The Opposition, the media and civil society organizations let out howls of protests when the government moved to postpone the local government (LG) elections, early this year by preventing the Finance Ministry from allocating funds for the Election Commission. The Opposition parties plunged the parliament into turmoil and took to the streets in a bid to pressure the government to hold the LG polls; they even resorted to a legal battle, but the SLPP-UNP combine has succeeded in scuttling the mini polls.

Nobody is talking much about the delayed LG elections any longer. The Opposition and the pro-democracy groups have apparently reconciled themselves to the fact the government will not hold the LG polls, however much they protest, and therefore there is no point in campaigning for them. The People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections has told the media that the Ministerial Consultative Committee on Public Administration, Home Affairs, Provincial Councils, and Local Government unanimously decided to cancel the LG polls nominations, last Wednesday (20). Strangely, this decision has not caused a furore. Maybe the Opposition has realized that it has been fighting a losing battle and decided to move on.

Everybody is now talking about the next presidential election, instead. Neither the SLPP nor the UNP is ready for any electoral contest at this juncture, for obvious reasons, and therefore it is highly unlikely that the government will hold the LG/Provincial Council polls before a national election, parliamentary or presidential. There is nothing scarier for a beleaguered government than the prospect of losing a midterm election and being considered a lame duck thereafter. Besides, President Ranil Wickremesinghe is the only UNPer who has been able to shore up his image sufficiently, and therefore he seems to think that it will be advantageous for his party to go for a presidential election rather than parliamentary polls so that he can leverage his position and contribution to what the country has achieved by way of economic recovery, on his watch, to garner votes. His efforts to devolve more powers to the Provincial Councils by implementing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution fully is seen in political circles as move to win over the Tamil political parties, which can collectively deliver a sizeable block vote to a presidential candidate of their choice; it may be recalled that they helped Maithripala Sirisena to beat Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 presidential race.

Another reason why the Opposition thinks the presidential polls will precede all other elections is that there is no way the government can postpone the next presidential election. Nor can it be advanced because a President elected by the parliament to complete the remainder of the term of his predecessor who has ceased to hold office prematurely is constitutionally empowered to advance a presidential election; only a popularly-elected President is entitled to that right. Hence all political parties are now busy gearing themselves up for a presidential contest, which the government will not be able to meddle with. The SJB and the JVP have already declared their presidential candidates—Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake, respectively. They have launched their presidential election campaigns for all practical purposes.

The Rajapaksa loyalists have launched a campaign to promote Namal Rajapaksa as the SLPP’s next presidential candidate. The most vocal supporter of Namal is SLPP MP Tissa Kuttiarachchi. This move is seen in some quarters as a ruse to distract the Opposition. The SJB and the JVP have already trained their propaganda guns on Namal. Kuttiarachchi keeps on declaring that Namal will run for President, and the latter will be the only young candidate in the fray.

Addressing an SLPP event on Monday (25), Kuttiarachchi claimed the candidates the other political parties were planning to field at the next presidential election would be past the retirement age, come 2024. He specifically named Premadasa and Dissanayake. During last year’s mass uprising, the people had asked for young political leadership, and only Namal fitted the bill, where the presidential candidates are concerned, Kuttiarachchi argued. Namal will be 38 years old next year.

Age, however, will not be the only factor that the public will take into consideration when they elect the next President. The possibility of the SLPP pulling off a surprise, after grooming Namal, cannot be ruled out. The main candidates in the presidential fray will be seasoned political leaders, namely, Sajith Premadasa, Anura Kumara Dissanayake and, more importantly, incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe. Compared to them, Namal will look wet behind the ears. One of the main reasons why President Gotabaya Rajapaksa failed was his inexperience.  The SLPP cannot be unaware of this disadvantage. Most of all, public opinion has turned against the entire Rajapaksa family, and it will be a huge political gamble for the SLPP to field any other member of the Rajapaksa family at the next presidential election.

It is being speculated in some quarters that Basil Rajapaksa may come forward to run for President after relinquishing his US citizenship. But Basil is not any less unpopular than other members of his family, and whether he will take such a high political risk remains to be seen. His elder brother, Gotabaya, who did so has fallen between two stools without either the presidency or the US citizenship.

One need not be surprised even if the SLPP opts to hitch its wagon to President Wickremesinghe at the eleventh hour and back him in the presidential race. Its much-publicized claim that it will contest the next presidential election on its own may be intended to prevent a further disintegration of its support base, which has already eroded severely. The Rajapaksa family might prefer Wickremesinghe to any SLPP politician, for if anyone who is not a member of the Rajapaksa family is fielded at the presidential election, he or she will emerge powerful in the SLPP even if he fails to secure the presidency. The Rajapaksas do not want to lose their hold on the SLPP, which is the only political lifebuoy they are left with.

SLFP leader and former President Maithripala Sirisena is of the view that there will be an election early next year. He said so on Monday (25), when he spoke to a group of reporters after attending a meeting with dissident SLFP MPs (elected on the SLPP ticket). He did not say which election would come first.

Sirisena is trying to patch up differences with the estranged members of his parliamentary group, which initially had 14 MPs including himself. He was left with about only four of them a few months ago. Those who received ministerial posts from President Ranil Wickremesinghe in defiance of a party decision against joining the government have made peace with Sirisena. They stand accused of trying to strike a deal with the UNP with Sirisena’s blessings, and getting rid of the likes of Dayasiri Jayasekera, MP, opposed to an alliance between the two parties.

The JVP would have the public believe that even the SJB will throw in its lot with President Wickremesinghe at the next presidential election although it has already declared its leader, Premadasa, as its contender for the presidency. It is obviously trying to project itself as the only truly anti-government force in a bid to expand its vote base, but anything is possible in Sri Lanka politics. Whoever would have thought two years or so ago that the SLPP and the UNP would ever close ranks?