The Manchurian Candidate

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s interview with BBC’s Chris Morris after the murder of Lasantha Wickremetunge is a video that continues to haunt the now Presidential candidate. Aside from the violence of what he says, is Gotabaya’s way of saying it. A nervous laugh. A high-pitched rebuttal. A rapid increase in short, staccato sentences, revealing a barely contained anger at being asked inconvenient questions. For the presidential candidate today, society was divided amongst those who were terrorists or were fighting them. Dissent and criticism, at the time, was according to Gotabaya, treasonous. A decade hence, given the candidate’s recent appearance in front of international media, nothing’s changed. The response to a question by the Hindu correspondent resulted in the same high-pitched laughter, defensiveness, discomfort and denial. The situation is so dire for the SLPP it falls on the candidate’s elder brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to rescue the aspirant from himself. 


This conundrum of a candidate who is his own worst enemy is not lost on his party. Astonishingly, and to my mind, unprecedented in any Presidential campaign in Sri Lanka is the degree to which the chief candidate is visually and narratively demoted in favour of his brother. Cut-outs, banners and posters always feature Mahinda – often printed larger or featured more prominently than the candidate himself. At key moments in the campaign, the candidate is visually and narratively, missing or marginal. For example, one was hard-pressed to find Gotabaya in official photos released by the campaign on the signing of the MoU with the SLFP. Not unlike Leonardo da Vinci’s intentional composition of ‘The Last Supper’, where the vanishing point and lines of the painting put Jesus at the centre of attention even as the painting captures a full table of other men, all the official photos had Mahinda front and centre. He is the focus of attention, and it is to him that all the cameras were pointed. Even the head table had Mahinda dead centre, with the official candidate – who arguably was with whom the SLFP was signing the MoU with and because of – relegated to a side. In fact, some of the photos and media coverage didn’t feature Gotabaya at all. Last week, four prominent cartoonists in English, Sinhala and Tamil language newspapers independently captured the degree to which Mahinda is, quite literally, behind the SLPP’s Presidential candidate – stepping in to comment, clarifying, campaigning on his behalf, answering questions addressed to him or propping him up. 


Gotabaya is now to the SLPP exactly what PM Ranil Wickremesinghe is to the UNP albeit for much longer – a political and public communications debacle. The charisma that Mahinda effortlessly exudes is entirely alien to and escapes the SLPP’s official presidential candidate. It’s a big problem, and the SLPP knows it.  


The more hidden side to all this is what the data around engagement on Facebook and Twitter, when studied at scale, reveals. Either the SLPP know this and are running scared, or they don’t need to – silently witnessing what to the public eye is hidden but evident in what fraternal, filial and family relations are in private. Either way, the data tells its own stories. For example, there is a tendency now for individuals to claim that Sajith Premadasa or Gotabaya Rajapaksa will win the election, without any corroborating evidence. To test these claims, I studied 692 Facebook pages anchored to SLPP, UNP and JVP presidential candidates and their parties from December 2017 to last week. In the lead up to the local government elections in February 2018, Mahinda Rajapaksa as an individual, and the SLPP as a party, dominate engagements on Facebook. During the constitutional coup, the UNP organically decimates the SLPP. After Easter Sunday, for around a month, Gotabaya, Mahinda and the SLPP spike in engagement, but only Mahinda’s endures. From early August to the third week of October, there is no clear leader in engagement. Depending on party convention, rally, press conference, engagement, meeting or key announcement, each candidate’s engagement spikes above others – the data graphed resembles a mountain range. In fact, if trendlines from early to mid-October hold – even after the clear partisan advantage arising from the dismissal of key court cases in the US and Sri Lanka against Gotabaya – the UNP’s candidate is generating more engagement. This should worry the Rajapaksas. But there’s a deeper issue, in the data and beyond. The pages anchored to Gotabaya, contradistinct from pages anchored to Mahinda or the SLPP, are of a rabid, racist and overwhelmingly violently Sinhala-Buddhist nature. Namal’s predominantly ego-centric and selfie laden eco-system of social media pages, spanning many platforms and accounts, does not, tellingly, attract these followers and their overtly racist framing, comments and ideology. Mahinda’s Facebook eco-system is populated by a love of him and anything he says or does – a digital paterfamilias corresponding closely with what I am told is the consummate politician, warm personality and charisma in person. Gotabaya’s fans and followers are remarkably different – highly motivated, trollish, frothing and feverish in their commentary and prolific in their content production. But in network science – the study of how data like engagements on social media flow from one platform to another or within a platform over time – Gotabaya’s problem is one of sustained influence and enduring appeal. Almost every spike in engagement since August 11th – when Gotabaya was nominated as the SLPP’s presidential candidate – is driven by content produced, promoted or projected by Mahinda. 


The candidate is clearly capable of coherent communication, but in very select circumstances. For example, when I studied Gotabaya’s speech at the SLPP convention in English using a specialised platform to deconstruct text, I found the candidate’s speech weak on rights but a near perfect model in how a political vision can and should be communicated. Gotabaya is very good at scripted speeches delivered to friendly audiences, where a tainted, bloody past is not a problem or questioned. But faced with probing questions from a courageous journalist, the candidate again unconsciously reverts to type. High-pitch, nervous laugh and incoherent answers define Gotabaya the candidate, without the tools or enabling architectures of containment, control or silencing he is used to dealing with inconvenient truths. 


Does any of this indicate a victory for Sajith Premadasa and a loss for Gotabaya Rajapaksa? Emphatically not. But it does reveal, despite the best efforts of the SLPP to gloss over or put a sheen on, fundamental flaws of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a presidential candidate. Could it be that Mahinda secretly wants the public to realise the degree to which how without him, no one else from family or party before or other than his son is destined to command public attention, admiration and adoration? Why does a leading presidential candidate countenance – without whine or whimper in public – what is a visibly diminished position in his campaign? Is data suggesting flatlining engagement on Facebook, when measured at scale amongst a consequential electoral demographic, a harbinger of the official result? 


Whatever the answers to these questions, it is not untimely to ask – in the same manner as was afforded to a brutally murdered journalist – who really Gotabaya Rajapaksa is, behind the smiling mask? Why is he running a campaign anchored to racism and fear? What is he scared of, for which the immunity and impunity offered by the Presidency is the only viable insurance against?


Who is he? What is he doing?  


First published in The Sunday Island, 27 October 2019.

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