The best of suspense | Daily News


The best of suspense

The ratification of Sajith Premadasa as the presidential candidate of the United National Party (UNP) and the coalition it leads, the United National Front (UNF) last Thursday added a new dimension to the presidential election, now due in less than fifty days.

The confirmation of Premadasa, the UNP’s deputy leader, was not without its anxious moments and was preceded by weeks of back-room discussions and manoeuvring within two factions of the UNP, one loyal to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the other backing Minister Premadasa.

At times, these debates spilled in to the public domain with acrimonious comments being uttered by both camps and threatening to divide the UNP. However, it appears that eventually the Grand Old Party did close ranks at the eleventh hour and pledge their support to Deputy Leader Premadasa, albeit after a few dramatic days of political activity.

For several months, Deputy Leader Premadasa had sensed that there was a move to promote both Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya as candidates from the UNP. In fact, it was no secret that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had, in consultation with his loyalists, been weighing up the prospects for contesting a third presidential election.

In these consultations it became apparent that if the party’s highest decision making body, its Working Committee, chose the nominee, Wickremesinghe was likely to be selected. If the decision was left to the cumulative group of the Working Committee and the UNP parliamentary group, Premadasa may have had an edge over his leader.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya was also being promoted by a section of the party and by some organisations as a ‘compromise’ candidate. To his utmost credit and ever the gentleman, Jayasuriya maintained that while he was willing to contest, he would do so only if all factions of the party agreed and invited him to do so.

Abolition of the Executive Presidency

It was against such a backdrop that an emergency Cabinet meeting chaired by President Maithripala Sirisena was summoned, where the abolition of the Executive Presidency was discussed. The meeting itself became the subject of a public disagreement between the President and the Prime Minister.

The President maintained that the meeting was summoned at the request of the Prime Minister, conveyed to him through Minister Ravi Karunanayake. The Prime Minister insists it was the President who called the meeting.

Eventually, the meeting itself ended with government ministers objecting to the abolition of the Executive Presidency at this time, when nominations for the presidential election have already been called. If anything, it emboldened the Premadasa faction of the UNP to forge ahead with their strategy to secure the nomination, with the knowledge that there could be plans to thwart them.

That is when Premadasa publicly affirmed that he would contest the presidential election, no matter what. That was partly a veiled threat to those opposing him, indicating that they risked splitting the party with Premadasa contesting on his own as an alternative to the UNP’s official candidate.

Two days before finality was reached regarding the candidacy, it appeared that loyalists of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had come to the conclusion that, given the momentum in favour of Premadasa within the party, even a vote in the Working Committee was becoming too close to call.

A worrying trend was the fact that even staunch loyalists of the Prime Minister who owed their meteoric rise in the UNP to Premier Wickremesinghe, were now defiantly casting their lot with Deputy Leader Premadasa.

These included former party chairman Malik Samarawickrema, current Chairman Kabir Hashim and Minister Mangala Samareweera. Their support for Minister Premadasa suggested a significant change in the balance of power within the party.

As a result of this shift, by Tuesday, September 24, there were indications that Minister Premadasa would clinch the nomination. However, there were still moves afoot to suggest that while Minister Premadasa would be granted nomination his authority in the UNP would not be absolute.

This came in the form of so-called ‘conditions’ that were to be attached to his candidacy. These conditions included retaining Prime Minister Wickremesinghe as the Premier and the leader of the UNP and a commitment to abolish the Executive Presidency, should Minister Premadasa win the election.

Wickremesinghe loyalists

Wickremesinghe loyalists argued that, as Minister Premadasa would be contesting from the UNF coalition and not the UNP itself, the Prime Minister could continue as leader of the UNP. There appears to have been some concern that should Minister Premadasa assume the leadership of the UNP, there would be a side-lining of those seen as hostile to him.

The issue of whether Premier Wickremesinghe would be retained as Prime Minister is a moot point. That was sorely put to the test during the constitutional crisis in October last year when President Sirisena found to his consternation that, even though he appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, that could not be sustained as he did not have the support of a parliamentary majority.

Therefore, in the event of Minister Premadasa winning the election, the issue would be not so much as to whether he would wish to re-appoint Prime Minister Wickremesinghe but about whether the latter would be able to retain the confidence of a majority in Parliament.

The net effect of the ‘inspired leaks’ about conditions being attached to Minister Premadasa’s candidacy was to only harden attitudes in the Premadasa camp. Minister Premadasa himself made a categorical public statement stating that he was not a ‘puppet’ to be subjected to conditions, a statement that he defiantly repeated at a public rally at Mathugama.

By Thursday, Minister Premadasa’s nomination had become a fait accompli. It was Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe himself who proposed his nomination which was unanimously approved. While there was no mention of the party leadership and the premiership, it was agreed to incorporate a commitment to abolish the Executive Presidency to the resolutions that would be adopted at the UNP’s national convention.

Democratic process

Minister Premadasa’s candidacy subsequently received support from partners of the UNF coalition. There are ongoing discussions to secure the support of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), whose votes could potentially be critical in the final count.

UNP stalwarts point out that the party was able to arrive at a consensus regarding its candidate, even if it was after weeks of debate and dialogue. Now the party stands united with that candidate after a democratic process. This is different from what was adopted by the rival Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), where its leader Mahinda Rajapaksa arbitrarily chose his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the party candidate.

The Premadasa candidacy is significant for other reasons as well. Some who had left the UNP due to differences of opinion with the party leadership are now returning to the fold. Foremost among them was former UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake who defected to the Rajapaksa camp at the last presidential elections. Also returning was former minister Neomal Perera. Another surprise returnee was former Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) stalwart S. B. Navinna.

The advent of Minister Premadasa as the candidate for the UNF certainly makes the presidential election a much closer contest because the Deputy Leader of the UNP represents a generational change of leadership within the UNP. His strength is his ability to connect with the grassroots.

However, Minister Premadasa does have many hurdles to overcome. Being a part of the government- for the past four and a half years though not being a key policymaker within it - he too is burdened with the perils of incumbency and all the blame that comes with it.

He has also been criticised for being silent on major issues confronting the country- such as devolution of power, economic policy, international relations and the future of the Executive Presidency.

A manifesto that contains answers to at least some of these issues will be required to allay the anxieties of voters regarding these matters.

The selection of Minister Premadasa as the ruling party candidate comes during another week of hectic political activity which ended with more controversy: the case in the Court of Appeal regarding the Sri Lankan citizenship of SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The SLPP is awaiting the determination of this case with bated breath. In this case, Petitioners Gamini Viyangoda and Professor Chandraguptha Thenuwara have challenged the validity of documents granting Sri Lankan citizenship to Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The matter has been listed for hearing this week.

This week also saw the emergence of another presidential candidate in the form of former Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake. Senanayake is being sponsored by the National Peoples’ Movement (NPM). Senanayake is not considered a serious challenger for the Presidency but it is expected that he will attract some voters who are disgruntled with the political establishment. Both the UNF and the SLPP will be keen not to lose votes to the NPM nominee.

With less than seven weeks to go for the election, many more surprises, twists and turns are only to be expected as the country gears for its eighth presidential poll to vote in its seventh Executive President. If what has occurred in the lead up to the election is anything to go by, this may be one of the closest presidential contests the country has seen.

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