A compromise candidate for presidency? | Daily News

A compromise candidate for presidency?

Sparring within and between ruling and opposition parties is likely to intensify in the coming weeks as they get down to the task of finalising their candidates for the country’s eighth presidential election since the presidential system of government just over forty years ago.

What was shaping up to be the nation’s first presidential poll that would be a real three-cornered tussle has now almost certainly been whittled down to a contest between alliances led by the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

It is very likely that the latter will include the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) headed by President Maithripala Sirisena, which is currently in intensive talks with the SLPP to formulate a broad-based political alliance for the election.

Expectations that President Sirisena will be a candidate for the poll have now all but diminished. That is after weeks of back-room negotiations between the SLFP and the SLPP. In these talks, the SLPP was negotiating from a position of strength, arguing that while it was imperative for the SLFP to form an alliance, the SLPP was quite capable of contesting any election on its own.

Provincial Council elections

It is also learnt that earlier moves by President Sirisena to try and conduct provincial council elections have now been put on hold. It had been suggested by some that such an election would weaken the UNP, if that party were to lose the poll.

However, the only advantage of having a provincial council poll would have been to expedite an alliance between the SLFP and the SLPP. By conducting such an election, the SLFP and President Sirisena were running the risk that, if the two parties couldn’t put together a common front, there could be a repeat of the 2018 local government elections, where the SLFP came a distant third.

At least for the SLPP, the issue of a candidate has been almost decided, although its leaders are still not making a public announcement. It is nearly certain former Defence Secretary and younger Rajapaksa sibling Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be formally announced as the candidate within a fortnight.

Rajapaksa arrived in the country last week after recuperating from surgery in Singapore. A welcoming ceremony and a motorcade ride from the airport that would have all about announced his candidature had been contemplated but it was decided that this wouldn’t be the best course of action because he has not been formally proclaimed as a candidate.

Rajapaksa did however have some good news. The Supreme Court directed the Special High Court hearing the D. A. Rajapaksa Museum case to stop hearing further evidence until the Supreme Court decided on the appeal made by the former Defence Secretary over the jurisdiction of the Special High Court to hear this matter. The Supreme Court will take up the appeal again on October 1, 2019.

The case against the former Defence Secretary and six others was filed for allegedly misappropriating state funds amounting to Rs 33.9 million during the construction of the D. A. Rajapaksa Museum and Memorial in Medamulana. By the time the Supreme Court begins hearing the case in October and then makes a determination, the country may well be in the throes of a presidential election campaign.

Speculation about Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s United States citizenship has been continuing. Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU) leader Udaya Gammanpila, a staunch supporter of Rajapaksa went public stating that Rajapaksa’s United States citizenship had indeed been renounced and that the next list released of revoked citizenships released by that government will include his name.

US citizenship

Social media went in to a frenzy thereafter with the distribution of images of a document purported to be a ‘Certificate of loss of nationality of the United States’ for Rajapaksa. Later however, it was declared that this was a forgery.

The document stated that Rajapaksa had become a United States citizen on March 13, 2003, and renounced his US citizenship on July 5, 2019. The certificate carried a red seal dated July 26, 2019, stating “Approved American Embassy Colombo”. However, Rajapaksa was not in Sri Lanka on July 5. He was in Singapore recovering from heart surgery.

By mid-week, Rajapaksa had reportedly told a local newspaper that the renunciation of his citizenship had been concluded without any hindrance. At the time of writing, there have been no contradictions of this report.

There were other moves as well from the SLPP to lay the groundwork for the presidential election. This included signing agreements with ten smaller political parties which would be part and parcel of the alliance that would contest the poll. These political parties are not represented in Parliament and are not affiliated to the Joint Opposition (JO).

Accordingly, agreements were signed with the Mawbima Janatha Party, the Lanka Kamkaru Eksath Peramuna, the Damila Eksath Nidahas Peramuna, the Eelawar Democratic Front, the Muslim Ulama Party, the Liberal Party, the Nawa Sihala Urumaya, the Democratic National Movement, the Eksath Lanka Maha Sabhawa and the Bhumiputhra Party.

From a SLPP perspective, the decision to sign agreements with political parties that have only marginal support within the Sri Lankan electorate stems from the view that in a presidential contest that is likely to be a two-way race for all intents and purposes, every vote counts.

It is not only the SLPP that is looking for political alliances. The UNP too is on the lookout for a broader front to contest the presidential election. Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has been mooting a ‘National Democratic Front’ (NDF) for some months now.

The proposed NDF is likely to comprise the UNP, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC), the Democratic People’s Front (DPF), the National Union of Workers (NUW), the Democratic National Alliance and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU).

These parties have a wider representation than the smaller parties the SLPP has already signed agreements with and some of them, such as the SLMC, are represented substantially in Parliament. The UNP hopes that, in the event of a presidential election, the votes of the TNA predominantly in the North and East of the country will also accrue to its candidate.

The bigger headache for the UNP though is the choice of a candidate. At least three frontrunners have emerged: Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe does command the support of the Working Committee which has a significant say in ratifying the party’s candidate. Deputy Leader Premadasa is widely perceived as having greater public support. Speaker Jayasuriya is being proposed as the ideal compromise candidate.

Public statements by stalwarts of the party this week underscores the dilemma the party faces in choosing a candidate. Plantation Industries Minister Navin Dissanayake, son of popular Mahaveli Minister Gamini Dissanayake who was assassinated during the 1994 presidential election campaign said the country has so far not had a President hailing from the ‘up country’.

His father came close to becoming President, Dissanayake said and added that it will take about ten years to realise his dream. Dissanayake’s mother Srima, who passed away recently, eventually ran against Chandrika Kumaratunga at the 1994 presidential election after Gamini Dissanayake’s assassination but lost.

Minister Dissanayake though errs when he says the country has not had a President from ‘up country’. That is because D. B. Wijetunge, who replaced Ranasinghe Premadasa when he was assassinated, hailed from ‘up country’. Udu Dumbara was his electorate. However, Wijetunge was not elected President, only appointed by Parliament, so no one from ‘up country’ has run for President.

Meanwhile, at a press briefing at Temple Trees on Tuesday Anuradhapura District UNP parliamentarian Chandima Gamage mentioned Public Enterprise Development Minister Lakshman Kiriella as yet another possible presidential candidate alongside Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, Speaker Jayasuriya and Deputy Leader Premadasa.

“Once the SLPP announces its candidate we will announce our candidate. If Mahinda Rajapaksa nominates Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the candidate, we will field someone appropriate. A final decision would be made in the future at the appropriate time,” Gamage said.

Presidential elections

Kiriella is known as a staunch loyalist of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and has not been perceived previously as a candidate. The mention of his name as a potential candidate at a press briefing held at Temple Tress suggested that the UNP still has to formulate a strategy to unite the party rank and file to support a formidable aspirant.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna had announced some weeks ago that this time around, it too would field a candidate for the presidential election. However, it has done little in this regard subsequently. Despite having a high profile in protest campaigns and in Parliament, the party regularly polls between five and ten per cent of the vote and has so far had little impact at presidential elections.

The stage is gradually being set for the two major parties to formally announce their candidates. With the SLPP listed to do so in early August, the UNP lead alliance must surely follow suit. By the end of August the country should know who the main contenders are- and will therefore would have narrowed the choice of their next President to two hopefuls. Then, the campaign will begin in earnest.

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