President Ranil Wickremesinghe has succeeded in shifting his political rivals’ attention from the much-delayed local government polls to the next presidential election due next year so much so that the SJB and the JVP have already named their presidential candidates—Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake, respectively.

Leader of the National Freedom Front, and dissident SLPP MP, Wimal Weerawansa, has sought to cast doubts on the possibility of the next presidential election being held next year. On Friday, speaking at the launch of the English and Russian translations of his book on Aragalaya, he said he did not expect President Wickremesinghe, who had already postponed two elections, to hold the presidential polls next year. What he forgot to mention was that Wickremesinghe had been a minister in the J. R. Jayewardene government, which did away with a general election due in 1982 with the help of a heavily-rigged referendum, and paved the way for political upheavals in the late 1987, including the second uprising of the JVP. Weerawansa was a member of the JVP until his breakaway in 2008.

Enter Jayaweera
Speculation is rife that several key members of the business community will contest the next presidential election. One of them has already come forward. He is Dilith Jayaweera of the Derana-Triad fame.

Jayaweera opened the headquarters of his political party, Mawbima Janatha Pakshaya (MJP), in Colombo 08, on Wednesday (11). Among those present on the occasion were former Minister Hemakumara Nanayakkara, former Minister Sarath Amunugama, former Eastern Province Governor Anuradha Yahampath, political activists, journalists, business leaders, and retired public and military officials.

Jayaweera is no stranger to politics although he has not contested elections. He was very close to the Rajapaksa family, and his advertising agency, Triad, handled their election campaigns. Now that the Rajapaksas have ruined their chances of winning a future election, Jayaweera seems to have decided to go it alone.

Jayaweera’s entry into active politics and the opening of MJP’s headquarters have apparently had some unsettling effect on the Opposition. Jayaweera has gone on record as saying that he is planning to woo the floating voters at the next election. Why the Opposition has not taken kindly to his engagement in active politics is not difficult to understand. All politicians are eyeing swing voters.

Many people, especially the youth, are disillusioned with the entire political establishment, and hence their demand, during last year’s Aragalaya, that all 225 MPs go home. Their thinking is that the ruling coalition and the SJB are responsible for what has befallen the country. The JVP has sought to make the most of the consternation of the public by offering itself as an alternative to both the government and the SJB. Now, it will have to vie with Jayaweera’s party for the swing votes. Perhaps, some more members of the business community will take to active politics.

Money tree’
On Thursday, SJB MP Harshana Rajakaruna, addressing the media, made an indirect reference to the launch of Jayaweera’s political campaign. He said the SJB was happy that some business tycoons had taken to politics, and they would throw money around and the people would receive freebies.
Rajakaruna’s statement reminded us of what W. Dahanayake famously said about his main rival in the Galle electorate in the run-up to the 1947 general election. H. W. Amarasuriya (UNP), a wealthy person, spent a lot of money on his election campaign. Dahanayake, contesting from the Bolshevik-Leninist Party under the ‘Star’ symbol’, would tell the people of Galle at his election rallies, “I have shaken a money tree for you, you can pick what falls from it and vote for me.” He defeated Amarasuriya with a comfortable majority!

Namal and Dhammika
It is being speculated in political circles that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is grooming his eldest son, Namal as the SLPP’s presidential candidate. The resumption of his temple visits is seen as a political move to rally support for his endeavor.

Some SLPP MPs such as Tissa Kuttiarachchi, are openly promoting Namal as their party’s presidential candidate. The Basil faction of the SLPP has chosen to remain silent on rumors; it has only said a person whose first name consists of three Sinhala letters will be the SLPP’s presidential candidate. There are three members of the Rajapaksa family, whose first names are spelt with three letters in Sinhala—Namal, Basil and Chamal. Basil is a dual citizen and therefore cannot contest a presidential election; Chamal, an octogenarian, is not known to have presidential ambitions, and therefore it is widely thought Naml will be the SLPP’s choice.

Namal has sought to muddy the water. On Thursday, he told a group of journalists, in answer to a question about the SLPP’s plans for the presidential election, that there were several SLPP presidential candidates and Dhammika Perera was also willing to contest. The SLPP, he said, would make a final decision in time to come. His statement could be considered a diversionary tactic because the Opposition has already trained its propaganda guns on him. He stopped short of saying whether he would run for President.

Economy to the fore
Economic concerns of the Sri Lankan public have taken precedence over all other issues. So, the next battle for the presidency is very likely to be fought on the economic front unlike in the past when other factors such as national security and nationalism overshadowed the economy. The public knows what it is like to be left unable to meet their basic needs, and therefore what matters most in the final analysis is the country’s economic wellbeing. Otherwise, millions of those who voted for the SLPP in 2018, 2019 and 2020, would not have taken to the streets in a bid to bring down the incumbent government, last year. The public cannot be unaware of the adverse economic consequences of politically-motivated relief measures, especially tax and tariff reductions. Chances are that politicians will not be able to take the people for a ride by making promises, whose fulfilment will entail a huge economic cost.

It is very likely that the people who have learnt bitter lessons during the past couple of years will prefer presidential candidates who, they think, can develop the economy to others who make political promises.
President Wickremesinghe, who has undertaken to turn the ailing economy around, and succeeded in managing the economic crisis to some extent, will get a head start in the next presidential race. Now that it has become clear that he will contest, anyone who is eyeing the presidency will have to outshine him by convincing the public that he or she can perform better on the economic front.

Opposition Leader Premadasa has also remained focused on the economy while engaging in populist politics. He is seen to be serious about addressing economic issues, although the SJB’s economic policies are thought to lack pragmatism.

Dilith-Dhammika factor
Dhammika Perera is believed to have presidential ambitions, and he is likely to run for President even if the SLPP does not nominate him. That may be the reason why he remains in the government as an ordinary MP. He can contest a presidential election on his own.
It will be interesting to see what impact the Dilith-Dhammika (D-D) factor will have on national politics and the presidential race.
Their policies and strategies are likely to be vastly different from others’, and their election campaigns will be focused on the economy rather than anything else.