Presidential hopefuls 2019 | Daily News


 

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Presidential hopefuls 2019

In recent Sri Lankan political history, forging alliances between political parties have become a tool to fight elections but this same strategy appears to be threatening the unity of the major political parties before the upcoming presidential elections.

Historically, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) has won elections mostly as the major partner of an alliance. Even its founder S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike contested the 1956 general election as the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) where it recorded a landslide victory.

The SLFP contested on its own in March 1960 and lost but won a few months later in July 1960 under Sirima Bandaranaike’s leadership. Contesting on its own again in 1965 it lost again. By 1970, it regained government under Ms. Bandaranaike’s leadership of the United Front (UF) of which the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and the Communist Party (CP) were partners.

By 1977, the SLFP-led coalition had broken up and the party contested on its own, only to be swept away by the United National Party (UNP)’s landslide victory under the leadership of J. R. Jayewardene. There were no elections in 1982 because President Jayewardene opted for a referendum instead.

Until this time, the UNP, although it had a few strategic arrangements with certain candidates in selected electorates from time to time, contested on its own steam. In 1989, for the first time, the UNP was in partnership with the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) led by Saumyamoorthy Thondaman, an alliance Jayewardene formed after the 1977 polls.

The elections in 1989 marked a watershed because they were held for the first time under the proportional representation (PR) system. This meant that alliances, either before or after the polls, were no longer optional; they became a necessity. This was also the time the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) was making its presence felt, winning a few seats and increasing its bargaining power. The major parties were keen to have the SLMC as an ally.

In 1994, the UNP opted to go it alone, although it still had the backing of the CWC. The newly formed SLFP led coalition under the leadership of Chandrika Kumaratunga, was called the Peoples’ Alliance (PA). It won the elections convincingly, ending the UNP’s stranglehold on power for seventeen years.

Five years later, at the 2000 elections, the PA retained power and the UNP remained in the opposition. However, a year later, the UNP had learnt its lesson and formed the United National Front (UNF) and won convincingly against the SLFP led PA, forming what was to be a short-lived government.

By 2004, the PA was re-branded the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and won the general election, defeating the UNF. These two alliances have remained, more less, dominating the political landscape for the past one and a half decades.

Coalition politics

Mahinda Rajapaksa contested the presidential election as the UPFA candidate in 2005, 2010 and 2015 winning twice and losing once. Ranil Wickremesinghe ran against him as the UNP candidate in 2005 but Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena contested as candidates from the New Democratic Front (NDF), an alliance forged specifically for the purpose of elections.

Coalition politics, therefore, appears here to stay but that is precisely what is hampering the SLFP and the UNP in their effort to strike the right balance between stakeholders, while still maintaining the identities of the major parties.

Unfortunately for the SLFP, it is no longer the major partner in the proposed alliance with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which has assumed that mantle following its convincing performance at the 2018 local government elections.

However, the SLFP still does have a few trump cards and it is keen to play them. There is every indication that it is doing so. As late as last week, it announced that its decision regarding the presidential election would be made known at its convention in September.

This announcement was seen by many as a move to pre-empt the announcement of the SLPP’s candidate on August 11. That the latter is Gotabaya Rajapaksa now appears to be a mere formality. Following the SLFP announcement, there were moves to facilitate urgent discussions between SLPP and Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and SLFP leader and President Maithripala Sirisena.

The trump cards that the SLFP expects to play in these delicate discussions are twofold: it is President Sirisena, as the incumbent President, who decides on the date of the election which can be a key factor in the campaign.

More importantly, the SLFP is relying on the arguments that even at the 2018 local government elections, it polled nearly one and a half million votes and that without this segment of the vote base, the SLPP can never win. What it is suggesting is that Rajapaksa has no chance of success, if President Sirisena were to also run as a candidate, although it could be argued that the President’s own chances are even lesser. President Sirisena has meanwhile kept the guessing game alive. In addressing SLFP representatives this week, he is reported to have said that he is still undecided as to whether he will contest the election or not.

It was against such a backdrop that one to one discussions were held between President Sirisena and Opposition Leader Rajapaksa on Monday night. A further round of talks has been agreed upon and the talks were described ‘cordial’.

“The two leaders met on Monday night. I can’t disclose what transpired at the discussion because they are expected to meet again shortly. I believe the two parties will be in a position to come to an understanding on the position to be taken at the presidential election,” SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara said, briefing the media later.

Meanwhile in the UNP too tensions were on the rise. Party leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has proposed the formation of an alliance styled the Democratic National Front (DNF). While the vast majority of UNP stalwarts agree with the concept, it is the composition of the alliance that has attracted much criticism.

A meeting of the UNP’s Working Committee was held last Thursday and turned out to be contentious. A faction of the party argued that the constitution proposed for the DNF diluted the role of the UNP when it was clear that it was by far the major stakeholder in the alliance because of its larger support base.

Decision making in the proposed NDF was to be by a leadership council where the UNP did not have a share in proportion with its electoral dominance, they argued. It was also suggested that the posts of leader and general secretary of the NDF should be reserved for the UNP in the event of an alliance being formed. Others insisted that its party office should be at ‘Siri Kotha’, the UNP’s headquarters.

From time to time, the discussion regarding the proposed constitution for the NDF descended in to a heated debate about who the presidential candidate of the UNP should be. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had to point out that the meeting was not called to select a candidate.

At the end of hours of fractious arguments, no decision was reached. As a result, the grand launch of the NDF, scheduled for last Sunday, was called off at the eleventh hour. In a further reversal, potential allies of the DNF have now informed the UNP that it should first decide on who their candidate would be, before the formation of the alliance.

UNP led alliance candidate

At least three constituent partners of the proposed alliance, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), the Democratic Liberation Front (DLF) and the National Union of Workers (NUW) urged the UNP to seek consensus on a candidate first.

Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem articulated this stance with which DLF leader Mano Ganesan and NUW leader Palani Digambaram agrees. Jathika Hela Urumaya leader Champika Ranawaka and All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader Rishard Bathiudeen have expressed similar sentiments.

At the core of this dispute is the issue of who the candidate of the UNP led alliance would be. Clearly, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is staking a claim while the recent public pronouncements of Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa indicates that he too is willing to run.

At a recent public event, Premadasa declared that, “the son of Ranasinghe Premadasa is more than ready to create a Sri Lanka by uniting all communities, religions and provinces. Premadasas will never lose. Premadasas always win. The victory will not be for those who dwell in mansions.” An increasing number of ministers are now publicly backing Premadasa, the latest of whom is Sports Minister Harin Fernando.

It is clear that UNP needs to resolve the question of who their candidate would be, if they are to have chance of victory at the elections.

They are hinging their hopes on a massive chunk of the minority vote in the North and East, which may indeed accrue to them but the party must be mindful that to attract even a decent percentage of the vote in the South, it must have a candidate with charisma and public appeal.

The coming few weeks will be critical for the UNP, SLFP and the SLPP. The history and future course of these political parties- as well as the nation’s immediate future- may well be determined in these next few weeks. Finally, it is crunch time.

 


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