Bud And Bell Ready For Battle, Jumbos Lag Behind
The date of the next presidential election is now known—Nov. 16, 2019. There isn’t much time left for the political to prepare for the grand contest. The SLPP has already launched its presidential election campaign with former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa as its candidate. So has the JVP-led alliance, which has named JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake as its contestant. The UNP is still dillydallying. Its Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa is in overdrive, campaigning hard, albeit without the consent of the party. There is no guarantee that his wish will be granted owing to intraparty rivalries.
A curtain raiser
The Elpitiya Pradeshiya Sabha electon, to be held next month, is not something anyone bargained for. It is a very worrisome proposition for the government, which did everything in its power to avoid an election before the presidential contest. It smuggled several sections into the Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Bill of 2017, at the committee stage, to postpone the PC polls, and manipulated the delimitation process thereafter. It did not submit the delimitation review committee report to Parliament so that the new electoral system could not take effect. The Supreme Court recently thwarted an attempt by President Maithripala Sirisena to hold the PC elections; it held that the President was not constitutionally empowered to do so. The government heaved a huge sigh of relief, but the apex court, in a separate ruling, ordered the Elpitiya PS election to be held as the nomination list of the DUNF had been wrongfully rejected, last year.
Three persons have filed a petition, requesting the Supreme Court to declare the Election Commission’s decision to conduct the Elpitiya election null and void. This must have warmed the cockles of many a heart in the government, which is wary of facing an electoral in an SLPP stronghold like Elpitiya weeks before the presidential contest.
The government must be praying for a divine intervention to have the Elpitiya election postponed. Will its wish be granted?
SLPP and SLFP
The SLFP is in a quandary. It is aware that as for winning the presidential election it has the same chance as a cat in hell. All it can do is to use the votes at its disposal to bargain with the SLPP to get the maximum out of a deal with the SLPP. Obviously, it won’t be able to secure the premiership in a future SLPP-led government; that position has already been reserved for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. In fact, those who support it want him to be the power behind the throne. The SLFP won’t be able to get more than several ministerial positions in case the SLPP forms the next government with it as a coalition partner.
Both the SLPP and the SLFP are practising brinkmanship in a bid to get the best out of a possible coalition deal. UPFA General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera has reportedly said that President Sirisena may seek a second term if the SLPP does not grant the SLFP’s demands. Whether the President wants to end up as an also-ran is doubtful, but his mind is too elusive to be read. He took a blind plunge and sacked the UNP-led government, last year, and went to the extent of dissolving Parliament in violation of the Constitution, at the behest of some of his advisors. So, one need not be surprised if Sirisena enters the presidential fray. But the timing of Amaraweera’s statement suggests that the SLFP has sought to boost its bargaining power and give the SLPP a scare with time running out for the two parties to forge an alliance.
The signs are that the SLPP will have to make some compromises within the next few days to strike a deal with the SLFP, because it lacks support in the North and the East and needs a substantial majority elsewhere to offset that loss in those parts of the country.
Karu or Sajith
The UNP has entrusted the task of settling the ongoing dispute over its presidential candidate to a committee, though Sajith has called upon the party leadership to allow the party’s Working Committee and the parliamentary group to pick the candidate. The appointment of committees is a dilatory tactic. Wasting time is something that the UNP cannot afford.
Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has also made known his intention to run for President. He has been making preparations, on the sly. He has got himself photographed in and outside Parliament for election posters. Some Buddhist monks and civil society organisations have called upon the UNP to pick him as the presidential candidate. Some political observers think Karu stands a better chance of being nominated because Sajith has ruffled the feathers of some of his seniors and is demanding party leadership before the presidential election. He represents one of the two competing power centres. Karu is not associated with any faction within the UNP, but the fact that he left the party with several others and held a ministerial post in the Rajapaksa government will be used against him.
Karu says that if he ever runs for President, he will do so with a view to scrapping the executive presidency. This is what civil society outfits, the TNA and the JVP have been clamouring for. Speculation is rife that if he enters the fray the JVP might pull out of the race, the way it did, in 1994, in support of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s presidential candidacy.
There is no way Sajith can abort his presidential election campaign at this juncture. Several UNP MPs have thrown in their lot with him. He cannot turn back even if the UNP nominates anyone else as its presidential candidate. It is being speculated that his group might break away from the UNP and contest from some other party with the backing of the SLFP. That President Sirisena is well disposed towards Sajith is only too well known.
The UNP is expected to name its presidential candidate next Wednesday. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has reportedly asked all UNP MPs and Working Committee members including those who are currently overseas to attend the scheduled meeting without fail. The candidate to be picked by them will have to be approved by the leadership council of the United National Front.
The possibility of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe contesting the presidential election again cannot also be ruled out. That might open an escape route for Sajith, who can demand the premiership in return for giving up his presidential bid. The Prime Minister in the next Parliament will be more powerful than the President. But if Ranil loses again, he will have lost three presidential elections and skipped two. The party is likely to look for a new leader in such an eventuality.
Second preference campaign
Pro-government groups are of the view that none of the candidates will be able to secure 50% of the votes at the presidential election, and there will be a runoff. They predict that for the contest will enter the second and third rounds before the president is elected. Hence they are trying to persuade the anti-SLPP voters either to vote for the UNP/UNF candidate or to mark their second preference for him.
The single transferable vote allows an elector to mark preferences for three candidates. Voters, save a few, have so far marked only the first preference, at all past presidential elections, and no need has arisen for a second round as previous presidents polled more than 50% votes. If no candidate gets a super majority, those who have come first and second in the first round will qualify for the next round, and the second preferences marked for them, on the eliminated candidates’ ballot papers, will be added to their votes. If neither of them can clear the 50% mark then the third preferences will also be counted. If neither of them secures more than one half of the votes, the one with the higher number of votes will be declared the winner.
The strategy of pro-government groups seems to make sense statistically, but they do not seem to have factored in the political reality. The UNP/UNF candidate will get the first preference from the supporters of the UNP and its traditional allies. Those who are supportive of the SLPP will mark their first preference for Gotabaya and will not mark any other preference. If the SLFP does not contest, its supporters will vote for a party of their choice, but are not likely to mark their second or the third preference for the UNP. President Sirisena has said the SLFP would never back the UNP. The JVP is sympathetic towards the government, but by no stretch of the imagination can it be thought that its rank and file will mark their second or third preference for the UNP. So, what is the party the government can rely on to get the second preference?