By Vishvanath

Presidential election campaigns of the UNP, the SJB and the NPP have got underway in earnest. They have commenced a bit too early, and sustaining their momentum and preventing them from plateauing a few months ahead of the contest proper will be quite a challenge. Now, the presidential candidates in the fray have another problem to contend with. 

Basil Rajapaksa, who is the de facto leader of the SLPP, has indicated that a general election may be held first. This is not something the political rivals of the SLPP have bargained for. They will have to change their strategies in case the parliament is dissolved prematurely. They are planning to win the presidential election, dissolve the parliament immediately afterwards and form a government with a comfortable majority.  

The JVP has sought to make light of Basil’s gamesmanship; it says it will only have to nominate its leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, as the NPP’s prime ministerial candidate in the event of a parliamentary election being held before the presidential contest slated to be conducted in September or October 2024. This is what JVP politburo member K. D. Lalkantha said in an interview with ITN last week. The SJB has not made its position known on the issue. The same goes for the UNP. However, it will not be easy for either the UNP or the SJB or the JVP-led NPP to change horses in midstream. Strategies that a political party has to adopt and the way people vote at presidential elections and parliamentary polls are different. In a presidential contest, a political party markets its most popular candidate, but at a general election it has to promote many candidates, including the mediocre and unpopular ones. There’s the rub.  

Basil pretends to be frank and forthright in expressing his views in media interviews, but only the naïve will expect him to reveal his hand. He is known for subterfuge like all other Sri Lankan politicians. He said, in an interview with News First channel on Thursday (March 14) that it would be more advantageous for the SLPP to face a general election before the next presidential polls. In a bid to sell his idea or plan to the public, he claimed electors usually did not act rationally when they voted at a general election held after a presidential contest, and, therefore, the party that secured the presidency usually won the parliamentary polls as well. His argument is not without some merit, but it is not out of any concern for other political parties or democracy that Basil is trying to have the next general election advanced; the SLPP cannot find a formidable presidential candidate, and does not want to hitch its wagon to a presidential candidate fielded by another political party and have its electoral weakness exposed before a general election and run the risk of losing most of its seats.

There seem to be two options left for the SLPP as for the next presidential election. It can field its own presidential candidate, but if he suffers a crushing defeat, which is very likely, it will ruin its chances of securing a significant number of seats at the next general election and remain relevant in national politics. If it throws in its lot with President Wickremesinghe and he loses the presidential election, it will face a humiliating loss at the parliamentary polls. If the SLPP backs Wickremesinghe in the presidential race and he wins, more of its MPs will side with him, seeking the UNP ticket to contest the parliamentary election. This may be the reason why Basil wants a parliamentary election to be held first.

It could also be argued that Basil’s much-publicized claim that he would rather a general election preceded the next presidential contest is a trick of misdirection to pressure President Wickremesinghe to help further the SLPP’s interests; the SLPP has been demanding that some of its district leaders be appointed to the Cabinet so that they could carry out the party’s reorganizing efforts much more effectively, but President Wickremesinghe has not acceded to its demand much to the consternation of the SLPP leadership. The President’s refusal to grant the SLPP’s demand, however, has struck a chord with the public, who are averse to an expansion of the Cabinet but it has peeved the Rajapaksa family and its loyalists beyond measure.

President Wickremesinghe would rather face a presidential election than ready the UNP, which has only a single parliamentary seat at present, for a general election, given his party’s organizational weaknesses and the unpopularity of most of its seniors who could not retain their seats at the last parliamentary polls in 2020. Basil may be trying to create a situation, where President Wickremesinghe will have to choose between facing a general election, which is a disturbing proposition for him and the UNP, and appointing the SLPP district leaders in the parliament to the Cabinet while refraining from engineering cross-overs from the ruling party and doing as the Rajapaksa family says. In other words, Basil is trying to tame President Wickremesinghe by leveraging the SLPP’s ability to cause the parliament to be dissolved with the help of 113 or more MPs. How Wickremesinghe will seek to counter this move remains to be seen.

However, there is no guarantee that the SLPP parliamentary group will back a move en masse to have the parliament dissolved prematurely. Some of them have switched their allegiances to President Wickremesinghe although they are voting with the SLPP in the House, and they will side with Wickremesinghe in the event of the SLPP pitting itself against him. There are also some MPs, including SLPP members, who have not completed five years in the parliament to become eligible for pensions, and they may not want the parliament dissolved before the next presidential election.  

Basil is given to lateral thinking, and what he is exactly planning to do is not clear. He will do what he thinks is best for the SLPP, but it will be a tall order for him to find a presidential candidate capable of outshining President Wickremesinghe, Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake. He must be having some more tricks up his sleeve. Whether he will be able to turn the SLPP around and prevent it from being trounced at future elections remains to be seen. But he has demonstrated his adeptness at political manipulations and confusing his opponents. But he is not the only fox around.


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