The Presidential Candidate Imbroglio | Sunday Observer

The Presidential Candidate Imbroglio

24 March, 2019

Speculations about the next presidential election became renewed and heated again last week. Among media reports about the forthcoming election, the most crucial was the news that a decision had been made by the Rajapaksa family that Gotabaya Rajapaksa would be the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) presidential candidate.

This media report is important due to two other factors.

The first is that the incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena can no longer hope to be the joint presidential candidate of the SLPP, the Rajapaksa family and the SLFP. The second factor is that the news reports signalled a setback to the talks between the SLFP and the SLPP to forge an electoral alliance.

If these signal a new political trend, it could then mark an end to President Sirisena’s hopes to secure a second presidential term.

UNP candidate

It is also apparent that internal discussions on the UNP or UNF presidential candidate have not reached a final stage. There are three candidates-in-waiting in the UNP, namely Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and UNP Deputy Leader, Sajith Premadasa.

If Gotabaya succeeds in securing the full support of the SLPP for his candidacy, the UNP will also be forced to make an early decision about its own contender in the presidential race.

There is no doubt that internal discussions within the UNP ranks currently center around who will be their party’s best candidate to face Gotabaya Rajapaksa at a presidential race. Discussions have centered on whether the Prime Minister is a strong enough challenger, or whether Sajith Premadasa or Karu Jayasuriya will be more effective for the UNP to field as its candidate in the key election.

Another scenario that seems to be under discussion is whether a ‘Ranil-Sajith’ ticket or a ‘Ranil-Karu’ ticket would be a better option. The idea would be to field Sajith Premadasa or Karu Jayasuriya as the ‘running mate’ or the prospective Prime Ministerial candidate.

If the UNP does so, the SLPP might also follow suit. If this happens, it would give a fresh twist to the art of presidential election politics in Sri Lanka. We would then see a polls campaign that mirrors the US presidential race, where each candidate declares a presumptive vice presidential nominee and campaigns with him or her ahead of the election.

The President’s alternatives

Meanwhile, what will be the position of President Sirisena in the event the SLPP and the UNP decide to act on their individual decisions pertaining to the Presidential candidacy? This is a perplexing question that has no clear answer. The main difficulty before the incumbent is that he may not be able to secure the candidacy from either of the two main political camps, as he might have earlier calculated. Without these assurances, his hopes of remaining in office for a second term becomes extremely unlikely. There is no indication so far that he has realised that he is approaching the tail-end of his presidency. He continues to remain a key player in Sri Lanka’s politics, trying to shape and direct the political trends, even showing both the UNP and the SLPP that he is the real centre of power. Ironically, even after the severe setbacks suffered after October 26, 2018 President Sirisena has re-invented himself as more of an interventionist President than ever before.

President Sirisena also has two other alternatives before him. The first is to support either of the two candidates fielded by the two main political camps. This would ensure that he obtains security and political guarantees for himself and his family from the winning side and may look forward to a quiet retirement in return for this support.

Secondly, he can stay independent of the two main political parties and build his anti-corruption campaign, making it strong enough to become a political movement and eventually entering the presidential race as the SLFP candidate. In order for him to pursue this second alternative, he will have to radically re-invent himself and the SLFP, getting rid of all the corrupt from the party as well as from his inner circles. If President Sirisena makes a serious attempt to do so, he will run the risk of learning a bitter truth in politics: getting rid of corruption in political and public life is infinitely more difficult than politicizing the issue of corruption.

However, President Sirisena does have another, third, alternative. He can easily become a ‘spoiler’ candidate at the next election. Fielding spoiler candidates is a usual course of action during an electoral process. Even at elections to choose a Vice Chancellor at our universities, spoiler candidates are fielded at the Council voting. Their task is to break votes in a way that would favour the candidates of their preference or spoil the chances of those they oppose. At the last Presidential election in January 2015, it will be recalled that the Rajapaksa camp fielded another Maithripala Sirisena from Hambantota as a spoiler candidate.

If President Sirisena is able to garner even two to three hundred thousand votes that number could hurt both main candidates at the election. In counting the votes at a Presidential election even a difference of 500 votes should not to be treated lightly. This gives an interesting and productive spoiler role to the real Maithripala Sirisena at the forthcoming Presidential election.

The minority vote

The main challenge that would confront presidential aspirants from both, the UNF and SLPP camps will be how to secure the Tamil, Muslim and Up-Country Tamil votes. No candidate can hope to take for granted the votes of the Tamils of the North and East in particular. The people of the North and East remain quite disillusioned with all political parties and politicians of the South.

According to reports coming in from the North, even the TNA is facing difficulties in maintaining its electoral support base.

The TNA leaders are quite aware that people there are angry and frustrated. Although the TNA and the Tamil voters played a decisive role in securing the presidential electoral victory for President Sirisena and the UNF in 2015, the Government’s record of fulfilling promises to the Tamil people has been marginal. The Government’s new policy shift as demonstrated in Geneva last week is very unlikely to excite Tamil voters. Its message to the TNA is also a negative one.

Thus, the political bottom line in the North is very clear. Although the majority of Tamil as well as Muslim voters would not want a Rajapaksa regime back in power, there is no reason for them to be enthusiastic about the UNF candidate either.

As things stand at present, the run up to Sri Lanka’s next Presidential election is taking shape against a backdrop of continuing political uncertainty.

This lack of clarity seems to even affect the JVP. If the JVP decides to be independent, which is most likely, it cannot ignore the consequences of its own spoiler role. The JVP will be faced with a very difficult choice. It will be between a Ranil-Karu-Sajith combination of weak democrats, or unwittingly paving the way for a presidency of the hard authoritarian Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This is a complex question to which there are no easy answers.

The TNA will also have no easy escape from this dilemma.

Meanwhile, Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s statement welcoming Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the SLPP’s choice, made with its unconcealed jest, has a deep political meaning. Gotabaya’s candidacy has the potential to sharply re-polarize the electorate with unforeseen consequences for the outcome of the presidential election.