By Vishvanath

Election fever has begun to run high in Sri Lanka, and several presidential hopefuls are girding up their loins for the big contest to be held either in late September or in early October, this year. The Election Commission (EC) has made an official announcement to that effect. Its race-starting command has made the political parties upshift and go for leather.   

The EC has said nothing unexpected. Anyone with a nodding acquaintance with the Constitution and the Presidential Elections Act would have been aware of the tentative date of the upcoming presidential poll. There is no way a President elected by Parliament, following the demise or resignation of a popularly elected President, can advance a presidential election; no President, elected by the people or otherwise, is constitutionally empowered to postpone a presidential election either. So, it was a foregone conclusion that the EC would have to hold the next presidential election between 17 September and 16 October, 2024.   

It is being asked why the EC has already made that announcement, with months to go before the presidential election, but there is nothing unusual about the EC’s declaration, given the queries that the media kept posing about the presidential contest. However, the announcement can be considered an instance of the EC asserting itself and seeking to infuse the people with confidence vis-à-vis confusion and doubts in their minds, created by some politicians and a section of the media. The EC members have made it known to one and all that the power to decide when the next presidential election is held has been vested with them and no one else. It has also been claimed in some quarters that a secret plan is underway to put off the presidential poll as well on some pretext or another. Some of them have gone to the extent of predicting that the government will hold a referendum to consult the public on whether a presidential election should be held, the way President J. R. Jayewardene did in 1982 to postpone a general election and retain his five-sixths majority in the parliament. A section of the Opposition also claims that the government will claim funds cannot be allocated for an election at this juncture. 

The incumbent government has postponed the Local Government elections twice. The Provincial Council polls were postponed indefinitely in 2017, and the current administration did not make any mention of them until recently, when President Ranil Wickremesinghe said they would be held in 2025. The reason the government gave for postponing the LG elections was that it had to manage its funds frugally; it had been compelled to prioritize the task of making essential goods and services available to the public over the conduct of elections, and therefore it could not allocate funds for the LG polls. But the public was aware of what had really caused the postponement of the mini polls; the government was wary of facing an election. 

It may be recalled that the government prevented the LG polls being held even after the EC had set dates for them, and one can argue that Thursday’s declaration by the EC will not deter the government from doing something similar in respect of the next presidential election as well. But it is well-nigh impossible for the government to do anything of that nature in respect of a national election, especially a presidential poll, for such a course of action is fraught with the danger of leading to political upheavals of the same magnitude as Aragalaya. It will be plain political suicide for the government to try to postpone the upcoming presidential election. 

Never has a presidential election been postponed in this country since the first one held in 1982. Instead, most of them were advanced, and no two-term President remained in power for 12 years before the introduction of the 19th Amendment, which reduced the presidential term to five years, in 2015, since when no President has been able to secure two terms. 

President J. R. Jayewardene’s two terms lasted only for 11 years; President Chandrika Kumaratunga lost one year of her first term and her two terms were also limited to 11 years. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, too, advanced a presidential election to leverage his political leadership for the war against the LTTE, and lost one year of his first term. He again lost one year of his second term by seeking a third term in 2015 instead of completing the full six-year term, which was to end the following year. His two presidential terms lasted only a little over nine years. Maithripala Sirisena completed the full term, which was five years, as stipulated by the 19th Amendment. He did not seek a second term. 

The EC announcement on Thursday would not have come at a worse time for the SLPP, which is struggling to find a presidential candidate. It kept on saying that it would declare its candidate after an official announcement of the presidential election was made. Having run out of excuses, it set up an election operation centre at its headquarters in Battaramulla on Friday. Its founder, Basil Rajapaksa told reporters present at the evet that the SLPP would announce its presidential candidate soon. Given to equivocation, he gave evasive answers, which left the public none the wiser. Interestingly, he was flanked by business tycoon Dhammika Perera, who has indicated his desire to run for President. He also did not provide clear answers to journalists’ questions about the possibility of the SLPP fielding him at the presidential election.

The SJB and the JVP-led NPP have already launched their presidential election campaigns. They have already declared their candidates—Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake, respectively. The UNP has done likewise and unofficially announced that its leader, President Wickremesinghe, is its presidential candidate. 

Wickremesinghe was expected to announce his candidacy at the UNP’s recent May Day rally, but he did not do so. It is widely thought that he will make an announcement in a few weeks. Speculation in the political circles is that the SLPP will decide whether to field its own candidate or back Wickremesinghe after the UNP official announces its presidential candidate.

Why has the SLPP set up its election operation centre so early even before deciding whether to field a presidential candidate or back someone else in the race? It has been on a campaign to have a snap general election held first so that it can secure as many parliamentary seats as possible before having to face or skip the next presidential election. The possibility of the SLPP trying to prevent a further erosion of its support base and defections from its ranks and boost the sagging morale of its supporters and MPs by pretending to be election-ready cannot also be ruled out.

The EC announcement, which has caused the Opposition parties’ presidential election campaigns to intensify, is bound to act as a catalyst for a grand realignment of political forces soon, with coalitions being formed and politicians changing sides.