Who is running for President? | Daily News


Who is running for President?

The clock is slowly but surely ticking towards the presidential election which must be held by December and the country is likely to see a series of interesting political developments until then, the first few of which emerged last week.

A period of campaigning is required before the presidential poll which means that major political parties should decide on their candidates by mid-October at the latest which is just over three months away. However, all major parties are facing difficulties regarding their candidates.

For the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) headed by President Maithripala Sirisena, the big question is whether he will contest the election or not. At the last presidential poll, where he challenged then incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, President Sirisena pledged he would be a ‘one term’ President.

However, the political landscape has undergone seismic changes since then. The President’s relationship with the United National Party (UNP) which helped him win the 2015 election has soured to such an extent that he ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in October last year.

The President is aware that he is not riding on a wave of popularity, particularly following the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks which cost over two hundred and fifty lives and dealt a severe blow to the nation’s economy. Thus, he is carefully evaluating his options.

19th Amendment

It has been suggested to President Sirisena that, if he is uncertain of contesting or securing victory at the next presidential elections, he should at least attempt to stay in office until mid-next year. This is the latest strategy that he is likely to pursue.

It will be recalled that when he was elected to office, it was for a period of six years. If that was the case his tenure would have ended only on January 7, 2021. However, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, passed with President Sirisena’s blessings, reduced his term of office to five years.

This raised the question as to whether the 19th Amendment, which was passed into law only on May 15, 2015, applied to an election held four months earlier where voters had elected a President ostensibly for a six-year term of office. This question was referred to the Supreme Court by the President.

A five-judge bench of the Supreme Court, after hearing submissions in open court ruled in January 2018 that the President’s term was indeed five years. Representing the President and making submissions to the effect that the President’s term was six years was then Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya, who is now the Chief Justice.

At the time however, the Supreme Court did not make a determination as to when that five-year term would begin. This is what the President’s legal advisors are exploring now. Some have suggested that, because the 19th Amendment became law on May 15, 2015, the five-year period commences on that date. If that was the case, it would allow the President to be in office until May, 14, 2020.

This would mean that President Sirisena would be able to dissolve Parliament in February 2020 and remain in office when the next general elections are conducted. That would also mean that he would play a significant role in the formation of the next government and in appointing the next Prime Minister and Cabinet.

In lieu of contesting the Presidency again, this appears to be a proposition that is very attractive to the President. It would mean that he would be keeping his promise of being a one-term President. Because the newly elected government would be obliged to him to some extent, he could also secure a retirement under honourable terms.

Therefore, there is speculation that the question as to when the President’s five-year term of office began will be referred to the Supreme Court yet again for a determination. It appears that the SLFP is banking on a favourable response at this point in time.

However, it is apparent that there is also a ‘Plan B’. That is to seek an alliance with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the de facto leader of which is Mahinda Rajapaksa. The SLFP is in a dialogue with the SLPP but the two parties are far from reaching any accord.

Gotabaya candidacy issues

It is no secret that the SLPP proposes to field Gotabaya Rajapaksa as its presidential candidate. However, Rajapaksa suffered a setback when he had to undergo heart surgery overseas. It is expected that he would recover sufficiently to launch his campaign in a few weeks following a period of recuperation.

The younger Rajapaksa, who received an unexpected boost to his image because of the Easter Sunday bombings when the public compared his tenure as Defence Secretary to present day incumbents, has other obstacles to overcome too.

It is as yet unclear whether he has completed the renunciation of his United States citizenship, without which he cannot contest the Presidency. He also has to contend with several court cases in this country, among which is a case where he is being accused of misappropriating state funds to construct a museum in memory of his parents.

This week also saw a series of developments in courts which could affect Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s prospects. The first was the arrest of former Army Intelligence Officer Lalith Rajapaksa. He was detained in connection with the assault of a former editor, Upali Tennakoon. Police said the arrest was made following the discovery of Rajapaksa’s fingerprints at the scene of the assault.

Later, the Attorney General instructed the Police to name Lalith Rajapaksa as a suspect, record his statements and produce him in court in connection with the abduction and assault of journalist Keith Noyahr.

This was followed by the Attorney General’s office instructing the Police to produce Nissanka Senadipathi and seven others before courts in connection with the offences they had allegedly committed in the Avant Garde Maritime Services’ floating armoury case. Later, the former Chairman of the Rakna Lanka Security Company Victor Samaraweera was arrested over the Avant Garde case and was placed in remand custody.

While Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not directly accused in any of these cases, most of the alleged offences occurred when he was Defence Secretary in the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa and it quite likely that his name could transpire in the ongoing investigations and could prove to be a stumbling block in an election campaign where he is a candidate.

While the SLFP and the SLPP grapple with these matters, the UNP has its own share of problems. Although it does not have issues of a legal kind to deal with, it is struggling to reach unanimity with regard to a candidate.

UNP’s choice

No one has declared their candidacy yet but there is divided opinion as to whether Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa or Speaker Karu Jayasuriya would make a better candidate. It had been previously assumed that the Prime Minister would be a unanimous choice but this is no longer true.

At least two leading ministers have come forward to publicly state that Premadasa would be a better candidate. The first to do so was Justice Minister Thalatha Atukorale who said Premadasa should obtain the blessings of the Prime Minister and become the party’s next presidential candidate.

Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera expressed similar sentiments a few days later noting that Premadasa had the best chance of success. “Ranil Wickremesinghe’s guidance is essential in this. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe should come together and agree to make Sajith Premadasa the next President,” Samaraweera has said.

This remark elicited a response from the UNP’s chairman, Kabir Hashim. “Mr. Samaraweera was voicing his personal opinion when he spoke about fielding Mr. Premadasa as the candidate. However, the party will have discussions soon to decide on the candidate,” Hashim said in a social media post.

The coming months may see the polarisation of UNP ministers and parliamentarians in to different camps, supporting Premier Wickremesinghe or Premadasa. In this mix, Jayasuriya is also seen by some as a compromise candidate, being a leader acceptable to the majority community and being untainted by allegations of corruption after several decades in politics.

It remains to be seen whether this issue would lead to divisions and dissension within the UNP or whether it would in fact unite the party which has not fielded its own candidate at a presidential election for the past fourteen years since Prime Minister Wickremesinghe lost to Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005. The final decision regarding a candidate rests with the party’s Working Committee, where Wickremesinghe loyalists are a majority.

The rank outsider in the contest, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has hinted that it too will field a presidential candidate at this election but if it does, it will only help divide the vote further, with no real prospect of emerging victorious in the poll.

Will the country have a three way contest between the UNP, SLFP and the SLPP? Or, will it be business as usual with a ‘common’ SLFP-SLPP candidate running against a UNP led alliance? Only time will tell but we are headed for interesting times indeed.


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