Sajith Crosses The Rubicon; Ranil Makes Countermove; Gota Sprints In Marathon
Minister and Deputy UNP Leader Sajith Premadasa launched his presidential election campaign without the party’s official approval in a bid to make his candidacy a fait accompli. He and his loyalists including a considerable number of UNP MPs may have thought of checkmating Prime Minister and UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had not been seen to be contemplating a counterattack, until recently. Sajith and his allies seem to have underestimated Wickremesinghe’s political acumen, resilience and remarkable ability to make countermoves.
Premadasa is popular in the UNP, most of whose backbenchers are believed to have sided with him, claiming that he is the best choice for the party, but Wickremesinghe would have none of it. The inaugural rally of the Sajith faction was a success and must have caused some concern to Wickremesinghe, who has, however, decided to take the bull by the horns. He has disregarded repeated calls from the Sajith faction for convening a joint meeting of the UNP Working Committee (WC) and parliamentary group urgently. The Sajith group is confident of securing the support of the majority of the UNP MPs and using it to exert leverage over the WC at a joint meeting.
The Wickremesinghe faction is apparently trying to entrust the leadership council of the broad alliance to be formed with the task of selecting its presidential candidate. The Sajith group is opposed to this move, but Wickremesinghe is not ready to give up so easily. Reports indicate that some of the UNF allies are also well disposed towards Sajith.
Temple Trees feast
Sajith’s Matara rally is scheduled to be held, today (23 August), with the participation of a number of UNP MPs, including Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera. The ‘Sajith for President’ campaign is gaining momentum and this is a worrisome proposition for the PM and other rivals of Sajith, especially Minister Ravi Karunanayake.
If today’s rally in Matara attracts a majority of UNP MPs plus huge crowds, the Wickremesinghe faction will have its work cut out to turn the tables on the Sajith faction. Therefore, the PM has invited the UNP MPs to dinner at Temple Trees today. It will be well-nigh impossible for the UNP MPs to attend the Matara rally and go to Temple Trees for dinner.
Battle lines have thus been drawn and the UNP lawmakers have been given a choice between Ranil and Sajith. This, however, is a huge gamble for the PM in that if the Matara rally attracts more UNP MPs than the Temple Tree dinner, Sajith will have proved his claim—he is more popular in the party than the PM.
The PM may treat the UNP MPs to good food and drinks, but the Temple Trees dinner will be a political Barmecide feast in that the UNPers won’t gain any political mileage out of it vis-a-vis the critical elections they will have to face in a few months. The event would be of some value to them if Sajith also attends it.
The only way the UNP MPs can think of attending the Matara rally and returning to Colombo for the Temple Trees dinner is to take the Southern Expressway, which they as Opposition MPs condemned as an utter waste of public funds!
Following an abortive attempt to topple his government in October, 2018, Wickremesinghe put President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on the spot by challenging them to prove that they had a working majority in Parliament. Ironically, the Sajith faction has landed the PM in the same position by asking him to convene a joint meeting of the WC and the parliamentary group and prove that he commands the confidence of the majority of their members. Wickremesinghe seems wary of taking up that challenge.
Now that Sajith has crossed the Rubicon, he will have to go ahead with his presidential campaign come what may. If Wickremesinghe succeeds in having the UNP field a different candidate, Sajith will be left high and dry and his rivals in the party might even be able to turf him out. He, too, has taken a huge gamble.
Whoever gets nominated as the UNP’s presidential candidate, the party will not be able to put up a united front at the presidential election. It will suffer a split much to the advantage of its political enemies striving to make a comeback. This is the price the UNP will have to pay for its indecisiveness and the attendant failure to pick its presidential candidate.
Some prominent UNPers are trying to bring Ranil and Sajith together in a bid to prevent a split in the party, but never the twain shall meet.
There are a few more months to go for the presidential election, but SLPP presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapakasa has already launched his campaign to all intents and purposes. What he has chosen to do is tantamount to sprinting at the beginning of a marathon. He has not been in active politics, and candidates usually have an appeal to the electorate. But too much of campaigning prior to the presidential election can make him lose whatever magic he may be having. His campaign strategists do not seem to have got it right. Instead of repackaging and rebranding Gotabaya at this stage of the campaign, they have allowed him to plunge feet first into electioneering.
That Gotabaya still does not see his rival candidate in his rearview mirror does not mean that the race will be an easy one. His brother Mahinda Rajapaksa also had a head start in the presidential race, in late 2014, and was cocky that he would romp home, but a candidate suddenly appeared from behind and overtook him. Politics is like ludo, full of ladders and snakes.
In the 2010 presidential race, General Sarath Fonseka was leading initially much to the dismay of the Rajapaksa camp, which grew desperate, but then he gave free rein to his military tongue, calling his opponents animal names and threatening to throw them behind bar. His approval ratings plummeted and President Rajapaksa won hands down.
Opposition Leader Rajapaksa has recently said the SLPP expects to score a more impressive win than the UPFA’s at the 2010 presidential contest. The war victory was still fresh at that time and Rajapaksa won despite the UNP, the JVP, the TNA, the SLMC, etc. throwing their weight behind his rival, Fonseka. Rajapaksa seems to be banking on the prevailing national security situation to gain a turbo boost for his brother’s presidential election campaign. The government, thanks to its bungling on the national security front and the resultant Easter terror attacks, has created a platform for the SLPP.
At present, the alignment of political forces reminds us of the situation in the run-up to the 2010 presidential election. All those who joined forces in a bid to defeat the Rajapaksas are trying to scuttle their latest attempt to recapture power, the only difference being that the JVP has decided to contest the presidential election.
Gotabaya is not on terra firma on the political front, which is not without quick sand and thin ice. He also has various allegations and court cases against him and his rivals will make the best use of them to discredit, if not vilify, him. The government is in a might hurry to expedite some cases, and those against him may be among them.
Move to pit MR against GR
Pro-government political commentators are trying to make Gotabaya’s successful bid to be the SLPP’s presidential candidate out to be a comedown for Mahinda. They claim that Gotabaya, if elected, will not listen to his elder brother and run the country the way he wants. He has got where he is today on Mahinda’s coat-tails, and he will have to do likewise if he is to become President. His rivals seem to think that if they can cause a rift between him and Mahinda, his chances of winning the presidency can be ruined.
In reality, Mahinda will be able to call the shots as the PM under a Gotabaya presidency if the SLPP’s dream comes true, for the curtailment of the presidential powers will kick in fully after the next presidential election. The new President to be elected will not be able to hold any ministerial portfolios.
However, there is no guarantee that there won’t be clashes among the Rajapaksa siblings in case of the SLPP winning the presidential and parliamentary polls. Sri Lanka’s history is replete with instances of power struggles among members of ruling families and even parricide, fratricide and patricide.
A red shirt in bush shirt
Some political commentators are of the view that the JVP’s entry into the presidential fray has been calculated to cause a split in the anti-UNP vote, like in 1982, to the advantage of the anti-Rajapaksa camp. This argument does not hold water in that even if the JVP does not contest, its votes will not go to the SLPP.
The JVP put on a show of strength recently at Galle Face. There was a sizeable crowd, but the JVP would have gained more electorally if it had fielded someone like Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa, who would have had a better appeal to voters, especially the youth, than the party leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who has been named as the JVP’s presidential candidate.
Nalinda’s biggest advantage is that he was only a toddler during the JVP’s reign of terror in the late 1980s, which the party seniors find difficult to live down, and cannot be blamed for southern terror. Dissanayake may have thought of facing the contest, instead of running away, lest his position should be challenged in the party afterwards.
What was most noticeable at the JVP Galle Face rally was that Dissanayake was not wearing red. He was in a bush shirt. Is it that the JVP is trying to give itself a new look, having failed to sell its socialist ideology in its original form to the general public?
The main reason for the JVP’s decision to go it alone at the presidential election may have been its fear that its support base will suffer further erosion if it was seen to be in league with the political camp led by the UNP. It suffered a crushing defeat at the local government polls, last year, owing to its alleged links to the government. It may have sought to keep the morale of its cadres from sagging and boosting its image through its presidential campaign.