By Vishvanath

The UNP is floating a story that President Ranil Wickremesinghe has told a recent Cabinet meeting in no uncertain terms that a presidential election would be held first, and funds for it had already been allocated. It seems to have indirectly countered former Ambassador Udayanga Weeratunga’s claim that the President and the SLPP have agreed to hold a snap general election first, and the parliament will be dissolved come June 15. 

Weeratunga is a member of the Rajapaksas’ inner circle, and particularly close to SLPP founder, Basil Rajapaksa, and he would not have made such a statement during a television debate without Basil’s blessings. He sounded very confident when he predicted a snap parliamentary election during a recent television interview. The veracity or otherwise of his claim will be known to the public soon, for the ides of June’ are drawing near; they are only 22 days away.

Whatever the SLPP’s plans may be, election fever is running high with the political parties that have already launched their presidential poll campaigns upshifting into overdrive with only a few months to go before the race. The SJB and the JVP-led NPP have said they are ready for any election. 

Nothing is said to be so certain as the unexpected in politics, and the dynamics of the contest are shifting rapidly with the possibility of some more prominent figures throwing their hats into the ring, causing some more realignments of political forces. 

A local English language daily has reported, quoting sources, that former Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka (SF) will run for President again, and announce his candidature soon. SF has fallen out with the SJB leader Sajith Premadasa, who has accommodated in the party several former military commanders, whom SF dislikes. 

SF has been striking discordant notes at SJB events as well as in the parliament much to the consternation of his party leaders. So, there is the possibility of SF breaking ranks with the SJB sooner than expected and entering the presidential fray. 

What impact will SF’s entry have on the dynamics of the presidential race? Who is the candidate whose interests will be affected most in such an eventuality? Will his candidature make any difference at all? These are some of the questions being asked in political circles following the newspaper report about SF’s plan to vie for the presidency. SF has chosen to remain silent on speculation that he will run for President. 

Many former SLPP supporters, and ex-Aragalaya activists as well as their sympathizers would have backed Anura and Sajith at the upcoming presidential election. The NPP is banking on the support of these voters, who are mostly youths, to increase it national vote, which was only 3% at the last presidential election, to 50% plus in a few months. This is a gargantuan task! 

The NPP is under the impression that it is riding on a massive wave of popularity of the same magnitude as that which propelled Gotabaya to power in 2019. In fact, recently, the JVP boasted that there was a groundswell of support for its leader Dissanayake, and it was similar to the one for Gotabaya in the run-up to the 2019 presidential election. The fact that the JVP/NPP leader has found favor with expatriate Sri Lankans, who accord him warm welcomes when he visits their host countries, may have prompted the JVP spokespersons to come out with such a remark. But if SF throws his hat into the ring, as speculated, he may be able to win over some of the aforesaid voters, especially the Aragalaya activists and the youths who are fed up with all established political parties including the JVP/NPP, and given to anti-politics, which is gaining currency among young Sri Lankans. 

It will be a very interesting scenario if SF runs for President again. Neither Ranil nor Sajith nor Anura will be able to project him as a candidate unworthy of being considered for the presidency, for all of them campaigned for him at the 2010 presidential election. They even refused to accept the final result of that contest, and went around the country, claiming that Rajapaksa had rigged the election and SF was the real ‘People’s President’. They held public protests against President Rajapaksa when SF was arrested at the behest of the Rajapaksa family, prosecuted and jailed.  

Besides, SF is the current Chairman of the SJB, and was a prominent member of the UNP-led Yahapalana government, which the JVP had a special affinity for. Those who belonged to the anti-Rajapaksa camp in 2010 will be competing with one another for the presidency this year. It will be an even more interesting scenario if the Rajapaksas decide to throw in their lot with Ranil. Anything is possible in Sri Lankan politics. Whoever would have thought the Rajapaksa family would ever help Ranil realize his presidential dream? 

The anti-government votes in areas other than the North and the East, are split between Sajith and Anura, albeit not equally. It is believed that the number of floating voters has significantly increased due to public disillusionment with the mainstream political parties. All presidential candidates are striving to woo them. In a closely contested presidential election, minority voters have the potential to tilt the balance in favor of the frontrunner of their choice. The SLMC is capable of delivering a sizable chunk of Muslim votes to Sajith as a constituent of the SJB, and most of the Tamil votes will swing to the candidate the TNA decides to support. Ranil stands a better chance of securing the Tamil vote than Sajith and Anura; he can also leverage his political leadership for stabilizing the economy to a considerable extent to attract votes. Ranil has already won over the plantation workers with the help of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress. He has undertaken to ensure a pay hike for estate workers. It is highly unlikely that the Tamils will vote for SF, the war-winning Army Commander, again although they did so in the 2010 presidential race because the TNA asked them to do so in a bid to oust the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Other ethnic and religious minorities are also not likely to back SF, who however may be able to muster the support of a section of the majority community, which is already split among Ranil, Sajith and Anura; if Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa also enters the fray, either representing the SLFP or as an independent candidate backed by the Sirisena faction of the SLFP, he will also be able to enlist the support of a considerable number of Sinhala voters. 

The upcoming presidential election is expected to be a three-cornered fight among Ranil, Sajith and Anura. Sajith and Ranil are likely to secure minority votes, which will compensate for a possible drop in the votes of the majority community for them. Therefore, it can be argued that SF’s entry into the presidential contest is likely to affect Anura’s interests more than those of others.    


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