All issues in Sri Lanka have the same lifespan as mushrooms, and this has stood governments in good stead over the years. A few months ago, there was a furor over the postponement of the local government (LG) elections and the deplorable method the government adopted to delay them indefinitely. The Opposition took to the streets in a bid to pressure the government to hold the polls, and even internationalized the issue. But, today, nobody is protesting against the LG polls postponement. Instead, everyone is talking about the next presidential election!

Some political parties have already named their presidential candidates while their candidates for the LG elections are in trouble as the polls have not been officially cancelled; they have to abide by the election laws, which are currently in force, and cannot take part in any activity which can be interpreted as an offence under the Local Authorities Elections Act.    

Several hats already in the ring

Sri Lanka is never short of presidential hopefuls, and some of them even run for president although they cannot obtain more than a few hundred votes each; as a result, the ballot papers become unnecessarily long, much to the inconvenience of voters as well as the Election Commission, which is legally required to treat each candidate equally.

Ambition and greed for power blind politicians and even others desirous of savoring power to reality. Hence the rush for the presidency! Some party leaders have already announced that they will contest the next presidential election. SLFP leader and former President Maithripala Sirisena is the latest to have thrown his hat into the ring, albeit in a light-hearted manner, which is characteristic of him. He did so while answering a question posed by a posse of hectoring reporters, after an SLFP press briefing on Thursday, in Colombo.

Sirisena said he was a former President, who had proved his ability to govern the country, and he was willing to come forward as the common candidate of a political alliance. Perhaps, former US President Donald Trump’s efforts to secure the coveted American presidency nonconsecutively has inspired Sirisena. But unlike Trump, Sirisena lacked confidence to seek a second term, and opted to skip the 2019 presidential contest, re-enter the parliament and remain an ordinary MP. His elevation to the highest position in the country, in 2015, was fortuitous, and he failed to make use of that political windfall to shore up his image and endear himself to the public so as to be able to seek re-election at the end of his first term. What shattered his dream of re-election was his failure to protect national security and public safety; the Easter Sunday terror attacks towards the latter stages of his presidency in 2019 sealed his fate.

It is highly doubtful whether Sirisena will have anything new to offer to the electorate if he contests the next presidential election. He reneged on all the promises he made ahead of the 2015 presidential election, and opted for a honeymoon with the very forces he undertook to defeat; he joined forces with the Rajapaksa family in 2018. There is hardly anything he can do to prevent himself being considered a hypocrite and spent force.

SLPP dissidents losing confidence?

Dissident SLPP MP Dilan Perera has urged SJB leader Sajith Premadasa and JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake to close ranks for the sake of the country. He has said one of them can run for President with the other being fielded as the prime ministerial candidate of the proposed alliance. It is up to the duo to decide who should be the presidential candidate, MP Perera has said.

Nobody would have expected the SLPP and the UNP to form an alliance, but they had come together, and therefore there is no reason why SJB and the JVP-led NPP cannot likewise, Perera has said. His appeal to the SJB and the JVP could be considered an indication that the SLPP offshoot, the Freedom People’s Congress, which Dilan Perera represents and speaks for authoritatively, has already opted out of the presidential race; otherwise, there would have been no need for him to offer his services as a political matchmaker to bring the SJB and the JVP together in a bid to defeat the SLPP-UNP combine.

The SJB has already announced that its leader Sajith Premadasa will be its presidential candidate. It is puzzling why it has done so officially more than one year ahead of the presidential race. Is it to strengthen Premadasa’s position in the SJB and foreclose the possibility of someone else in the party vying with him for the presidential candidacy? Anything is possible in politics. In 1988, Sajith’s later father, Ranasinghe Premadasa, had to fight quite a battle to become the UNP’s presidential candidate with several other prominent UNP ministers trying to secure nominations for the contest. Sajith himself had to struggle to have himself fielded by the UNP at the last presidential election. In 2005, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who was the leader of the SLFP at the time, did her best not to nominate Mahinda Rajapaksa as the party’s presidential candidate mostly due to a bitter personality clash between them. She wanted her brother, Anura, to contest the presidential election, but had to change her mind owing to pressure from the SLFP’s old guard and rank and file alike.

SLPP split widens

The Rajapaksa loyalists in the SLPP parliamentary group have said their party will field its own candidate at the next presidential election, and the name of the candidate they have in mind is a three-letter Sinhala word. SLPP General Secretary Saragar Kariyawasam has said their support for President Ranil Wickremesinghe is conditional, and the SLPP will contest the 2024 presidential election on its own.

There are three members of the Rajapaksa family, whose first names have only three letters each in Sinhala—Basil, Namal and Chamal. Basil, 72, cannot contest elections in Sri Lanka because he is a dual citizen, and Chamal is 80 years old. Basil will have to relinquish his US citizenship if he is to run for President, but he is not likely to do so, for his chances of securing the presidency are remote; public opinion is far from favorable to him. So, speculation is rife in political circles that the SLPP is grooming Namal, 37, as its presidential candidate. In fact, some SLPP MPs such as Tissa Kuttiarachchi are openly rooting for Namal, and it is obvious that they are doing so at the behest of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Not all SLPP MPs however are well-disposed towards the Rajapaksa family; some of them have thrown in their lot with President Wickremesinghe. Ministers Prasanna Ranatunga and Dilum Amunugama have gone on record as saying the SLPP should support President Wickremesinghe if he contests the next presidential election. Speaking at the opening of a refilling station in Trincomalee on Wednesday, Amunugama said that last year the people had been waiting in winding fuel queues, but at present new petrol sheds were being opened for the convenience of the public, and therefore it was obvious who the SLPP’s next presidential candidate should be. His reference was obviously to President Wickremesinghe, who has been credited with stabilizing the economy and bringing about political stability to some extent.  

There are believed to be dozens of closet Wickremesinghe loyalists in the SLPP parliamentary group and they are likely to come out when they consider the time is opportune for them to do so. Thus, if the SLPP decides to go it alone at the next presidential election with a member of the Rajapaksa family as its candidate, it will suffer another crippling split.

UNP’s rhetoric reveals its battle plan

Taking part in a television interview in late January 2023, UNP General Secretary Palitha Range Bandara said President Wickremesinghe would contest the 2024 presidential election and remain the President until 2030. Such statements by UNP seniors prompted their SLPP counterparts, especially Kariyawasam, Prof. Ranjith Bandara, MP, and Rohitha Abeygunawardena, MP, to claim that the SLPP would field its own presidential candidate.  

On Wednesday Range Bandara told a group of party supporters in Puttalam that the next government would be a UNP-led one, the implication being that the UNP wants to lead the electoral alliance it is planning to form. The SLPP is not likely to agree to such an arrangement and play second fiddle to the UNP, which is currently dependent on it for parliamentary support, without which President Wickremesinghe will become a mere figurehead for all practical purposes.

The SLPP and the UNP are cooperating to keep the incumbent government in power, and are not likely to part company, bringing it down, but they are at loggerheads over some key issues. Their differences will come to a head when they have to decide whether to contest the next presidential election together and who their presidential candidate will be in such an eventuality. They will have to clash with each other in case of contesting the presidential election as two separate entities. A similar fate befell the UNP and the UPFA in the Yahapalana government when they contested the 2018 LG polls separately; they broke ranks a few months later.