The most wanted ‘heir’ apparent! | Daily News

The most wanted ‘heir’ apparent!

The dynamic nature of Sri Lanka’s political alliances has come into focus as the leaders of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the United National Party (UNP) grapple with selecting candidates for the forthcoming presidential election due in less than ten months.

Arguably it is the SLFP and the SLPP that find themselves in a more delicate position. That is because the SLPP is, in essence, a breakaway faction of the SLFP, born out of the necessity of becoming a political vehicle for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa after he was defeated in 2015 and marginalised by his successor, President Maithripala Sirisena, who took control of the SLFP.

The wheel has turned full circle since then. The honeymoon President Sirisena enjoyed with the UNP and its Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who helped him get elected, has ended in strife. Premier Wickremesinghe was sacked by President Sirisena in October last year, only to be reinstated after the courts intervened. Since then, the UNP and the SLFP have been moving in different directions.

The SLFP-UNP political partnership, the ‘government of national unity’ came to an inglorious end and the UNP is now governing on its own, albeit with the tacit support of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on an issue by issue basis, because it does not a command a simple majority in Parliament on its own.

Hopes of re-election

The SLFP meanwhile had done almost a 360-degree turn. The party which, under President Sirisena was extremely critical of the Rajapaksas, is now looking to Rajapaksa and the SLPP to resurrect its hopes of re-election. This is in the aftermath of the SLFP’s disastrous performance at the local government election one year ago when it was reduced to an ‘also ran’ with just over ten per cent of the vote.

The immediate issue confronting all political parties is the selection of a presidential candidate. Clearly, the SLFP hopes that the President will be its candidate. Several party stalwarts have made public pronouncements to this effect from time to time.

The President himself has made no formal statement to this effect. At the beginning of his term of office, he did pledge that he would not run for President again and that he would be a ‘one term’ President. However, that was on the basis that the Executive Presidency would be abolished. That is one of the promises of this government that is yet to be realised. The President has also not contradicted any of his party members who have sought to promote him as their candidate.

The entire exercise of sacking Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in October last year and appointing Mahinda Rajapaksa to that office which led to a constitutional crisis was thought to be an exercise in winning over the goodwill of the Rajapaksas and the SLPP. Had the move succeeded and a stable government been formed with Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister, the SLPP would be obliged to acquiesce to President Sirisena, had he requested to be the joint presidential candidate of the SLFP and the SLPP.

That was, however, not to be and this is what has led to the current predicament. Former President Rajapaksa finds himself in a dilemma. On the one hand, his relationship with President Sirisena has been restored and he would find it difficult to say ‘no’ to a request from the President to be the joint SLPP-SLFP candidate. The duo was seen, full of smiles and in animated conversation, at the Navam Perahera of the Gangaramaya in Colombo on Tuesday, an indication of their new-found camaraderie.

On the other hand, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa is positioning himself as the potential candidate of the SLPP, opening offices that are a front for his political activities. The party rank and file are being given to understand that the younger Rajapaksa will indeed be the candidate. To make matters more difficult, many SLPP members have stated that the final decision regarding its presidential candidate rests only with Mahinda Rajapaksa.

‘Winning’ candidate

Mahinda Rajapaksa, to be fair, has yet to make a public declaration regarding a candidate. His only statement on the issue is that he would choose a ‘winning’ candidate. Many have interpreted this to mean Gotabaya Rajapaksa because they do not rate President Sirisena’s chances highly even if he were to contest the election with the support of the SLPP.

However, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has his own problems to contend with. He recently told a newspaper interview that his United States citizenship has been ‘sorted’ and that it would not be a barrier for him to contest the presidential election. Rajapaksa still has the issue of many court cases being heard against him locally.

This is what the SLPP and Mahinda Rajapaksa have to carefully consider-and this is also the stance being taken by those in the SLFP advocating for President Sirisena to be the candidate and mediating between the Sirisena and Rajapaksa camps.

They argue that, with only less than ten months to go for the presidential election, if the SLPP spends this limited time building up the image of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as its potential candidate and then finds that he is barred from contesting in the event he is found guilty in one of the numerous court cases where he is a respondent, the parties running against the UNP would find themselves in a very difficult situation, having to revert to a candidacy by President Sirisena.

Besides, President Sirisena will not be prepared to sit back and await the outcome of these court cases- which could take months and dwindle valuable time for campaigning- for the SLPP to revert to him as the ‘Plan B’ candidate. As the incumbent Executive President, he still controls important aspects of the political calendar- such as when the election will be called- and the SLPP would not wish to antagonise him once again.

For his part, President Sirisena appears to be in campaign mode already. His recent public statements have been critical of the UNP- but not the SLPP. His decision to appoint a commission of inquiry to probe alleged corruption between 2015 and 2018 can only harm the UNP, not the SLPP. His speech at the recent Independence Day, where he criticised the UNP’s plans to form a national government, was clearly targeting the UNP and aimed at diminishing that party in the eyes of the public.

It must be noted that the President still has the option of running as the SLFP candidate. If he is not chosen as a ‘common’ SLFP-SLPP candidate by the SLPP, he could either go into retirement as a one-term President or run again for office as the SLFP candidate against the nominees of the UNP and the SLPP. From his personal perspective, he has nothing to lose if he takes this course of action.

Differences of opinion

Comparatively, the UNP appears to have the least headaches in their choice of a presidential candidate. The names of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa and even Speaker Karu Jayasuriya are being spoken of in party circles but none has claimed to be a potential candidate.

The frontrunner at this stage, it is assumed, is Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. If there are differences of opinion within the party in this regard, it has done well to have those deliberations within closed doors, without being wildly speculated upon in the public domain. Even for the UNP though, it will be crunch time soon, as it too must make a choice sooner rather than later.

Thus, the coming weeks and months will be crucial for all the major political parties. It is also still possible that the selection of candidates will be a long drawn out exercise with many contenders not willing to give in or give up- in which case the Sri Lankan voter would be kept in suspense as to who their potential options would be, come December 2019.


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