Puzzle of the Presidential Hopeful | Daily News

Puzzle of the Presidential Hopeful

The declaration by President Maithripala Sirisena at the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) May Day rally that he would not retire from politics in 2020 has ignited discussion in political circles about prospective presidential candidates for the election which is due that year.

Previously, the President had pledged that he would not run again for President. He did so while campaigning for the Presidency, shortly after taking his oath of office, when he visited the Dalada Maligawa a few days later and several months later at the funeral of Venerable Maduluwave Sobhitha Thera.

Since then, until his May Day announcement, President Sirisena had been maintaining a studious silence on the issue. That is despite some stalwarts of the SLFP publicly proclaiming that he would be his party’s presidential candidate at the next presidential election.

To be fair, even on May Day President Sirisena did not announce he would be running for President again. He merely said that he would not be retiring from politics. However, being the incumbent President, it is difficult to imagine any other role for him- because a Mahinda Rajapaksa style foray into Parliament as a backbench MP would not serve any purpose for President Sirisena.

Presidential election in 2020

In this developing scenario, one issue seems clear: There will be a presidential election in 2020. This is despite a pledge by President Sirisena- and indeed by those who campaigned for a government of National Unity- that the Executive presidential system of government as it exists now would be abolished.

That appears to be a remote possibility now. In the aftermath of the motion of no confidence against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, sixteen SLFP parliamentarians crossed over from the government and sat on the opposition benches. While they state that they remain loyal to the President, it is an open secret that most of them are marking time before switching allegiance to Mahinda Rajapaksa.

In effect this means that the government has now lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament which it enjoyed previously. Even if the SLFP MPs remaining loyal to the President, the entire United National Party (UNP), the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) put their numbers together, it would still not be possible to muster the 150 MPs required for a two-thirds majority.

Therefore, although the JVP does have a proposal before Parliament to abolish the Executive Presidency, its chances of success are virtually non-existent and at this juncture both the mainstream SLFP and the UNP have lost its appetite to launch campaigns to abolish the Presidency.

Hence the discussion about potential presidential candidates. Barring an eleventh-hour rapprochement with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), President Sirisena will certainly be the candidate of the mainstream SLFP.

Given the dismal performance of the mainstream SLFP at the recent local government elections vis-à-vis the SLPP and the UNP, there are questions about the viability of such a campaign but President Sirisena obviously feels differently.

Local government elections

It is also true that presidential elections and local government elections are different elections altogether. In a presidential election, there is a significant component of the ‘personality factor’ and President Sirisena has the benefit of being the incumbent in office.

The SLPP camp is gearing for the campaign on the assumption that it would be fielding its own candidate. If it had any doubts about that, they disappeared when it won the local government elections with overwhelming majorities in most councils. The question now is who that candidate will be as Mahinda Rajapaksa is barred from running for President again because of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution imposed a two-term limit on individuals.

Previously, it seemed a foregone conclusion that former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa will be the SLPP candidate. While nothing has happened to change that perception, there has however been discussion about possible alternatives too with the only certainty being that the candidate would be a Rajapaksa sibling.

Last week, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa delivered the keynote address at a meeting of ‘Viyath Maga’, an organisation which describes itself as a network of “professionals, academics and entrepreneurs to effectively influence the moral and material development of Sri Lanka”- and left no doubt whatsoever that he was projecting himself as a presidential candidate.

As a candidate, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has his pros and cons. As the Defence Secretary who spearheaded the war against terrorism, he will command good support in the South of the country but by the same token he is unlikely to attract many votes in the North and East- and, apart from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s post-war election victory in 2010, no candidate has won a presidential election without the support of the North and East.

The SLPP also has to make contingency plans as Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s name has been mentioned in several ongoing investigations. Should he be formally implicated in any of them, that would jeopardise the SLPP’s campaign. Therefore ‘alternative candidates’ need to be groomed.

The names of Basil Rajapaksa and Chamal Rajapaksa have also been bandied about as potential candidates for the SLPP. While no one doubts Basil Rajapaksa’s ability as a political tactician, his acumen as a charismatic presidential candidate is yet to be put to the test. Besides, if he were to be the candidate, his opponents are likely to capitalise on the several allegations of corruption against him and turn them into campaign issues.

Corruption allegations

It is in such a context that the name of the eldest of the Rajapaksa siblings, Chamal Rajapaksa has come into the fray. There is an argument within the SLPP that because Chamal Rajapaksa is not tainted with corruption allegations he would be the best option. However, the former Speaker will be 80 years of age in 2020 and whether this, together with his mild-mannered disposition is suited for the rigours of a presidential election campaign is a question that is being asked.

Meanwhile in the UNP too there has been some discussion about the presidential election. The newly appointed General Secretary of the party, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam has publicly stated that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will be the party’s presidential candidate. Following this statement, there have been inquiries as to how Kariyawasam could make such a statement when the party has taken no such decision.

Nevertheless, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera also stated publicly that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was the most suited to be the UNP candidate. To date, no one from the UNP has publicly disputed this but given that there is still one and a half years to go before nominations for the election are called, there has been no formal confirmation of the Prime Minister’s candidacy as yet.

There is a school of thought that, for the UNP to have any chance of winning the next presidential election, there needs to be a new image and a new approach. There are two ways in which this can be achieved. One is a change of leadership. The other is a radical transformation of the party while retaining the Prime Minister as its leader. The first option is not likely to eventuate. It remains to be seen whether the UNP will pursue the second option. Even if it does, it has very little time to do so.

Slowly but surely, the contours of the next presidential contest are taking shape- and the chances are that for the first time in Sri Lanka’s presidential election history, it will be a three-way tussle, rather than the traditional two-party contest.



There is 1 Comment

It would be Sajith Premadasa to be made president very popular candidate,the interlectuals,the expatriates and the bulk of sri lankans including the poor man likes him and loves him only chance,Ranil wickremasinghe quickly pack your filthy bags run home quickly


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