Candidacy question | Daily News

Candidacy question

Faced with the prospect of finding and fielding viable presidential candidates, major political parties now appear to be toying with the possibility of abolishing the Executive Presidency. This is the latest twist in the country’s political drama in what is likely to be an enthralling election year.

It is now no secret that the three major political parties, the ruling United National Party (UNP) led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) of which President Maithripala Sirisena is the leader and the main opposition party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa all have major issues with regard to their preferred choices as candidates.

This is what has led to the realisation- and the common understanding- that abolishing the Executive Presidency may offer a solution that is acceptable to all three parties. However, this is still far from becoming a reality because many a legal and constitutional hurdle will have to become if it is to eventuate.

From the perspective of the SLFP, it has no issues about who their candidate would be- it would, of course, be President Sirisena. However, it would be naïve to expect President Sirisena to emerge victorious by himself, without the support of the SLPP.

In 2015, when he won the presidential election, he had the backing of the UNP, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) as well as several other smaller political parties. That is what enabled him to record a convincing victory over then incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa.

That President Sirisena will fare poorly if he runs without the support of the SLPP was confirmed in the aftermath of the local government elections held in February last year. In that election, the SLFP came a distant third with thirteen per cent of the popular vote and that too after its numbers were bolstered by the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC). The President is only too aware of this reality which is why he is keen on a common election strategy with the SLPP.

President to run for re-election

President Sirisena feels that he would be the best candidate from such an alliance given that he is the incumbent currently in office with a higher profile than any other candidate the SLPP can offer. The President is confident that his overall performance, his anti-corruption and anti-drug stance over the past four years would stand him in good stead if he were to run for re-election.

While the President has the consistent backing of the SLFP faction that has stayed loyal to him so far, the numbers in this faction have been steadily dwindling and now amounts to only about a dozen parliamentarians, give or take a few.

The President’s views are however not shared by all in the SLPP. Within the SLPP, there are several factions at play.

The most dominant among them is the faction promoting former Defence Secretary and Rajapaksa sibling, Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the presidential candidate.

The campaign to promote the younger Rajapaksa is no longer a covert operation. Rajapaksa is now openly going about opening branches of his affiliated organisations, ‘Eliya’ (literally, ‘The Light’) and ‘Viyath Maga’ (or ‘The Learned Way’) in various districts. These project him as the saviour of a nation that is in turmoil and cast him as the hero who was responsible for defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ten years ago.

Still, there is opposition to Gotabaya Rajapaksa from within the SLPP as well.

His most vocal and outspoken critics to date have been former ministers Kumar Welgama and Vasudeva Nanayakkara. Others have noted that Rajapaksa has never ever held elected public office- and could therefore find wielding the powers of an Executive Presidency quite challenging. Even Chandrika Kumaratunga held office as Chief Minister of the Western Province -albeit briefly- before being elected President.

Criticism from his own party is not the only hurdle that Gotabaya Rajapaksa would have to overcome to be nominated as the SLPP candidate.

He has to formally renounce his citizenship of the United States. He would also have to stay clear of a conviction on any of the different charges pending against him in several courts.

This is what the SLPP would be concerned about. Although not officially proclaimed yet, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going about his business of promoting his image as if he were the candidate. If the SLPP were to officially endorse this, their campaign could be derailed even at the eleventh hour if Rajapaksa is either convicted in a court or is unable to renounce his United States citizenship.

That said, the SLPP has no other candidate of a stature similar to Rajapaksa who could run the presidential race instead. Dinesh Gunewardena and Chamal Rajapaksa have been mentioned as possibilities but most are of the view that neither of them would have the stature of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This is why even some SLPP members argue that forging an alliance with President Sirisena and offering him a ‘common’ candidacy is a safer option.

UNP candidates

The conundrum for the opposite camp, the UNP, is not as difficult. Again, although there is no official candidate announced yet, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is the obvious front runner. Wickremesinghe has been in Parliament for forty-two years and served as Prime Minister on five occasions- more than any other Sri Lankan Premier- but none of his terms have been a full five years and four of them have been under SLFP Presidents. Thus, while he has tasted power, it has never been absolute power and he would naturally wish to end his political career by becoming President of the country.

Wickremesinghe’s stock rose considerably in the wake of the constitutional crisis late last year. His stance of being unruffled by the chaos around him, not leaving Temple Trees and standing firm in the face of attempts to oust him but not resorting to violence and relying instead on Parliament and the courts of law to secure democracy won him many admirers.

However, there is a small but increasingly vocal group in the UNP which has its reservations about a Wickremesinghe candidacy. They argue that he lacks the ‘common touch’ so vital to win a presidential election where personalities matter, unlike in a general election where voters opt for a local candidate and the winning party chooses its Prime Minister. Being the clever politician that he is, it is not that Wickremesinghe is unaware of these sentiments.

The alternative for the UNP is its Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa. However, to be fair, Premadasa is on the record as saying that he will accept any role only with the blessings of the party leader. Most observers are of the view that Premadasa does not appear to be in an undue hurry to claim the candidacy for himself.

Presidential election

In such a context, where all the major political parties each have their own particular problems in selecting a potential candidate for the presidential election, their difficulties would disappear if they all agree on the abolition of the Executive Presidency. Besides, that was indeed what was promised by President Sirisena and the United National Front (UNF) government when they were elected to office in 2015.

Of course, this would pose a challenge for Mahinda Rajapaksa and the SLPP which has consistently argued for retaining the Presidency on the basis that its abolition would weaken the unitary state and leave it at the mercy of separatists. This is campaign rhetoric and it wouldn’t be mind boggling to provide a different explanation as to why an all-powerful Presidency is no longer needed.

The ‘abolish the Presidency’ plan has its advantages: it provides political parties with a way out. Instead of focussing on finding the most suitable presidential candidate, they can concentrate on general elections- and whichever party wins can then select its Prime Minister.

This is however, easier said than done. Such a proposal would most certainly require constitutional amendments and quite likely a referendum because it affects the sovereignty of the people. Besides, all the key players- the UNP, the SLFP and the SLPP and their respective leaders- would all have to agree on a suitable modus operandi to implement this.

Such consensus is still to be reached- and may never be achieved, if one party feels it has an advantage over the others. That is why Sri Lankans should not hold their breath in anticipation- at least for now, anyway.

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