) who left its fold in April this year are planning a continuing dialogue with the former Defense Secretary to discuss various issues based on the latter’s hopes of becoming the next President.