By Vishvanath

Speculation is rife in political circles that the SLPP and the UNP will part company soon and contest the upcoming presidential election separately. Their marriage of convenience may have worked during the past two years or so, but now it is on the rocks.

The SLPP has already lost some of its parliamentary group members to the UNP, which would not have felt the need to woo them individually and engineer their defection if it had intended to coalesce with the SLPP. Some dissident SLPP MPs have already switched their allegiance to President Ranil Wickremesinghe, prominent among them being Nimal Lanza, who was one of the staunchest loyalists of the Rajapaksa family.

In 2011, Mahinda Rajapaksa was the President, he rushed to Negombo in an Air Force chopper to Negombo and prevented the STF from raiding Lanza’s house. He gave Lanza a bear hug in view of everyone present, sending a clear message to the STF that the raid had to be abandoned and Lanza left alone. Then then Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe called it ‘the Negombo Drama’.

While the stage is being set for the next presidential election, the possibility of a general election being held first cannot be ruled out as the SLPP has not given up its efforts to pressure President Ranil Wickremesinghe to dissolve the parliament and call a snap parliamentary election. Basil’s loyalists, such as former Ambassador Udayanga Weeratunga, are floating a rumor that the parliament will be dissolved soon.

The SLPP has been trying to win brownie points with the public by being critical of the UNP General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara’s call for a poll postponement. SLPP Leader and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa took a swipe at the UNP on Tuesday, speaking to reporters after a party event in Colombo. He said elections must not be postponed, and when he was asked what he thought of the UNP’s efforts to put off the presidential election, he, not to put too fine a point on it, declared that such a move would sound the death knell for the UNP. He hit the headlines with that warning.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe opened his campaign office in Colombo, the other day, signaling his entry into the presidential fray. In fact, his election campaign got underway soon after his elevation to the presidency in 2022, and it began to gather momentum in a discernible manner last year. It is now going into overdrive.

The President is set to form an electoral alliance before declaring his presidential candidature officially. Education Minister and dissident SLPP MP Susil Premjayantha has revealed that arrangements are being made for the formation of the UNP-led coalition. It will be far more advantageous for the President to contest from an alliance rather than the UNP, which has not yet recovered lost ground. The JVP also adopted the same strategy; it formed the National People’s Power (NPP) and will field its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake as the NPP’s presidential candidate so that even those who are not well-disposed towards the JVP and its policies would be able to bring themselves to back the NPP. The UNP-led alliance to be formed may be able to attract the electors who would otherwise have not voted for the UNP. This strategy, however, is not of recent origin.

In 2004, the SLFP formed the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) to accommodate the JVP, which would not have contested on the SLFP ticket for ideological and strategic reasons. The JVP won 41 seats at the 2004 snap general election, and allowed the SLFP to have two of them to settle an internal dispute in the ruling alliance. The grand oppositional alliance formed in 2014 to field Maithripala Sirisena to defeat President Mahinda Rajapaksa is also a case in point. On the other hand, the Proportional Representation has compelled the main political parties to coalesce with their smaller counterparts to increase their percentage of the vote mostly to bag district bonus seats and National List slots.

Efforts to secure North and East votes

The upcoming presidential election is expected to be a three-cornered fight among President Wickremesinghe, SJB leader Sajith Premadasa and NPP leader Dissanayake. They are aware that the votes of the majority community will be split to such an extent that, unlike in 2010 and 2019, the votes in the North and the East will be a deciding factor in the next presidential contest. It was thanks to the block votes delivered by the TNA and the SLMC in the North and the East that Sirisena was able to win the presidency in 2019.

There is also the possibility of none of the candidates being able to cross the halfway mark (50% of the valid votes) in the upcoming presidential contest for the first time since the introduction of the executive presidency. All past presidential elections were two-horse races, and therefore the winners could secure more than 50% of the national vote. But chances are that at the next presidential poll, preferences will have to be counted and the candidate who polls the highest number of votes will be declared the winner. Voters are not used to marking preferences (1, 2, and 3 against candidates in order of their preference) at presidential elections, and therefore the candidate who polls the highest number of first preferences will stand a better chance of being declared the winner. Such an eventuality can lead to a situation where the winner will be left without a wave of popular support to obtain an outright majority in the parliament at the general election, which is expected to follow in quick succession. Unless the winning party manages to win over some MPs, the next parliament will be hung, and this is the last thing the country needs amidst its worst-ever economic crisis.

The presidential hopefuls are busy campaigning in the North and the East. They are falling over themselves to woo the Tamil political parties, especially the TNA, which alone can deliver a block vote to a candidate of its choice. Devolution is the key to unlocking the TNA’s vote bank, and hence Wickremesinghe, Premadasa and Dissanayake are promising maximum possible devolution to the provinces.

President Wickremesinghe has promised to develop the North and the East on a priority basis besides ensuring devolution of power in keeping with the 13th Amendment (13A) to the Constitution. He has already launched quite a few development projects in those parts of the country, distributed freehold land deeds among farmers and the needy, and handed over appointment letters to new recruits to the public service. Premadasa has undertaken to implement 13A fully on the grounds that it is part of the Constitution. Dissanayake has sought to outdo his opponents; he has promised to go beyond the 13th Amendment in trying to secure the TNA’s support. He however has stopped short of revealing how he proposes to do so. He is bound to come under a heavy attack from the nationalist forces.


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