Politics of presidency

Sri Lankan politics has known to have peculiar twists and turns from time to time. Over twenty-five years ago, a suicide bomber assassinated then President Ranasinghe Premadasa and Dingiri Banda Wijetunge, the unlikeliest of politicians to be President, became the third Executive President of the country.

Four years ago, a presidential election had been announced and the opposition was struggling to find a candidate to challenge the political juggernaut of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Only six weeks later, Rajapaksa had been defeated and Maithripala Sirisena took office as the sixth Executive President.

Will history repeat itself in 2019? Will a candidate emerge from among unlikely hopefuls and ascend to the highest political office in the country? Major political parties are grappling with this question, with less than ten months to go for the next presidential election- and there is still room for many surprises.

There is now an ‘obvious’ shortlist of candidates from the major political parties: President Maithripala Sirisena from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe from the United National Party (UNP) and former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the newly established Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which claims the mantle of being the largest opposition party in the country. None of these ‘nominations’ is certain and none of the parties have formally declared a nominee for the contest.

PM’s political career

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is arguably the likeliest of these three to actually run for office. Premier Wickremesinghe has led the UNP for twenty-five years since the retirement of President Wijetunge and has been Prime Minister five times in a parliamentary career spanning forty-two years.

However, the office of Executive President has eluded him, having contested the Presidency twice, in 1999 and 2005 and losing to Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa respectively, the latter by a very narrow margin and only because of a voter boycott in the North and East of the country, called by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Premier Wickremesinghe has launched himself into the spotlight recently, increasing his public appearances and extolling the virtues of his government in what appears to be a prelude to a presidential candidacy. His stature in the country received an unexpected boost when he was ousted from office for fifty-two days by President Maithripala Sirisena in October last year. However, the Prime Minister kept his cool and stayed put at Temple Trees until the Supreme Court restored the status quo. Since then however, it has not been plain sailing for the Premier.

There have been rumblings of dissent within the UNP. It has been argued that the Prime Minister’s aloof and distant public image will be a challenge at a presidential election campaign where personalities matter very much. The fact that his chosen loyalists were implicated in the Central Bank bond scam will also receive negative attention during the campaign, in addition to the burden of incumbency, where the UNP-led government has not lived up to the high expectations it generated.

In the circumstances, some sections of the party prefer a different candidate. Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa’s name has been mentioned time and again but to be fair by Premadasa, he has publicly stated he will accept any challenge only if it has been endorsed by the party leader and the entirety of the party. That has not eventuated yet.

The woes of the SLPP’s potential nominee, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, have been well documented. Faced with a plethora of court cases, Rajapaksa is busy with his lawyers defending the many charges against him in different courts. Even if one of those cases results in a conviction, Rajapaksa will be out of the contest- and the SLPP will be hard pressed to find a replacement at the eleventh hour.

There are other issues as well: Rajapaksa is still a citizen of the United States and there has been no announcement that he has renounced this. Obviously, he does not wish to do so until he is certain that he is able to stand as a nominee, free from the encumbrances of court charges pending against him. Some factions of the SLPP are also not in favour of his candidacy but if it is endorsed by Mahinda Rajapaksa it is expected that these groups will fall in line.

If Gotabaya Rajapaksa is found ineligible to contest for one reason or another, with Mahinda Rajapaksa also being unable to run for the Presidency because of the two-term limit imposed by the 19th Amendment, former Speaker and the eldest of the Rajapaksa siblings, Chamal Rajapaksa will be the ‘unlikely’ candidate for the SLPP. Respected and popular as he is, the older Rajapaksa will not have the same prospects as Gotabaya Rajapaksa in appealing to voters.

If political promises were anything to go by, President Maithripala Sirisena would have been the unlikeliest candidate at this year’s presidential election. He ran his 2015 campaign on the promise of abolishing the Executive Presidency- or, at least, greatly pruning its powers- and pledged even after being elected to office one year later at the funeral of Venerable Maduluwave Sobhitha Thera- that he would be a ‘one term’ President.

Political ‘cold war’

Times have changed since then- and dramatically too. The relationship between President Sirisena and the UNP which campaigned tirelessly to elect him has deteriorated irrevocably. Stalwarts of the two parties are publicly sniping at each other in a political ‘cold war’.

Just last week, some UNP parliamentarians were declaring that they would vote against the President’s allocation when it is taken up for voting as part of the Budget debate. About twenty-five UNP backbenchers were reportedly in favour of this idea but whether it will materialise is left to be seen. In the past, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has acted to admonish and restrain his MPs who were threatening to publicly attack the President.

If that does occur, however, President Sirisena will have to depend on the parliamentary votes of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) or the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) to have his budgetary allocations passed by Parliament. That would be ironic because the President and indeed the SLPP has often accused the UNP of using the votes of the TNA to maintain its majority in Parliament.

There are also emerging signs that President Sirisena is considering the prospect of running solely as a SLFP candidate- without the endorsement of the SLPP. The SLPP has always been lukewarm to the idea of the President being their candidate, strongly believing that they have sufficient support among the voters to win the contest on their own steam.

Last week saw posters stating ‘Maithri hari’ or ‘Maithri is right’ appearing on the streets. It was the first sign that the President is indeed contemplating a three-way contest between the SLFP, UNP and the SLPP at the presidential election. If that happens, it will be a first in the history of presidential elections in the country which until now have been contests between the two major parties, the UNP and the SLFP or alliances led by them.

It was evident that the President is also keen to project himself as a strong and decisive leader. His campaign against drugs- even endorsing the extreme actions of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte against drug traffickers- is an example. The President is known to be keen to implement the death penalty on drug traffickers who are repeat offenders, when no capital punishment has been carried out in the country since 1976.

In another move that ran contrary to the actions of the UNP-led government, President sent a delegation comprising his nominees- former Ministers Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sarath Amunugama and Northern Province Governor Suren Raghavan to the sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. Such a move openly calls the credibility of the government into question and poses difficulties regarding what the official stance of the country is at the UNHRC. Clearly, the President wants to exercise his powers as Head of State and maintain a high profile in the coming months, as the election approaches.

It is only March and the presidential elections will be held in November or December, so a newly elected President could be in office by January 8, 2020. A week, they say, is a long time in politics, but the coming nine months will seem like an era as the country’s major political parties go through the trials and tribulations of finding their respective presidential candidates.


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