So, it has now been confirmed that the Local Government (LG) and Provincial Council (PC) elections will not be held next year. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has told the parliament in no uncertain terms that the presidential and parliamentary elections will be held in 2024, and the LG and PC polls in 2025. Thus, the Opposition’s campaign to pressure the government to hold the LG polls without further delay has been in vain to all intents and purposes. President Wickremesinghe has succeeded in shifting the Opposition’s focus to elections again.
Neither the SLPP nor the UNP is ready to face elections anytime soon, as is obvious. The approval rating of the government fell from 21% in June 2023 to 9% in October 2023, according to the latest round of the Gallup-style ‘Mood of the Nation’ poll conducted by Verité Research. The survey has shown that satisfaction with the state of the nation also dropped by half to 6% from 12% in June 2023. The Economic Confidence Score also fell from negative (-) 44 in June to negative (-) 62. These are disconcerting statistics for any government in power.
There seems to be a general consensus among political observers that President Wickremesinghe might not hold any other election until the next presidential polls, for a possible electoral setback before a presidential contest will adversely impact his chances of securing the presidency. He is now constitutionally empowered to dissolve the parliament anytime, but if he does so, the UNP will have to vie with the SLPP at a general election at the expense of their uneasy unity unless they coalesce. But it will be a tall order for them to secure a majority at the next general election either severally or collectively. It may be recalled that the political marriage between the UNP and the SLFP ended a few months after the 208 Local Government elections, which they had to contest separately while being the key partners of the Yahapalana government. An electoral alliance between the UNP and the SLPP is also likely to alienate a large number of their supporters, who might switch their allegiances to parties such as the SLFP, the SJB, the SLPP dissident groups and the JVP in such an eventuality.
There is a school of thought that President Wickremesinghe is planning to face a presidential election first because he thinks he will be able to muster the support of the minority parties the way he did during the 2005 presidential polls, while winning over some MPs from the SLFP, the SLPP and the SJB. Given his experience and the fact that he came forward to face the daunting challenge of helping the country emerge from the current economic crisis and has shown some results, the President may be able to leverage his image to gain popular support vis-à-vis other contenders for the coveted post. But politics is full of glorious uncertainties.
What’s up Namal’s sleeve?
Some SLPP politicians have hinted at the possibility of their party fielding a separate presidential candidate although there has been no official announcement to that effect. But time is running out, and the SLPP will have to decide on its candidate soon. In 2019, it could afford to wait because it was planning to field Gotabaya Rajapaksa and in fact, he needed time to relinquish his US citizenship. He was known as a formidable contender and the SLPP’s popularity was at its zenith at the time. He had already launched his presidential election campaign in all but name with the help of Viyathmaga, etc. In 2014, the UNP-led Opposition waited until the eleventh hour to announce its common candidate—Maithripala Sirisena. In fact, it had to wait because Sirisena did not want to announce his candidature until the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced the date of the presidential election. But the SLPP has become extremely unpopular and is without a politically marketable leader to run for President. It will therefore have to start grooming someone as its presidential candidate without further delay.
A section of the SLPP is believed to be promoting MP Namal Rajapaksa as their party’s presidential candidate. Prominent among the Rajapaksa loyalists who have thrown their weight behind Namal is SLPP MP Tissa Kuttiarachchi. Namal has also begun to assert himself. He struck a discordant note on the 2024 budget and even refused to vote for the second reading of it last week, claiming that it had not granted relief to the public. He seems to be on a campaign to boost his image as a pro-people leader as his father, Mahinda, did decades ago. But it is highly unlikely that Sri Lankans will overwhelmingly vote for an inexperienced political leader at a presidential election ever again, having made the mistake of electing Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President.
Woes for all
A presidential election will cause a realignment of political forces with all political parties suffering defections. The UNP is overdrive to engineer crossovers from its offshoot, the SJB, which has already lost several MPs to the UNP. Most members of the SLFP parliamentary group have thrown in their lot with President Wickremesinghe. Former President Maithripala Sirisena will not be able to prevent defections from the SLFP, which might try to make a virtue of necessity by siding with the President officially. The SLPP will also find itself in an unenviable position with some of its MPs siding with the President.
SJB leader Sajith Premadasa and leader of the JVP-led NPP Anura Kumara Dissanayake have already announced that they will contest the next presidential election. If the SLPP goes it alone in the presidential race, then there will be four main presidential candidates in the fray including President Wickremesinghe, Premadasa and Dissanayake. It is being speculated in some quarters that the Tamil politicians might consider fielding their own presidential candidate to express their displeasure at the main political parties that have not heeded their call for more devolution. Wickremesinghe’s association with the SLPP has cost him the support of the minority parties, which will not back him in the presidential race unless he severs his links with the SLPP, especially the Rajapaksa family.
If four or five strong candidates happen to be in the presidential fray, votes will be split among them, and the possibility of none of them being able to win the presidency by obtaining more than 50% of the total number of valid votes in the first round itself cannot be ruled out. But the government will not be able to postpone the next presidential election even if it is not confident of victory.