By Malinda Seneviratne –
If it is about who will be the principal presidential candidate of the Opposition then it boils down to who wins Ranil Wickremesinghe’s endorsement, in the event that he chooses not to contest of course. This is because the United National Party is the main Opposition party and the one that can secure support from important sections of the rest of the Opposition. This is also because of the UNP’s constitution and, more important, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s proven shrewdness in holding on to party reins.
There will be, as there already is, pressure from various sources. He will be asked to step aside for a more credible candidate to take on President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Some might even entertain thoughts of a coup to oust him before candidacy is formally declared. It won’t work. He has to decide whether or not he would contest and in the event he steps aside he has the biggest say in naming a ‘common candidate’.
Very few, including the big names in the UNP, seriously think Ranil Wickremesinghe can win. People do check out track-records. People remember. They remember more clearly what’s more recent, sure, but there are things associated with Wickremesinghe that are not forgotten. The archives will no doubt be visited and relevant material unearthed and touched up. At best it would be a very tough ask unless he is helped by a ‘spoiler candidate’ capable of making dents in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s vote bank.
An easier ‘ask’ would be a ‘common opposition candidate,’ but then again it would be hard to come out with a name with appeal greater than that which Sarath Fonseka had. Even if one were to account for abuse of state resources and other election malpractices, the margin is still considerable. Regime-fatigue, regime-ills and such might not bridge it for a lesser name. Anyway, it’s less about party than about personality. Mahinda Rajapaksa, simply, is still seen as ‘leader’ over and above the fact that he is considered a one-of-us kind of guy by large swathes of the voting population. A non-UNP ‘common candidate’ will suffer from the lack of enthusiasm from the rank and file of parties supporting him/her that was widely seen in 2010.
It has to be someone from the UNP. There are only two names to be considered. Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa. Dayan Jayatilleka (The Karu candidacy project: is it a viable option?) says he is the ideal candidate but says ‘that’s just his potential’. Leaving a window of opportunity slightly open for Karu (‘It isn’t his reality; certainly not yet—and there are only a few short weeks to go for crunch time’), Dayan opens a bigger window. For Sajith.
He says Karu has mismanaged the equation with Sajith. Some would argue that if anyone is guilty of mismanagement it is Sajith. Sajith wanted Ranil to resign in favor of Karu and snubbed Karu at every turn including most recently in Uva. He wanted to oust Ranil but now backs him; backed Karu and now wants him hoofed out. That’s amazing ‘equation-management’ especially if Karu is all that Dayan claims him to be (‘Potentially the ideal candidate’).
Then he makes some grand claims about Sajith: ‘Sajith is not only the only UNPer who can galvanize the grassroots, he is the only frontline UNPer with resonance among the vast majority of voters who are rural/provincial’. He paints Karu as someone who has appeal only among ‘the goigama Sinhala Buddhist elite and its urban and suburban strata’. Sajith, on the other hand, he claims, ‘can carry the larger swathe of Sinhala Buddhists under the poverty line’ and adds ‘like his father did’. He also says, quite correctly, that Karu’s signature political project of abolishing the executive presidency has no mass appeal, but then again it’s not difficult to downplay this. He does this and there’s no more an ‘Achilles heel’ in his candidacy. Sajith, it must be remembered, has no project apart from ‘I, Me and Myself’.
The under-painting of Karu directly contradicts Dayan’s earlier ideal-candidate (potentially) claim. More seriously, Dayan just doesn’t substantiate the claims he makes about Sajith. Sajith’s Sinhala-Buddhist credentials are weak. ‘Hambantota’ (over 14 years) does not translate into ‘Sri Lanka’. He has been a divisive factor more than a unifying one in the UNP, even getting anti-Ranil pals to badmouth the party and the leader at his own rallies. He’s gone on record to say that if he is made candidate he must have the leader’s post as well. Yes, he’s all about ‘I, Me and Myself’.
How big is Sajith anyway? He has admittedly a great cheering squad. He is also the beneficiary of endless inflation by a television station whose owner has time and again proven that he has absolutely no clue about political winds, backing the wrong horse imagining it had the legs to win. For the voter-segment that Dayan believes would pick Sajith over the President that station is a joke.
Whatever that Sajith might hold back in the event of a Karu candidacy, is going to diminish into a non-factor as campaigns gather steam. What he ‘takes out’ could be compensated for by the JVP and JHU, both more comfortably with Karu than with Sajith.
Finally, the presidential election will be about what political forces the candidates can mobilize. Sajith is a demoralizer. Karu accommodates. That could be key in an election already skewed in favor of the incumbent for reasons that are larger than incumbency in the context of the existing constitution. A good effort that falls short of a win would help democracy; a weak showing as is likely with a Ranil or Sajith candidacy would not only platter-giving to Mahinda Rajapaksa but would bleed into a poor showing in a General Election thereafter.
All this, IF RANIL STEPS ASIDE, it should not be forgotten.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com