The Jumbo party has finally decided to grapple with the elephant in the room. There are at least three presidential hopefuls within the UNP’s ranks including its leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. Ranil has not said anything officially about his desire to contest the presidential election though his loyalists insist that he is the party’s choice.
The failed October constitutional coup may have a unifying effect on the UNP, but its unity seems to have dissipated. On Monday (July 22) UNP Chairman and Minister Kabir Hashim gave Prime Minister Wickremesinghe a rude shock. At the UNP parliamentary group meeting, at Temple Trees, with Wickremesinghe in the chair, he proposed that Sajith be made the party’s next presidential candidate. Minister Ranjith Maddumabandara promptly spoke in support of the proposal and he was joined by nearly 30 MPs in endorsing Hashim’s view. Nobody uttered a word against the proposal. Minister Ravi Karunanayake, who is openly critical of Sajith, walked in late, but neither took part in the discussion on the subject nor opposed the party’s chairman’s proposal. Sajith expressed his willingness to contest if the party wanted him to.
Wickremesinghe cleverly manoeuvred out of the difficult situation he found himself in, saying that he had to consult the senior members of the party and the Working Committee, which is full of his supporters. But, this time around, he will have to tread cautiously without trying to railroad the dissidents into submission.
Formidable alternative power centre
Hashim’s proposal at issue and other UNP MPs’ favourable response to it show that a formidable alternative power centre has emerged in the UNP, and unless issues related to the next presidential candidate are handled tactfully, intra-party rivalries and the attendant disunity will take their toll on the party’s presidential election campaign.
Sajith has harboured presidential ambitions for years. Before the 2015 presidential election, at a UNP function, he declared that he was ready to run for President if no other UNP senior was willing to do so. His reference was obviously to the then Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had just thwarted an attempt to oust him as the party leader. Although his wish was not granted Sajith did not object to the nomination of Maithripala Sirisena as the Opposition’s common candidate. But unlike in the past he is now assertive, if not combative. He has plucked up courage to throw his hat into the ring. A popular politician, he is considered a party man just like his father, the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa.
Jayasuriya looks confident that he will be the UNP’s presidential candidate. He is preparing for the grand contest, which is to be held before the end of the current year, according to the National Election Commission. As our lobby columnist, Hawk’s Eye, points out, in his column today, Jayasuirya has taken part in a nightly photo shoot in Parliament the other day. Besides, he has already inserted several advertisements in national newspapers, promoting himself as a strong leader, who defended the government single-handed, during upheavals in Parliament in October and November 2018.
Jayasuriya’s problem is that he has a history of betraying the UNP. He and several other MPs broke ranks with the UNP and joined the Rajapaksa administration during the war. They held Cabinet posts in that administration before returning to the UNP’s fold before the conclusion of the war. He is also seen as a proxy of Wickremesinghe. These are negatives that will weigh against him when the party decides on the presidential candidate.
Attacks on Sajith
One of the main arguments that Sajith’s detractors are peddling in support of their claim that he is not eligible to be the UNP’s presidential candidate is that he has not been able to win either his constituency (Tissamaharama) or the electoral district (Hambantota )—and, therefore, he cannot be expected to win a national level election. Tenable as it may sound, the fact remains that Hambantota is the traditional stronghold of the Rajapaksas.
It is doubtful whether even the UNP leader himself will be able to win that district or a single electorate in it. Sajith’s critics are lucky that their problem has been confined to Hambantota. What would have happened if Sajith had contested a general election from the Colombo District, which consists of several UNP bastions such as Colombo Central, which his father once nursed? Had he done so, Ranil and he would have gone nip and tuck for the first place.
The next UNP WC meeting is expected to be stormy with the supporters of the PM and Sajith clashing. A section of the WC is believed to be supportive of Jayasuriya and it is likely to propose him as a compromise candidate, for in case Ranil opts out of the race and is required to endorse a presidential candidate, he will choose Jayasuriya, who does not demand the UNP leadership unlike Sajith.
Sirikotha has been the venue of several intra-party battles, some of which even inflicted damage on its property. Speculation is rife that it might be plunged into chaos on the day of the next WC meeting.
Sajith is not likely to give up the fight even if the WC does not select him as the presidential candidate. If Ranil does not contest and Jayasuriya fails to secure the presidency, he (Sajith) will continue with his struggle to be the party leader. Sources close to him told Counterpoint that he would seriously consider contesting the next general election from the Colombo District so as to challenge both Ranil and others like Ravi as part of his strategy to secure party leadership.
If Ranil does not contest the next presidential election, he will have skipped three presidential contests consecutively and pressure is bound to mount on him to make way for a younger leader.
Hobson’s choice for President
President Maithripala Sirisena is, more or less, in the same predicament as the PM. His plan to be the common candidate of the yahapalana camp went awry last October, when he burnt bridges by joining forces with the Rajapaksas in a bid to dislodge the UNP-led government. He had tried to oust Ranil as the PM and appoint someone else to that post to achieve his goal, but in vain, prior to the abortive October coup. He admitted last November that he had offered premiership first to Sajith, who refused it and then to Karu, who too declined it, before luring former President Mahinda Rajapaksa into becoming the PM. The efforts by the Sirisena-Rajapaksa duo to topple the government proved to be a political disaster owing to a judicial intervention.
Talks between the SLFP and the SLPP to forge a common electoral front have failed, for all practical purposes, in that the Rajapaksas want to field one of them as the presidential candidate. The President and the former ruling family have kissed and made up, but they do not trust each other. The SLPP has already decided that Mahinda will be its prime ministerial candidate.
So, it is a case of Hobson’s choice for President Sirisena. He will have to back the SLPP without expecting any posts in return or be on his own. The UNP will not touch him with a barge pole as long as Ranil is at the helm.
The President is not so naïve as to believe that he can win a second term without the backing of the SLPP, given the SLFP-led UPFA’s pathetic performance at the last local government polls. Perhaps, his realisation that he had entered a political cul-de-sac led him to say, after a recent Cabinet meeting, that he was willing to consider supporting a UNP presidential candidate other than Ranil.
The question being asked in political circles is whether he will throw in his lot with Sajith if the latter succeeds in becoming the UNP’s presidential candidate? He may be able to do so, but it is highly unlikely that he will be able to carry the SLFP with him or secure an assurance from the UNP that he will get the PM’s post in a future UNP-led administration. What if the UNP decides to field either Ranil or Karu as the presidential candidate? Both of them are, politically speaking, sworn enemies of Sirisena. Will he back the SLPP candidate in such an eventuality, unconditionally?
President Sirisena’s political moves are highly unpredictable; he possesses an elusive mind. Perhaps, not even he is aware what his next move will be. When his term comes to an end, anyone else can become the SLFP leader and the senior SLFPers who have sided with him will be left high and dry. They are ambitious men and women and may not want to be in a party without a political future. They will have to join either the SLPP or the UNP.
Cardinal’s outburst: Political significance
Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith lashed out at the government at a recent event to commemorate those who were killed in the Easter Sunday blasts. Claiming that the present-day rulers had no backbones, he asked them to resign, allowing others capable of running the country, properly, to take over. Thus, he sent out a clear message to the Catholic community and others who endorse his views on politics and politicians.
The significance of the Cardinal’s outburst may not have been lost on political observers, for standing behind him on that occasion was Sajiith Premadasa. It was obvious that the prelate did not mean the second level leaders of the government when he flayed the rulers. What did he really mean? Did he call for a regime change or a change at the helm of the government?
President Sirisena reacted to the Cardinal’s criticism the following day itself. Speaking at a function in Colombo, he called himself a leader with a backbone. He said he had proved that by ousting the Rajapaksa government in 2015 and bringing down the UNP government last year. He may have done so, but subsequently he chose to bite the bullet and be reconciled with both former President Rajapaksa and the UNP. He vowed not to appoint Wickremesinghe Prime Minister again under any circumstances, but he caved in under pressure and changed his mind.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has so far ignored the Cardinal’s swipe.
Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has returned home from Singapore, where he underwent a heart operation. The SLPP would have the public believe that he is fighting fit and his presidential election campaign will kick off immediately after his candidacy if officially announced at the party’s National Convention, next month.
Gotabaya, however, has some obstacles in his path. One of them is the renunciation of his US citizenship, which debars him from contesting a presidential election. The SLPP says it will be a walk in the park as the process of giving up US citizenship is not that complicated, and the court cases filed against him in the US will have no bearing on it. There aren’t many days left for the SLPP convention and the truth or otherwise of its claim will be known before that.