By Rasika Jayakody –
A media report recently stated that 18 candidates have already expressed their intentions to run for the upcoming Presidential election.
The Elections Commission is expected to announce the election on September 30. Nominations will be accepted between 16-21 days after the formal announcement and given the timelines of the announcement of the election and the acceptance of nomination papers, the much-anticipated election is likely to be held during the last week of November.
Speculation is rife about the UNP’s delay in nominating a candidate. The party’s hesitation stems from the internal rift among UNP members on who the candidate should be.
While a sizable proportion of party members back Minister Sajith Premadasa’s bid to become the candidate, a number of party seniors and UNF constituent party leaders prefer Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Among the Prime Minister’s backers are the highest ranking officials of the UNP including the party General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and Muslim political parties have also indicated that they prefer Wickremesinghe to Premadasa, as the incumbent Prime Minister has made genuine efforts to address some long-running problems faced by ethnic minorities. However, he fell short of ensuring the passage of a new constitution in the current Parliament, despite setting up a Constitutional Assembly and holding public consultations for the first time in Sri Lanka’s constitutional history.
Civil society organizations pushing for political reforms are not in favour of Premadasa’s presidential bid. They also don’t see Wickremesinghe as a viable choice in view of the ‘Yahapalana’ government’s failure to take meaningful action against the wrongdoers of the Rajapaksa administration. They maintain the UNP must look for a ‘third candidate’ who will advocate for broad political reforms including the total abolition of the Executive Presidency.
Premadasa explicitly announced his intention to run for the Presidency days after he saw the electric atmosphere at the pro-Premadasa rally in Badulla last month. The UNP Deputy Leader jumped the gun when he said in no uncertain terms that he would run for the presidency later this year.
But he did not specify whether he would run for the Presidency on just the UNP ticket. This vague, but ambitious statement triggered speculations that Premadasa was planning to run for the Presidency separately if the UNP denied him the opportunity of becoming the Presidential candidate. This cavalier statement sent shock waves across the rank and file of the UNP.
By making clear his intentions to run for the presidency far too early, Premadasa heavy polarise the dialogue on the Presidency within the UNP. It caused a visible rift at the top tier of the party, even before the official declaration of the Presidential election.
Today, while a section of the key decision-makers believe that the party has no future without Premadasa at the helm, another group tries every trick in the book to prevent UNP Deputy Leader from becoming the candidate. President Maithripala Sirisena’s infatuation with Premadasa and their constant expressions of mutual affection have also fueled the suspicions of anti-Premadasa groups within the party.
Under the current circumstances, it is clear that the primary focus of the UNP should be to prevent a split in the party, which seems a strong possibility at this point. A split will be politically disastrous for the UNP and will severely affect the party’s prospects at future national elections.
Is there a candidate who will unite warring factors within the grand old party and secure the support of constituent parties and civil society groups aligned with the UNP? In my view, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya still remains a viable option. The Speaker has already made it clear that he is willing to consider the presidential candidacy, should the party make a unanimous decision on the matter.
Multiple surveys have made it clear that the number of bloc voters in Sri Lanka is dwindling. As a result, both parties will need fresh strategies to attract fence-sitters — largely urban and suburban middle-class voters — who will be a decisive factor in determining the outcome of the next Presidential election.
Jayasuriya, a senior politician who is not tainted with corruption allegations, cuts an appealing figure for the fence-sitters. He will also be a unifying factor that brings together those supporting Wickremesinghe and Premadasa. With Jayasuriya as the candidate, both Wickremesinghe and Premadasa can share the same stage, with ample support from constituent parties, minority groups and civil society organizations.
Fielding the right candidate, however, is only the first step for the UNP. The party is yet to formulate an effective programme of actions to address the key issues concerning the country. Many initiatives launched by the current government over the past four-and-a-half years are yet to produce desired results. In such a context, giving the country a fresh hope is a seemingly insurmountable task.
That said, we must not forget that 10 weeks is a long time in politics and many developments can still unfold changing the current equation. Where things stand at the moment, the winning candidate would be the one leading the broadest political alliance with strong support from swing voters and minority groups.