Sirisena, Wickremesinghe, Gotabaya Rajapakasa, his brother Chamal and Karu Jayasuriya. The last week saw media frame prospective candidates for an office that the incumbent said, nay, swore on 9th January 2015, he would never seek re-election to and would be the last to occupy. Evidence of Sri Lanka’s sickeningly bankrupt political culture is again to be found in how, leaving aside unequivocal promises four years ago, even the catastrophic events of late 2018 and its entrenchment have not resulted in any meaningful measures to abolish the Executive Presidency. While the government continues bizarrely, blindly and blithely with business as usual, the names paraded as Presidential aspirants offer some interesting insights.
Early last week and soon after Chamal Rajapaksa noted he too was open to throwing his hat into the circus, I noted flippantly on Twitter, with two images that juxtaposed him and his brother Gotabaya, that this was classic A/B testing. A technique used in marketing, A/B testing at its simplest is the projection, production or promotion of two or more alternatives, with reactions or responses to each acting as signals around what is an intended or desired outcome. Websites do this all the time, invisibly. From search results to changes in the design and layout, leading websites are in constant A/B testing mode – refining rendering based on context and a multitude of other factors with the aim of retaining audiences, increasing consumption or converting visits to purchases.
In the political domain, what we are seeing is a parallel process – quite brilliant I may add – of first proposing the most heinous and horrendous of candidates so as to engineer a public mood swing away from them, and on to those who would if first proposed, be roundly dismissed. In other words, the very real fear of the worst and most murderous candidate being elected as Executive President, and the clear license that office affords for madness to mutate, may guide the public towards alternatives who are in fact no more decent, democratic or liberal, but aren’t overtly tainted as architects of extra-judicial murder, abductions, war crimes and violence. Proposing some of these names ensures, thus, the mere illusion of choice and is designed the ensure the validation and continuation of the status quo.
That said, there is genuine reason to fear a serious Gotabaya Rajapaksa bid for the Presidency. Viyath Maga is already a platform that connects many, from a range of disciplines and backgrounds, who can be transformed into central nodes of a political campaign. The problem though, is evident in a close study of social media engagement. Soon after a leading Prelate’s recommendation last year that Gotabaya needed to become Hitler to sort out Sri Lanka’s issues – one that, important to record, the individual concerned embraced and never once decried or denounced – social media engagement pegged to around eighty pages I track on Facebook unsurprisingly showed a brief period of heightened production and engagement. However, compared to Namal and Mahinda Rajapaksa respectively, over time, Gotabaya failed to maintain anything close to that sudden peak in popularity. As this column has previously noted, the most rabidly racist and communal content – by order of magnitude – is to be found in the constellation of pages around Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This ranges from imagery and photography, to content and commentary. The degree of frothing, fear-mongering, fascist nationalism promoted and prevalent on these pages does not mirror any other cluster I monitor, save for around one hundred extremist Sinhala-Buddhist sites I keep tabs on. The projection to a larger constituency the interactions I monitor at scale and over time on these and other pages isn’t simple or easy. As an indication however of dynamics that can, at the very least, be proxy indicators for public sentiment and support, the patterns and trends within and amongst these clusters can be extremely revealing. And what it suggests is that, quite apart and aside from external concern and anxiety, the resistance to a Gotabaya candidacy clearly comes from within the SLPP, and in fact, from within the family.
The arc of succession clearly bends towards the paternal instincts of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Tellingly, neither Gotabaya nor Chamal’s announcements have, to date, got any recognition from Mahinda, much less endorsement. Recall the widely-shared telegenics and photography around the opening of the SLPP headquarters in May last year. Gotabaya, Chamal and Mahinda made it a point to be photographed together – smiling, holding hands, standing shoulder to shoulder. Mahinda made it a point to note that Viyath Maga was only a name, and was essentially a vehicle to carry forward his populist chinthanaya. And yet, all that public posturing died down quickly. Unexpected events several months thereafter didn’t benefit Gotabaya or Chamal. Gotabaya wasn’t part of, or featured heavily in Jana Balaya. And in the middle of all this, Basil Rajapaksa – by many accounts a brilliant political strategist yet without any social media footprint – is also silent. Tainted by violence, scandal and under active investigation for the misappropriation of funds, three of the four brothers are bound together in an unholy alliance that secures their freedom, immunity and impunity only if one or more of them have access to or regain political power. Chamal Rajapaksa’s announcement is interesting in this regard. However, like Basil, with a near zero social media footprint, his appeal to and traction with the SLPP’s core constituency is a great unknown. His allegiances towards and relationship with each brother are also unknown.
Quantitative analysis aside, the qualitative nature of content produced and promoted by social media clusters anchored to Namal, Mahinda and Gotabaya are, counter-intuitively, only rarely in harmony. Further, even when they do in concert promote an idea, message or mission, it is in opposition to the UNP or an external party. There is very little evidence, in other words, of a unified, pan-Rajapaksa campaign or strategy that endures beyond the purely episodic. And if all this wasn’t complex enough, add to the mix what was noted by Dilith Jayaweera in an interview published four years ago, around his relationship with the Rajapaksas. Jayaweera, who leads the country’s premier political communications outfit by far, handles the official accounts of Mahinda, Gotabaya and Namal. Dark yet well-defined signatures of collaboration and coordination abound in many other unofficial pages and accounts pegged to these three individuals. Jayaweera knows full well the challenges noted here, and a whole lot more besides. And that is precisely why the study of what’s not present in, framed by or promoted on each respective social media cluster or official account is so fascinating to study, as probable, prescient indicators of political intent.
The elephant in the room, no pun intended, is the UNP. Much if not all of the political dynamics noted above inhabits or grows in and because of a vacuum created by Mr Wickremesinghe. Nothing – absolutely (insert expletive of your choice) nothing – seems to wake the party up from its somnambulism. Not electoral defeat. Not constitutional crises. Not a hostile, manic President. Not friendly advice. Not data. Not evidence. Not experience. Not electoral signals. Not civil society. Not well-known enemies of democracy entrenched in state institutions.
Four years ago the government’s central challenge around this time was around the delivery of a 100-day programme that was overly ambitious and bound to disappoint. This year, citizens should completely give up any vestigial hope in good governance. At the same time, we need to ask ourselves how best to sustain the kind of government that allows us all to best realise our democratic potential.
All bets are off around the configuration, late 2019, that emerges as the custodian of that shared dream.
First published in The Sunday Island, 20 January 2019.