The best, as they say, must not be the enemy of the good. I have long advocated that the best kind of candidacy for the Opposition would have been or would be a Karu–Sajith or Sajith-Karu ticket, i.e. a ticket that symbolized the UNP Reformist option of 2011-2013. That ticket no longer exists. That bitter fact is probably far more Karu’s fault than that of anyone else, but right now, all that must be regarded as water under the bridge.
Given that reality, I think that a Sajith candidacy would be the best for the UNP and the Opposition. That too seems unlikely to materialize unless the UNP suddenly comes to its senses and holds a secret ballot among its elected representatives.
This being absent from the agenda, the choice seems to come down to a Ranil candidacy or a Karu one. Of the two, a Ranil candidacy is the weakest because it would be the most vulnerable to regime propaganda attack which will have a wide social resonance.
Speaking strictly for myself, I cannot think of a single reason to support Ranil over Mahinda if that is indeed the choice, and conversely, I can see quite a few reasons to continue to support Mahinda critically. If however, the choice is Karu versus Mahinda, especially if Karu is backed by the JHU and SF and has the tacit support or has secured the neutrality of the JVP, things become less clear and much more complicated, which is a good thing.
If the choice were Ranil, Sajith, or Karu, I would definitely support Sajith, but if the real choice at the Presidential election is Ranil supported by Sajith, or Karu supported by the JHU, I may still support Mahinda, but would recommend the Karu plus JHU, CBK, SF slate as the better option for the opposition and the country.
Why so? This is because a Karu+JHU+SF slate would end the old polarization of ‘patriot vs. traitor’, or more accurately ‘patriot vs. appeaser’. This polarization blocks Sri Lanka’s postwar evolution and sustains the mindset of a martial mock-monarchy. It must be stressed though that polarization is both unavoidable and relevant as long as Ranil is the candidate and available choice. This historical reality cannot be decisively altered by Sajith’s support for Ranil’s candidacy.
If the dominant ethos remains unchanged, Sri Lanka will fail to evolve into the 21st century and will be defeated in the Cold War waged by the secessionist Tamil Diaspora and its international allies. Sri Lanka will crash into the reality of the outside world and be sundered. Throwing up a moderate nationalist alternative – a Hassan Rowhani or Narendra Modi option–in domestic politics is in the vital national interest of Sri Lanka. Ranil Wickremsinghe is not it. Sajith Premadasa would be it but he has not tossed his hat into the ring. That leaves Karu backed by the JHU as the closest possible, if vague, approximation.
If the UNP and the Opposition have any sense, the guiding thought at the moment would be “anyone but Ranil”. If the Opposition candidate is Ranil, there will be a collective groan and potentially anti-regime voters will stay at home. If it is Karu with the JHU playing a role similar to that of Wimal Weerawansa and the JVP in 2005, the Presidential election may turn into a real contest, in which a Mahinda victory is highly probable but not a foregone conclusion as it is in the case of a Ranil candidacy.
SLFP dissidents are far more likely to shift to Karu than to Ranil. So too UNP defectors, given that it was Ranil they defected from in the first place. Even if he loses, the Opposition would have been brought together and the momentum generated to defeat the Government at a parliamentary election or a preceding referendum.
The Karu candidacy project has two weaknesses which could cripple it politically, socially and electorally. One is the failure to win over Sajith Premadasa. The JHU input into a Karu campaign cannot bring in the Sinhala Buddhist vote; it can bring in the Sinhala Buddhist Goigama urban and suburban vote in what Prof Kumar David has called the Dharmapala belt. It is only Sajith Premadasa who can bring in the underprivileged Sinhala Buddhists, who perceive themselves under privileged not only or primarily as Sinhala Buddhists but as the poorer classes and as rural dwellers.
The second crippling weakness is the commitment to the abolition of the Executive Presidency. It is nothing but constitutional nihilism, leaving a power vacuum at the center. What is saddest is that Karu has the perfect alternative to such over-simplistic formulae. It was he, with distinguished lawyer KN Choksy as deputy, who led the UNP delegation into the protracted talks with Chandrika Kumaratunga’s administration that resulted in the only real bipartisan consensus this country has ever produced, namely the August 2000 draft Constitution. That consensus was destroyed and that draft actually set aflame by Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP. If ever the Executive Presidency could have been abolished with a well thought out alternative to replace it, albeit with a decent transitional interval, it was in August 2000. The man who aborted it was Ranil Wickremesinghe who now seeks to run on the platform of abolishing the executive presidency. It is a pity that Karu Jayasuriya has failed to take his own achievements of the August 2000 draft and the later 17th amendment as the main planks of the platform for broad opposition unity.
Ranil would be a sitting duck for the regime’s heavy artillery while Karu supported by the JHU would be a moving target. Personally I may still opt for – and even commend–Mahinda Rajapaksa with the centripetal Jayewardene Presidency over Karu Jayasuriya without it, but Mahinda must surely be given a run for his money. A Karu candidacy would rattle the regime’s cage far more than a Ranil one would, and that cage badly needs rattling.