Warming up for the race! | Daily News

Warming up for the race!

“There are potential pitfalls in a Gotabaya Rajapaksa candidacy that the SLPP would be very mindful of. He could be deprived of the opportunity to run in the election, if he is found guilty on one of the many charges being heard against him in several courts. There could also be delays in Rajapaksa renouncing his United States citizenship. If this was to occur, then the SLPP would then have to field a ‘substitute’ candidate. The issue of concern is the timing. If Gotabaya Rajapaksa runs a fully-fledged campaign- as he is likely to do- until the eleventh hour and he is then forced to withdraw from the race, that would seriously affect the SLPP’s chances “

The countdown in election year continues with the three major political parties fine-tuning their political strategies which they hope will hand them victory at the presidential elections which need to be held by the end of the year.

For the ruling United National Party (UNP), what is at stake is delivering on at least some of the promises it made four years ago. While there has been some discussion about the issue of who their candidate would be, that hasn’t become a contentious issue just yet.

The UNP is finding that it has not only got to work hard to keep the pledges it made to the masses in the face of rising economic woes, it also has counter moves by the Executive that may have an impact on its electoral prospects.

That came in the form of a decision by President Maithripala Sirisena to appoint a Presidential Commission of Inquiry to investigate into allegations of corruption and malpractices that had taken place from January 15, 2015 to December 31, 2018.

The five-member commission headed by retired Supreme Court Judge Upali Aberrate includes former High Court Judge Sarojini Kusala Weerawardena, former Auditor General P.A. Pemathilaka, former Ministry Secretary Lalith R. de Silva and former Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Wijaya Amarasinghe.

Presidential Commission of Inquiry

Observers note that the time frame the Commission has been mandated to probe is the duration of the government of national unity of which the UNP was the dominant partner. However, this could be a double-edged sword because the President’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was also a partner in that government which was headed by President Sirisena himself.

The Commission has been provided with a tight time frame within which it must conduct its inquiries and deliver its findings. If it works according to that schedule, the findings will be known in the latter part of 2019- and any adverse outcome could damage the UNP significantly, as much as the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the sale of Central Bank Treasury Bonds did.

Questions have been raised as to why President Sirisena, who campaigned on a platform of punishing corruption and malpractices during the previous regime between 2005 and 2015 has not appointed a parallel commission of inquiry to probe corrupt acts allegedly committed during that time.

However, that is a presidential prerogative and the UNP now has to deal with the evolving situation. This decision and President Sirisena’s various public pronouncements and actions from time to time indicate that the rift between the President and the UNP is ongoing. Such public criticisms from the President were previously a rare occurrence. Now, they have become a regular feature.

For example, in his recent visit to Singapore, the President is reported to have called for amendments to the Sri Lanka-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, an agreement negotiated by the UNP faction of the government. Accompanying the President on the visit were Dayasiri Jayasekera and S.B. Dissanayake who, while being loyalists of the President, are only opposition parliamentarians.

With the President having to appease the other major political party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) to secure a common candidacy with the latter’s support, the differences of opinion between President Sirisena and the UNP are only likely to increase in the months to come.

Political drama and turmoil

The UNP too has begun to respond in kind with veiled barbs aimed at the President. Last week, Leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella said that he would remind the President that he will have to attend Parliament sessions every three months as required by the Constitution.

While this is indeed a Constitutional requirement, in what appears to be an oversight, President Sirisena has not addressed Parliament for over three months now, amidst all the political drama and turmoil of late 2018.

President Sirisena had another setback when the Constitutional Council rejected his nominee as the Appeal Court President, Appeal Court Justice Deepali Wijesundara. Justice Wijesundara had previously been nominated by the President as well. On that occasion too, the nomination was rejected by the Constitutional Council.

While the President and the UNP are engaged in political sparring, the President has other issues to deal with within his own party, the SLFP. That is the demand by over a dozen parliamentarians to join the present government.

These MPs fear that, if the President eventually decides to align himself firmly with the SLPP and two parties become one in all but name, they will be severely marginalised by the SLPP hierarchy, when issues such as nominations for general elections arise.

These MPs wish to pre-empt that and secure their political futures by aligning themselves with the UNP-led government. At least some of them are willing to even join the UNP individually, if the need arises. The President has yet to address these concerns.

With time running out, the danger for President Sirisena is that, if these MPs do cross-over to the UNP in the absence of a firm decision from the President, the SLFP will be reduced to a nameboard with only a handful of MPs still remaining loyal to the President. That will considerably weaken the President, vis-à-vis bargaining with the SLPP.

In the SLPP, preparations are busily underway for the upcoming presidential election, interrupted only by the nuptials of Rohitha Rajapaksa, the youngest son of former President and de facto SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa last week, a ceremony attended by politicians of all hues and persuasions.

Potential candidates

For all intents and purposes and despite proclamations to the contrary, it appears that former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa is, at this time, the ‘unofficial’ SLPP candidate. Rajapaksa is continuing his public appearances and continues to utter statements that projects himself as a potential candidate.

That the SLPP leadership- and indeed Mahinda Rajapaksa himself- have done nothing to curb this enthusiasm and very public posturing suggests that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the preferred choice of the party. Despite his relative lack of popularity among the minority communities, the SLPP feels that he will muster enough support from the South of the country that will compensate for that handicap.

There are of course potential pitfalls in a Gotabaya Rajapaksa candidacy that the SLPP would be very mindful of. He could be deprived of the opportunity to run in the election, if he is found guilty on one of the many charges being heard against him in several courts. There could also be delays in Rajapaksa renouncing his United States citizenship.

If this was to occur, then the SLPP would then have to field a ‘substitute’ candidate. The issue of concern is the timing. If Gotabaya Rajapaksa runs a fully-fledged campaign- as he is likely to do- until the eleventh hour and he is then forced to withdraw from the race, that would seriously affect the SLPP’s chances.

On the other hand, others argue that it is the intensity and not the duration of the campaign that is important. They point out that President Sirisena’s campaign in 2015 was only of six weeks duration and that the shorter duration in fact worked to his advantage.

Although the banners, slogans, platforms and the actual candidates are still not evident, make no mistake, the 2019 Presidential election campaign is in full swing.

It will also likely be a contest like no previous other because three major parties are in the fray, at least for now. 


 

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