Headhunt for the republic’s headship | Daily News

Headhunt for the republic’s headship

Candidacy for the next presidential elections has become the hot topic of discussion in political circles with declarations from two Rajapaksa brothers, Gotabaya and Chamal, last week that they are “ready” to contest the poll which is due sometime this year.

First off the blocks was former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He had been promoted as the frontrunner among the aspirants from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) for some time. Rajapaksa himself did nothing to quell such speculation.

However, as has been extensively discussed in the media, Gotabaya Rajapaksa faces a number of hurdles before he could become the SLPP candidate: he is yet to formally renounce United States citizenship, he has several cases against him being heard in courts and some in the SLPP oppose him.

SLPP stalwarts such as Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Kumar Welgama have publicly criticised a Gotabaya Rajapaksa candidacy. Welgama is the more outspoken of the two and has been bold enough to state that he wouldn’t be supporting Rajapaksa, if he were to run from the SLPP.

A few days ago, a Gotabaya Rajapaksa candidacy became more than mere speculation. That was when he declared at a meeting of ‘Viyath Maga’, an organisation that promotes and markets him, that he is “ready if the people are ready”, as close to a public declaration of candidacy as possible.

Subsequently, he was asked, ironically while attending courts, whether his United States citizenship could be an impediment to his plans. Rajapaksa retorted by saying that the United States which considers itself the ‘father of liberal democracy’ could not tie down an individual to that country.

Two Rajapaksas

Since these statements, it has also been noted that Rajapaksa’s profile in social media has escalated. There is a concerted attempt to project his image as a leader and as a person who “gets things done” on various social media platforms. This is likely to be an organised effort rather than a co-incidence.

Days after Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s statement, his elder brother and patriarch of the Rajapaksa clan, former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa signalled his intentions. Never a man of many words, Chamal Rajapaksa declared that he “was also ready” to contest the presidential elections.

The two Rajapaksas are, of course, poles apart in their personalities. Gotabaya oozes confidence and speaks with a sense of bravado that borders on the arrogant. In contrast, Chamal is soft-spoken, mild mannered and self-effacing. Neither however possesses the public appeal of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Their political histories are also different. Gotabaya has never held political office but was the high-profile Defence Secretary who prosecuted the Eelam war. Chamal has been a deputy minister, minister and Speaker. In the latter role, he was much respected by both sides of Parliament.

There is a perception, even within a section of the SLPP that, while Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a sizeable following in the South of the country, he could fare poorly in the North and East and that, without some support from these regions, he cannot win a presidential election.

Therefore, Chamal Rajapaksa could be the better option, simply because he is not as polarising a figure as his younger brother and could even be acceptable to minority communities, some groups of the SLPP contend. However, the SLPP leadership has maintained a studious silence on the matter.

Although there was an attempt to portray the declarations by the Rajapaksas as a feud between the brothers for the SLPP nomination, that is unlikely. Rather, it is a case of testing the political waters to gauge the public mood and having a second option in case Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidacy falters.

There is always a possibility that a potential Gotabaya Rajapaksa candidacy could be derailed at the eleventh hour because of the reasons mentioned above. By also projecting Chamal Rajapaksa as a possible candidate, the SLPP hierarchy is keeping its options open with a ‘standby’ choice.

Interestingly, the SLPP has entrusted the final decision regarding a candidate to its de facto leader and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Party Chairman and former Minister G.L. Peiris has no qualms about saying so publicly and the SLPP will endorse whatever decision Rajapaksa takes.

Until now, Mahinda Rajapaksa has been playing his cards close to his chest. When asked, he responds saying a decision will be taken “at the correct time” retaining the element of surprise which could be vital at an election, as Maithripala Sirisena’s candidacy at the 2015 poll so clearly demonstrated.

The unspoken factor in all this, the proverbial elephant in the room, is the possible candidacy of President Maithripala Sirisena. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)’s newly appointed General Secretary, Dayasiri Jayasekara has in fact “announced” that the President is the SLFP candidate.

However, Jayasekara has qualified his remarks, stating that the President has given no indication about his intentions. Jayasekara has also taken pains to point out that the SLPP and the SLFP must work together at the elections, so both parties could reap the benefits of a common candidacy.

While the President is yet to make a public announcement on this issue, his recent actions- including appointing a commission to probe corruption over the past four years and taking opposition MPs with him on an official visit to the Philippines- suggest that he is seeking to appease the SLPP.

This has been interpreted as being in anticipation of the SLPP’s endorsement at a presidential election. The President’s move to oust Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and install Mahinda Rajapaksa as Premier also fit in with this grand scheme, although those plans didn’t quite bear fruit.

However, there is also disquiet in both camps about this prospect. In the SLFP, electoral organisers who were stripped of their posts recently by President fear they would have to play second fiddle to the SLPP at the general elections, if the two parties forge an alliance for that poll, due in 2020.

These organisers, who stood by President Sirisena at a time when he was at loggerheads with the Rajapaksa camp, claim they have been treated unfairly because of the sudden rapprochement between the two parties. There is the possibility that at least some of them will rebel against a possible alliance.

Presidential poll

There is a faction in the SLPP which also feels it can go it alone and win at the next presidential poll, based on its performance at the 2018 local government polls. Tying up with the SLFP, given that party’s participation in the National Unity government will be an unnecessary encumbrance, they say.

The ruling United National Party (UNP) meanwhile, maintains a silence on the issue of a presidential candidate. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is the obvious frontrunner but there have been suggestions that the time has come for the Premier to pass the reins to the next generation of leaders.

There is unlikely to be a revolt in the party over this issue but some UNP loyalists are hoping that what Wickremesinghe did in 2010 and 2015- sacrifice his presidential hopes in favour of other candidates- he would do again, this time in favour of a candidate from his own party.

The name of Sajith Premadasa has been floated as a potential alternative but Minister Premadasa has repeatedly stated- as he did during the recent constitutional crisis- that he will take up any challenge or position only with the blessings of his party leader and the party’s Working Committee.

The seasoned campaigner that Premier Wickremesinghe is, he would take a decision in the best interests of his party but that is possible only after knowing who his main rival would be and carefully weighing his prospects against that candidate, UNP insiders say. So, it is early days yet for the UNP.

These backroom manoeuvrings in all major political parties will continue in earnest as the countdown to the election approaches. Remembering that a candidate for the 2015 presidential poll emerged only six weeks prior, there are miles to go and many surprises to come in this election campaign as well.

 


 

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