By Vishvanath

The Election Commission (EC) on Tuesday (July 09) summoned the Government Printer, the IGP, and the Post Master General for a discussion on the upcoming presidential election. Several rounds of such meetings usually take place before elections. The EC has thus signaled that it will call the presidential election before the end of this month.  

It is popularly said in Sri Lanka that a person who has been beaten with a firebrand fears even a firefly. So, a fundamental rights (FR) petition filed before the Supreme Court (SC), in a bid to delay the upcoming presidential election, on the pretext of seeking an interpretation in respect to the duration of the presidential term created quite a stir although legal experts were very confident that it was doomed to fail. The Opposition promptly accused the UNP of being behind the petition filed by an unknown person from Panadura. It tried to support its claim by pointing out that UNP General Secretary Range Bandara himself had called for a poll postponement. No sooner had the petition been filed than President Ranil Wickremesinghe announced that neither he nor his party had anything to do with it, and the petitioner had not consulted him or his lawyers. He suo motu declared that the duration of the presidential term was only five years and the next presidential election would be held this year itself.

On Wednesday, the Cabinet endorsed a proposal by President Wickremesinghe that a Bill be introduced to do away with ambiguities about the presidential term duration. This move can be considered a damage control measure vis-a-vis the Opposition campaign to have the public believe that the UNP had a hand in the aforementioned FR petition.

All those who treasure the franchise heaved a sigh of relief on Tuesday, when a five-judge bench of the SC dismissed the FR petition with cost. However, most legal experts expected it to be dismissed in limine by a normal bench consisting of three judges. Nevertheless, it is heartening that another attempt to undermine the electoral process has failed.

The Opposition, however, believes that the government will make a last-ditch attempt to put off the presidential election. Pivithuru Hela Urumaya leader and dissident SLPP MP Udaya Gammanpila claimed at a recent media briefing that the government was planning to provoke the workers attached the Government Press, which prints ballot papers, etc., into launching a continuous strike, derailing the presidential contest.


The election campaigns of the SJB and the NPP are already in overdrive, and the UNP is upshifting, and all out to engineer crossovers from the SJB. But it is the SLPP which is experiencing defections from its ranks. It is still too early to say whether other parties will be safe, given the intensity of the upcoming electoral contest and the desperation of the political parties to shore up their vote bases, given the very high stakes in the contest.

Every vote will matter in the next presidential election, which is going to be a close fight with President Ranil Wickremesinghe, SJB leader Sajith Premadasa and JVP/NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake vying for the presidency. If the SLPP fields its own candidate, the election will likely become a four-cornered contest.

The chances are that no candidate will be able to secure more than 50% of the votes to win the presidency straightaway, unlike in the past; the second and third preferences will have to be counted and the candidate who polls the highest number of votes will be declared the winner.

Some government MPs including ministers have already hitched their wagons with President Wickremesinghe much to the consternation of the SLPP leaders, who may not have expected the UNP to recover lost ground at their expense. They find themselves in a dilemma. None of the Rajapaksa family members can run for President for obvious reasons. They also find it difficult to field someone else as their presidential candidate or back Wickremesinghe.

All SLPP leaders, including Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya, Basil, Namal and President Wickremesinghe were seen on the same stage on Sunday (July 07), when SLPP MP Rohitha Abeygunawardena launched a collection of his parliamentary speeches in Kalutara to mark the 27th Anniversary of his political career. Businessman Dhammika Perera, who is trying to run for President as the SLPP candidate, was also occupying a front-row seat.  

SLPP leaders speak in riddles

Chief strategist of the SLPP Basil, speaking at the Kalutara ceremony, told President Wickremesinghe that the SLPP would continue to support him but it did not fear him or owe him anything. Thus, he very diplomatically reminded the President that he had to treat the SLPP with respect if he was to retain its support. He however did not say whether the SLPP would throw its weight behind Wickremesinghe in the presidential race. His statement has been interpreted in some quarters as an indication that the SLPP is willing to throw in its lot with Wickremesinghe in the presidential election.   

However, SLPP National Organizer Namal Rajapaksa has struck a discordant note in an interview with Hiru TV early this week. He continues to be critical of Wickremesinghe and the UNP’s economic policies. President Wickremesinghe’s success rate is 50% and his failure rate is also 50%, Namal said when a Hiru interviewer asked him about his assessment of Wickremesinghe’s performance. In other words, he thinks the President has been neither a success nor a failure. Having said so, will he be able to promote the President in case of the SLPP deciding to back the latter in the upcoming presidential race?

Anything is possible in Sri Lankan politics. Nobody expected the Rajapaksa family to join forces with President Maithripala Sirisena in 2018; they had become sworn enemies. In that year, Sirisena and the Rajapaksas buried the hatchet and made an abortive bid to sack Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister, but four years later, the Rajapaksas made Wickremesinghe Prime Minister and then President. Self-interest takes precedence over everything else in politics, where friends become foes and vice versa.

Dhammika in a quandary

The SLPP keeps refusing to be drawn on the question whether it will field its own presidential candidate and whether it will be business tycoon, Dhammika Perera, who said at a recent function that he wanted to contest the upcoming presidential election and was awaiting the greenlight from the SLPP leadership. A smiling SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam was seen standing behind him when he said so. Perera said the presidential election was 90 days away, but he needed only 60 days to unveil his economic program, which was being prepared, and educate the public on it.

SLPP leader and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa gives evasive answers whenever he is asked who the SLPP’s presidential candidate will be. So do other SLPP leaders. Is the SLPP planning to field Dhammika or using him as a bargaining chip in negotiations with President Wickremesinghe, who will lose the SLPP’s backing if Perera enters the fray?

Fielding a person like Dhammika at the SLPP’s presidential candidate could be inimical to Namal’s interests in that a presidential candidate can retain the support of his or her party’s rank and file who rally behind him or her. That was how Sajith Premadasa won over the UNP voters and went on to form his own party, the SJB, which reduced the UNP to a single National List seat in the 2020 general election.

The SLPP cannot go on dilly-dallying indefinitely; it will have to nominate a presidential candidate or back someone else after the declaration by the EC of the presidential election in less than three weeks. As the presidential election is drawing near, prospective candidates are fighting on all fronts. How the SLPP will try to remain relevant in national politics, much less win elections, remains to be seen. 


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