UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa (rear) and Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe are at odds these days, as the call to name the former the party’s presidential candidate becomes louder.

The country is poised on the threshold of a crucial phase in national politics, which is history in the making. The next presidential election is drawing near, and there is no way anyone can put it off. The National Election Commission will have to get ready for the grand contest, come Oct. 08; the election is likely to be held in early December.

The party that secures the executive presidency will most probably be able to win both the parliamentary and Provincial Council elections, and the country will be without national level elections for a period of a least four and a half years thereafter.

The deciding factor at the upcoming presidential contest will be the four million voters who did not care to exercise their franchise at the last election. The party that succeeds in winning over a sizeable section of them will have a better chance of winning. This is the daunting challenge before both the UNP and the SLPP.

Similarly, the political conscious youth who are not blindly faithful to any political party will also be a crucial factor. They are believed to have voted overwhelmingly for President Sirisena and the incumbent government at the last presidential and parliamentary elections, respectively.

 Jumbos and gods

The UNP’s leadership struggle shows no signs of resolving itself in the foreseeable future. In a dramatic turn of events, it reached celestial heights over the weekend. A group of Tamil UNP supporters in Mullaitivu held a special pooja, smashing as they did coconuts, to seek a divine intervention to help UNP Deputy Leader and Minister Sajith Premadasa to contest the presidential election. They said he had done a lot for them and was accessible. Some TNA politicians were also sighted at that politico-religious event, which received wide publicity, and their presence augurs badly for Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is close to the senior TNA leadership; local level politicians wield considerable influence over voters. In power politics, where expediency takes precedence over principles, even closest allies of leaders decamp.

SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem, who is close to the PM Wickremesinghe, has consistently argued that the UNP has to field a young presidential candidate. Ranil is not getting any younger and the same goes for Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who is also getting ready for the presidential contest. So, reading between the lines, one can see that the SLMC is not favouring both Ranil and Karu; it looks well disposed towards the youngest of the three—Sajith—though it has not publicly stated so. Hakeem has also called upon the UNP to decide on its presidential candidate before forming the proposed alliance, whose launch had to be postponed, the other day, due to resistance from within the UNP.

Who will the TNA leadership back as the UNP’s presidential candidate?
Who will the TNA leadership back as the UNP’s presidential candidate?

Hakeem’s position is that the minority parties, including his, should know who the UNP candidate is and what his policies are so that they can make an educated choice. It, however, is a case of Hobson’s choice for them because they cannot throw in their lot with the SLPP, which they have painted dark picture of as an ultra-right political entity. Most of all, Gotabaya is their bete noire.

 UNP WC meeting at Temple Trees

Time was when President Mahinda Rajapaksa helped beleaguered UNP leader Wickremesinghe prevent aggressive rivals marching on Sirikotha; he used to have the roads around the UNP headquarters given a fresh coat of asphalt, on the days of scheduled protests, so that they could be closed and protesters denied access to the area. This is something that Ranil can do as the PM, but doesn’t want to do so for obvious reasons. Therefore, he may have thought of holding the UNP Working Committee (WC) meeting on 01 August, at Temple Trees, where he does not have to worry about protests, given the heavy security in and around the place.

The UNP WC had a stormy session but anti-Ranil groups could not gather outside Temple Trees. The situation would have been different and even violent clashes would have erupted if the WC had met at Sirikotha as on previous occasions.

The Sajith faction in the WC protested vehemently against a move by the PM and his allies to have the constitution of the proposed alliance approved without amendments.  The irate WC members insisted that the party had to sort out the presidential candidate issue before going ahead with the formation of the grand alliance, which will be like old wine in a new bottle in that all the parties which are to get together are already constituents of the UNP-led UNF and only the name—Democratic National Front (DNF)—will be different.

The Sajith loyalists fear that the PM is trying to dilute its strength by handing over the task of selecting the next presidential candidate to the alliance that is to be formed.

Had the launch of the proposed alliance been held at the Sugathadasa Stadium, as scheduled, on 05 August, in spite of protests from the rivals of the PM, there would have been fireworks with mobs wreaking havoc. The present UNP leadership is skating on thin ice and is careful not to invite trouble. Even Minister Ravi Karunanayake, who used to cast aspersions on Sajith’s eligibility for contesting a presidential election, has apparently chosen to act with some restraint.

SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem makes no bones about wanting a younger candidate for president (photo credit en.wikepedia.org)
SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem makes no bones about wanting a younger candidate for president (photo credit en.wikepedia.org)

Unless the UNP manages to resolve its conflict amicably without further delay, it is bound to yaw with the crevasse it has already suffered, due the not-so-cold war between its leader and deputy leader, yawning further. This is an extremely worrisome proposition for the Grand Old Party, which has not won a presidential election for the last 37 years since 1988. Its last victory was possible thanks to the JVP’s reign of terror, which facilitated large-scale vote rigging and other such election malpractices which stood it in good stead.

Under Wickremesinghe’s leadership, the UNP has lost two presidential elections, in 1999 and 2005 and skipped two others, in 2010 and 2015. This is the incumbent UNP leader’s report card, which is sure to be used against him by his rivals supportive of Sajith.

Gota throws his hat into the ring

It is now as good as confirmed that former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa will contest the next presidential election on the SLPP ticket.

The Rajapaksas have a deep batting-line up—Mahinda, Chamal, Gotabaya, Basil, Namal and Shashindra. If Gotabaya runs for President and wins, then Mahinda will be the next PM in case of the SLPP’s victory at the next general election. Chamal is likely to be the Speaker again in such an eventuality with Basil, Namal and Shashindra holding plum ministerial posts. Who else will enter Parliament and join the ministerial ranks from the Rajapaksa family is anybody’s guess. A wag says there is likely to be an all-saataka government with the Rajapaksas holding its key positions.

 The Blues see red

The SLPP’s dynastic politics is not to the liking of some SLFP heavyweights in the Joint Opposition, but only one of them has had the courage to speak up. Kumara Welgama is his name. He thinks that after Mahinda and Sirisena, he is the most senior SLFP leader and, therefore, he should be the party’s choice as the next presidential candidate, and it is unfair to field Gotabaya.

Welgama is a force to reckon with in the Kalutara District, but whether his popularity will translate into votes if he takes on the Rajapaksas remains to be seen. But the Rajapaksas, desperate for votes to win the next presidential election, which is going to be closely contested, will be at a disadvantage if they fail to secure the support of the likes of Welgama. Mahinda’s loss, in 2015, was partly due to his failure to carry the SLFP’s old guard with him as he was seen to be partial to and dependent on the Johnnies come lately in the UPFA.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (right) is certain, brother Mahinda(left) will anoint him the SLPP’s presidential candidate.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (right) is certain, brother Mahinda(left) will anoint him the SLPP’s presidential candidate.

Propaganda front

Gotabaya’s strength is that he thinks like a military officer. Paradoxically, that is also his weakness. He has earned notoriety for his temper tantrums and straight talk. Certain Buddhist monks have provided grist for his critics’ mill by urging him to take over the reins of government and even act like Hitler, if necessary, and put the country right.

The age of Goebblesian propaganda was not the first half of 1940s, in a manner of speaking. We are living through it, which dawned with the emergence of the Internet and the proliferation of social media. Anything circulated through social media aggressively over a period of time tends to pass for the truth. The Internet-based information is the Uranium-235 in the world of propaganda.

Elections are no longer won on the economic/political front; those who fare well on the propaganda front emerge winners. This may explain why Mahinda lost the last presidential election in spite of his immense popularity, which no other leader can still match.

The government has lost its appeal to the social media, which has turned hostile towards it. The result has been a decrease in its popularity and the attendant electoral defeat at last year’s local government polls as well as a series of cooperative elections.

But the entry of Gotabaya might give the UNP and its allies an opportunity to turn the tables on the SLPP, where the social media are concerned. The SLPP made the first blunder by announcing the formation of a squad consisting of volunteers drawn from ex-security forces personnel. This move has received adverse publicity and been made out to be a foretaste of what is to come in case of Gotabaya realising his presidential dream. The SLPP seems to have failed to learn from its experience.

Namal’s Nil Balakaya (youth brigade of the SLFP) caused irreparable damage to the Rajapaksa government. The proposed Gotabaya Balakaya is likely to have a corrosive effect on the SLPP’s popularity, which has apparently plateaued.

MR-MS talks

Talks that the Opposition Leader Rajapaksa and President Sirisena had, the other day, were described as successful. The duo may have agreed on anything, concerning their parties, but the most contentious issue—who will be the next presidential candidate?

The only way this issue can be sorted out is for President Sirisena to agree to back the SLPP’s presidential candidate though what he may get in return is not clear. If he does so, some SLFP seniors are likely to cross over to the UNP. The possibility of mass defections from the SLFP similar to those in 2001 cannot be ruled out.


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