Elvis Presley famously likened ambition to a dream with a V8 engine, meaning that if one had to get anywhere one had to rev it up oneself. Many Sri Lankas are doing so. Hence there is no dearth of presidential hopefuls in this country, the latest addition to the long list of aspirants to the highest post being the ousted Public Utilities Commission (PUCSL) Chairman Janaka Ratnayake.

No sooner had the parliamentary resolved, with a huge margin of 44 votes, to oust him from his post on Wednesday than Ratnayake declared his intention to run for President. It cannot be considered a face-saving tactic on his part; he is known as a driven personality. Piqued, he must be thinking that he will be able to secure the presidency and avenge himself.

Plethora of issues

Sri Lanka may be short of anything but issues, which happen at such a rate that it is well-nigh impossible to keep track of them so much so that public attention has suddenly shifted to the next presidential election, of all things, though it cannot be held anytime soon.

The UNP has given the impression to the public that President Ranil Wickremesinghe is so confident of securing a second term that he will opt for a snap presidential election. But the fact remains that the Constitution empowers only a President elected by the people directly to advance a presidential election, and this right is denied to the Presidents like Wickremesinghe, elected by the parliament. But oblivious to this fact, some political parties are already busy preparing themselves for the presidential contest.  

Ousted PUCSL chief Ratnayake has kindled much public interest in the next presidential contest with his aforesaid declaration. The SJB has already nominated its leader Sajith Premadasa as its presidential candidate. The UNP has said it will field its leader President Wickremesinghe at the next presidential election. Other parties are also expected to announce their presidential candidates with the passage of time. So, all parties are not getting ready for a presidential election!

The SLPP is in a dilemma with a section of its parliamentary group offering to back Wickremesinghe. Some SLPP seniors are floating the story that Basil Rajapaksa is aspiring to the presidency, but he has not given the slightest indication that he is planning to do so. The SLPP will wait until the last moment to reveal his plans for the next presidential election.

Smoke and mirrors

Sri Lankan politicians are adept at smoke and mirrors. They have mastered the art of confusing the people. They manipulate issues to their advantage by distracting public attention from intractable problems, which are numerous. Today, nobody is asking the current administration to hold the local government elections, which are long overdue.

A few months ago, the Opposition staged many street protests to ratchet up pressure on the government to conduct the local council elections, and even moved the judiciary in a bid to achieve its goal. The police had a hard time trying to quell the Opposition’s protests, and liberally used teargas and water cannon to disperse unruly crowds.

Everybody seems to have since lost interest in the local government polls. The Opposition remains silent on them, and the media hardly reports anything about it. Instead, they are now talking about the next presidential election!

Forgotten PC polls

The Provincial Council (PC) elections seem to have been completely forgotten. In fact, it is they that should be held, first of all. They were postponed in 2017, and the PCs, which constitute the second tier of government, have since been under nine Governors appointed by the President. Instead of launching a campaign to pressure the government to hold the PC polls, the Opposition shifted its attention to the LG elections.

The local councils, the third tier of government, are also without elected representatives as elections to them have not been held. They have been placed under some state officials who report to the Provincial Governors. Thus, the President, who is the head of government, now, in effect, controls all three tiers of government—the parliament, the PCs and the local councils.

Presidential polls

The SLPP-UNP administration will not mind coming under pressure from the Opposition to hold the presidential election, for there is no way it can advance that election even if it wants to. It will allow the Opposition to go on pressing for a presidential election. The only President Wickremesinghe can hold snap presidential election is to change the Constitution, but the government cannot muster a two-thirds majority for that purpose. The number of MPs supporting it has come down to 123.

The signs are that the next race for the presidency will be a multi-cornered contest with several prominent politicians in the fray. Besides incumbent President Wickremesinghe and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, there will be candidates nominated by the SLPP dissidents and others.

Former Minister Dullas Alahapperuma, who made an unsuccessful bid to have himself elected President by the parliament last year, is likely to contest for the presidency. Champika Ranawaka, who has formed the United Republican Front recently, is also expected to run for President. He has been in numerous political organizations including the JVP, Jathika Chinthanaya, Ratawesi Peramuna (RP), Janatha Mithuro, National Movement Against Terrorism Sihala Urumaya, Jathika Hela Urumaya, the UPFA led by the SLFP, the UNP-led UNF and the SJB.

The possibility of several non-political figures such as former PUCSL chief Ratnayake entering the presidential race cannot be ruled out.

Why not a general election?

President Wickremesinghe is now constitutionally empowered to dissolve the parliamentary and hold a snap general election anytime. Curiously, the Opposition does not seem keen to campaign for an early parliamentary election.

In fact, when the people took to the streets last year, during the Aragalaya protests, calling for a system change, their main demand was that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and all MPs go home.

Gotabaya quit, but his successor, Wickremesinghe is not under pressure to dissolve the parliament! Is it that the Opposition is also wary of facing a general election as the people are not well-disposed towards all political parties?