At least in theory, the next presidential elections are not due for a year. That is because the Constitution decrees that when an incumbent President is replaced by a ‘caretaker’ President for whatever reason, the latter must serve out the former’s full term of office. However, it appears as if the race to become the next President of Sri Lanka has already begun.

The Constitution does provide for an elected President to call for presidential elections early. Mahinda Rajapaksa, for example, did so a full year ahead of schedule, reportedly on the advice of astrologers but eventually to his detriment. This luxury is not afforded to a ‘caretaker’ President and Ranil Wickremesinghe belongs to this category.

Wickremesinghe’s way are devious and diabolical. He has on a few occasions hinted at the possibility of early presidential elections. This can be possible only through an amendment to the Constitution. Nevertheless, his erstwhile proteges now in the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) have said that if such an amendment is brought forth, they will support it. If the entire government group and the SJB supports this move, then a two-thirds majority required for an amendment to the Constitution can be secured. There is also no danger of such an amendment being stalled by the Supreme Court as early election only enhance the peoples’ sovereignty, not diminish it.

It goes without saying that there are only two possible reasons for Wickremesinghe to want an early presidential election. It is either because he is extremely popular at some point or because he fears that the socio-economic issues facing voters will become even more unmanageable if he awaits the end of his full term. Most certainly, it is not the first reason. The second reason is now becoming increasingly likely.

In previous presidential elections there has been a trend to search for a ‘common’ candidate but this has been to oppose the incumbent President. In 2010, Sarath Fonseka played that role. As a result, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) did not field a candidate. In 2015, Maithripala Sirisena was the ‘common’ candidate. Again, the JVP refrained from contesting. The infamous ‘three per cent’ of the vote that the JVP was said to command would have helped Sirisena to get over the line in that instance because he won with 51 per cent of the vote.

That political landscape is vastly changed now. As a result of the tumultuous events of last year, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s hurried departure from the backdoor of President’s House, the resultant fragmentation of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and Wickremesinghe assuming the office of President rather unexpectedly, the dynamics of the political equation have changed drastically.

In the period that he has been in office which is just over a year, Wickremesinghe has demonstrated that although he is not clever at governance and economic recovery, he is quite adept at dividing other political parties. He has effectively divided the SLPP, the SJB and even the less important SLFP. Only the JVP, now in its new incarnation of the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) has been able to withstand his machinations.

Now, there is mention of Wickremesinghe being the new ‘common’ candidate. If he does contest- which almost certainly he will- he will indeed be a ‘common’ candidate of sorts. That is because he will be endorsed by an eclectic mix of parliamentarians from SLPP, the SJB, the SLFP, his own United National Party (UNP), as well as some MPs from the Tamil and Muslim political parties. How much more common can a ‘common’ candidate get?

In response, can the opposition muster their own ‘common’ candidate was the question that was being tossed around in political circles in recent weeks. Various names were being mentioned, some of them not politicians but being selected for their integrity with the hope that all major opposition political parties can agree to field such a candidate who would assume office and then pave the way for general elections, a new Parliament reflecting the will of the people and a change of the Constitution.

Those are lofty ideals to aspire for but unfortunately they will remain in the realms of fantasy. There is a compelling but simple reason for this: the growth in the popularity of the JJB and the corresponding decline in the popularity of other opposition parties including even the SJB.

The JJB had a vote base of three per cent at the last general election, the SJB had about 24 per cent. It is safe to say that the SJB’s vote base has remained more or less static but the JJB’s popularity has increased. With no national elections being held since then, no one can accurately estimate voter sentiment right now but Wickremesinghe, SJB leader Sajith Premadasa and JJB leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake will be in a dead heat if the election was held now with very narrow margins separating them. This is of course assuming that Wickremesinghe has all the support from defectors from the other parties and uses and abuses all the privileges that an incumbent President has.

It is in this context that Anura Kumara Dissanayake announced this week that he will be the JJB’s presidential candidate at the next presidential election. Contrary to popular belief it was not intended to squash speculation in some quarters that Harini Amarasuriya would be nominated instead

That the announcement followed discussions with the Dullas Alahapperuma led Nidahasa Janatha Sabhawa (NJS) is significant. Alahapperuma was attempting to broker a common front of some sort against Wickremesinghe and even considering some rapprochement between the SJB and the JJB. The announcement of Dissanayake as a candidate leaves that possibility stillborn.

The JJB is sending a strong signal that it is prepared to take on the challenge of contesting the next presidential election on its own steam and taking on the political machinery that Wickremesinghe has at his disposal. They do have a surge of public approval behind them. Whether it will be sufficient to cause a seismic shift in Sri Lankan politics remains to be seen.