By Vishvanath

Hats are being thrown into the ring in ones and twos, with only a few months to go before the next presidential election, the latest one being that of former Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe, who has embarked on an anti-corruption campaign. Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe is also expected to run for President, but he has not officially declared his intent to do so.

There is hardly anyone who does not want the executive presidency abolished or stripped of some of its powers. Much is being talked about the ill-effects of this powerful institution on democracy, especially the fact that it has dwarfed the other branches of government—the legislature and the judiciary. But everyone dreams of securing the presidency and enjoying the powers vested in it, and the wielders of it do not want to let go of it. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK) and Maithripala Sirisena won the coveted presidency by pledging to scrap it, but did not fulfil their promises.

In 2000, troubled by the prospect of having to retire after the expiration of her second presidential term, CBK sought to become the Executive Prime Minister. She tried to abolish the presidency for that purpose but did not succeed in her endeavour, as she lacked a two-thirds majority in the parliament, and the UNP went back on its word, having agreed to vote for her constitutional reform package; it claimed that she had amended the draft constitution without consulting it. President Sirisena allowed the executive presidency to be stripped of some of the powers through the 19th Amendment, for want of a better alternative, but did not make good on his promise to abolish it. It is said that he resisted attempts to rid the presidency of certain powers, claiming that he did not want to be reduced to a mere figurehead.

Ambitions and optimism

The lure of the executive presidency is such that about seven persons have already made known their intention to run for President in September/October 2024. Most of them are being as optimistic as the buyers of lotteries. The number of the presidential hopefuls is expected to increase with the passage of time.

Ambition often overtakes people. Elvis Presley famously said ambition was a dream with a V8 engine, meaning that if one wanted one’s dreams to get anywhere one had to rev them up. The presidential candidates here are doing just that. Those who have made known their intention to contest the next presidential election are President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Mawbima Janata Party leader Dilith Jayaweera, former Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka Janaka Ratnayake, and former Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe.

It is being speculated in some quarters that the SLPP will announce the name of its presidential candidate at its May Day rally to be held in the Campbell Park, Colombo. But it is doubtful whether the SLPP has been able to decide whether to go it alone at the presidential election, much less find a presidential candidate. Minister Rajapahshke, who was elected the Acting Chairman of the SLFP, the other day, by the party’s Maithripala Sirisena faction, amidst howls of protests from the loyalists of former President CBK, has reportedly said he will announce whether he will run for President or not.

Large number of horses in race

There were as many as 35 candidates at the last presidential election, including a former Army Commander, Gen. Mahesh Senanayake, who polled about 50,000 votes (0.37%). Most of them were also-rans, and the contest was actually among only three candidates—Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the SLPP, who polled 6,924,255 votes (52.25%), Sajith Premadasa of the National Democratic Front, who polled 5,564,239 (41.99%) and Anura Kumra Dissanayake of the National People Power, who polled 418,553% (3.16%).

The upcoming presidential contest is expected to be a three cornered-contest among Wickremesinghe, Premadasa and Dissanayake, but it is too early to say what it will be really like. Chances of the SLPP winning the presidency are extremely remote, but it might be able to attract a significant number of votes, if a formidable candidate is fielded, and even influence the outcome of the contest.

All elected Presidents have cleared the 50%-plus-one-vote mark since 1982. This has been possible because the candidates fielded by the UNP and the SLFP/SLPP or the alliance led by them turned the presidential elections into two-horse races.

Two-horse races have helped maintain political stability because the parties or the coalitions of the winning presidential candidates are able to form governments either under their own steam or with the help of others. SLPP founder Basil Rajapaksa has sought to make use of this trend to bolster his argument that a general election should be held before the next presidential polls because the people do not vote rationally and they tend to vote for the party of the newly-elected President overwhelmingly, giving it a huge majority much to the detriment of democracy. But there have been exceptions.

CBK and Sirisena could not win working majorities in the parliament after winning presidential elections. CBK’s SLFP-led People’s Alliance, which won the 1999 presidential election, could obtain only 107 seats in the 225-member parliament in the 2000 general election. That administration remained weak and collapsed the following year. The UNP-led UNF enabled Sirisena to win the 2015 presidential election, but could win only 106 seats in the parliamentary election that followed about six months later.

Possible intensification of uncertainty

Speculation is rife in political circles that no presidential candidate is likely to win the presidency in the first round this year, and, therefore, the need may arise for the count of preferences. At the presidential election, a voter can mark preferences for three candidates by writing 1, 2 and 3 against their names or simply vote for one candidate. The vast majority of voters do not mark preferences at presidential elections, and therefore the candidate who polls the highest number of votes is likely to secure the presidency even if he or she fails to obtain 50% of the valid votes plus one in the first round. But such an eventuality could intensify political uncertainty mainly because it may adversely impact the prospect of the winner’s party securing a parliamentary majority at a subsequent general election.

Although Sri Lanka has a presidential system, the Prime Minister emerges more powerful than the Executive President to all intents and purposes, if he or she happens to represent a rival political party, as was the case between 2001 and 2004, when Ranil Wickremesinghe, representing the UNP-led UNF became the Prime Minister under President CBK, who headed the SLFP-led People’s Alliance. They clashed, and CBK dissolved the parliament prematurely in 2004 and regained control of it at the general election that followed. President Sirisena also faced a similar situation after falling out with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in Oct. 2018. At present, President Wickremesinghe, whose party, the UNP, has only a single seat in the parliament, is lucky; the SLPP is too weak to oust him although there is no love lost between them.

Thus, the possibility of the opposite of what Basil has predicted happening and political uncertainty settling in after the next presidential election cannot be ruled out, especially in the event of no candidate being able to poll 50% of votes, in the first round. The Asian Development Bank has already expressed fear that uncertainty caused by impending elections could take its toll on Sri Lanka’s economic recovery efforts and lead to a possible downward trend in the country’s economic outlook. One can only hope that what is feared will not happen, and the presidential election will usher in political stability, which is a prerequisite for economic recovery.  


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