Wanted! A Presidential Candidate | Daily News

Wanted! A Presidential Candidate

It would not be inaccurate to label 2019 as an election year in Sri Lanka. Presidential elections are due by the end of the year and Provincial Council elections are already overdue. It is only the former that is guaranteed to be held but the major political parties are already campaigning, though neither the campaign nor the frontrunner candidates have been declared officially yet.

Central to the conundrum facing the two major opposition parties, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is whether they should contest together or separately. Unlike in a General Election, where they could have contested separately and then form an alliance after the polls, the Presidential poll is different: it is a contest where the winner takes it all.

The SLFP is led by President Maithripala Sirisena and now has only a few dozen MPs in Parliament. However, it has been one of the two major parties in the country for more than sixty years and the alliances it has led have governed the nation for more than half that period of time, mostly under the leadership of the Bandaranaikes, S.W.R.D., Sirima and Chandrika.

The SLPP is led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who is central to its popularity. Rajapaksa’s major achievement is winning the Eelam war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and he is not shy to cash in on this. He did so in 2010 but, following the excesses of his regime he was rejected by voters five years later. They opted for President Sirisena who was supported by the United National Party (UNP).

Political adventure

It appears the political wheel has turned full circle in that five-year period. The relationship between the President and the UNP is at a low ebb. If the President felt excluded from the decision-making process of the UNP, the UNP in turn felt that the President was being unduly critical of the UNP in public. If the mutual distrust was previously discussed behind closed doors, now it was being uttered in public.

The crisis reached unprecedented proportions in October last year when President Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and installed Rajapaksa as his Premier. That political adventure was short lived. Parliament voted several times to demonstrate that Rajapaksa did not command a majority in the legislature and the Supreme Court intervened to declare that the purported dissolution of Parliament was unconstitutional.

As a result of these events, President Sirisena and the UNP have parted ways for all practical purposes, in terms of the next presidential election. Therefore, the President now has a choice: he could run as the SLFP’s candidate or he could canvass to be the ‘common’ candidate of both the SLFP and the SLPP.

In the first option, he has no difficulty in seeking nomination. In fact, several SLFP stalwarts have already declared that he would be the SLFP’s candidate. However, such bold proclamations have been tempered by the fact that the SLFP, running against the SLPP and the UNP, polled only thirteen per cent of the vote at the local government elections held in February last year.

It could, of course, be argued that local elections are different from presidential elections where the person contesting is a major factor in influencing the voter. In that respect, President Sirisena has the advantage of being the incumbent President and being able to cite his performance over the past four years as an achievement. However, most SLFPers feel that this would not be sufficient to boost the party’s vote from thirteen per cent to the required fifty per cent.

It is for this reason that a joint SLFP-SLPP candidacy appears to be an attractive choice - at least for the SLFP. However, in the negotiating process set up for this purpose, it is the SLPP that is bargaining from a position of strength. The SLPP, with Mahinda Rajapaksa as its de facto head, Basil Rajapaksa as its key strategist and Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a possible presidential candidate, is confident that it can go it alone and still win- and is therefore playing hard to get.

SLPP’s preferred choice

A committee, comprising of stalwarts from both the SLFP and SLPP is currently exploring ways and means of working together. However, this committee is deliberating at a leisurely pace - and not at breakneck speed - and does not appear to be in a great hurry to work out the modalities of a common election programme. The lack of enthusiasm is mostly from the SLPP.

What the SLPP is doing with great alacrity is planning its own campaign. It has now planned a series of rallies, the first of which is scheduled to be held in Kandy tomorrow. There is speculation that Gotabaya Rajapaksa will make an appearance at this meeting.

If that occurs, it will amount to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s political ‘debut’ as the ex-Army officer and former Defence Secretary has not appeared on a platform of a political party before. It will also more or less confirm what has been rumoured for many months now- that he would be the SLPP’s preferred choice as its presidential candidate.

A further nine rallies are to be held in major cities by the SLPP. The party will test its popularity through this exercise. With that feedback, it will be better placed to arrive at a final decision as to whether it should go it alone at the election or team up with the SLFP. The second option of course comes at a price- the candidate would then be President Sirisena.

The President, meanwhile has also been busy. Even while negotiating with the SLPP, he is buttressing his hold on the SLFP. In his latest move he made two appointments. Parliamentarian Lasantha Alagiyawanna has been appointed as Trade Union Secretary of the party while his colleague Ranjith Siyambalapitiya has been appointed as its Propaganda Secretary. This is an addition to the appointment of numerous new electoral and district organisers.

Clearly, President Sirisena still envisages the possibility of being a ‘common candidate’. He and his advisors must be aware by now that, as far as the SLPP is concerned, this is not the preferred pathway but only ‘Plan B’.

It is not that the ‘Plan B’ cannot become a reality. Officially at least, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has not renounced his United States citizenship. He also faces a series of charges in local courts. If he is found guilty in at least one of them, that would debar him from running as a presidential candidate.

Presidential election campaign

Then, the SLPP would have to opt for either Chamal Rajapaksa, the former Speaker and the eldest brother of the Rajapaksa siblings, or revert to President Sirisena. In terms of public profile and achievements, arguably, President Sirisena is the better candidate because the elder Rajapaksa, seventy-six years of age, soft-spoken and mild mannered, may not be able to withstand the rigours of a hectic and heated presidential election campaign.

For all the bonhomie between the leaderships of the SLFP and the SLPP now, the SLPP is only too aware of how President Sirisena ran his previous election campaign on the theme of family bandyism by the Rajapaksas. They also recall how, in the run up to the August 2015 general election, he made an address to the nation pledging that he would not appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as his Prime Minister even if the SLFP led alliance won the election.

They are therefore cautious about rejecting outright the prospect of teaming up with President Sirisena. The President is still the incumbent in office. It is at his discretion that an election will be called. He has many powers at his disposal that could potentially make or break an election campaign. It wouldn’t make sense to antagonise or scorn the President in the wake of such a campaign.

Thus, the cat and mouse game between the two left-of-centre parties, the SLFP and the SLPP continues. It is a tussle that is likely to continue until the contours of the 2019 presidential election- dates and candidates- become clearer. The Sri Lankan voter can rest assured that more drama awaits them.



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