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Lanka elections too quiet for comfort

Swapan Dasgupta (Poll Position)
Filed on November 9, 2019 | Last updated on November 9, 2019 at 10.05 pm

Unless you read the newspapers, a visitor would find it hard to realise that Sri Lanka is experiencing an election.

Colombo seemed unusually devoid of tourists last week. Tourism suffered grievously as a consequence of the terror bombings of churches and hotels in April by some fanatics claiming allegiance to Daesh. According to a manager of a hotel occupancy was down to eight per cent in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. It has picked up subsequently but still nowhere near what Sri Lanka is used to.

I recall the first time I travelled to Colombo in 1987, at the height of the civil war.

The hotels were so deserted that you could actually negotiate rates.

The mood last week was predictably a little downbeat. The tourist infrastructure in Sri Lanka, particularly the hotels and restaurants, are quite fantastic. The country depends disproportionately on tourism. As such, any dip in the number of arrivals, particularly from the West, unsettles the economy. Indian tourists compensate somewhat but they are not usually big spenders.

The hoteliers seemed optimistic that things would improve in December, after the presidential elections in November. To me that appeared quite inexplicable. In India, a General Election is often a tourist draw. Western tourists are fascinated by the passionate partisanship, the buntings and the sheer cacophony. Curiously, this is totally missing in Sri Lanka. Unless you read the island's morning newspapers, a visitor would find it hard to realise that Sri Lanka is experiencing a presidential election.

It wasn't always like this in the past. However, in an audacious move, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, unilaterally decided that with an eye on reducing the carbon footprint, his campaign would shun posters. This was a noble move and so noble that his challenger Sajith Premadasa, son of former President R Premadasa, had to follow suit. Consequently, Sri Lanka is devoid of all the outward trappings of an election. I spotted a few arches in Galle and a brightly decorated campaign office on an outskirt of Colombo, but apart from these, nothing else was evident.

My own experience suggested that the flags and buntings and gigantic cutouts play a big role in sensitising voters and mobilising people. Surely, I asked a Rajapaksa campaigner, the genuflection to environmental responsibility would have a bearing on the turnout? He didn't seem convinced that it would be so. Neither did the other side think so.

This is encouraging in some respects but disproportionate dependence on media and online could create new (and perhaps unforeseen) complications. That is why the presidential campaign in Sri Lanka should be closely studied.

- Open magazine

Swapan Dasgupta is a member of Indian parliament

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