By Vishvanath

Former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Russia Udayanga Weeratunga, a close associate of SLPP Founder Basil Rajapaksa,has reiterated that the government is planning to hold a snap general election before the next presidential contest. He told reporters in Colombo on Wednesday (June 05) that the parliament was very likely to be dissolved soon after the passage of the Economic Transformation Bill to be put to the vote. He also said President Ranil Wickremesinghe would not be the SLPP’s presidential candidate; Wickremesinghe would not run for President, he claimed.

President Wickremesinghe is reported to have said an election should not get in the way of external debt restructuring, which however will be over before the next presidential poll.The success of the IMF bailout program, which the be-all and end-all of Sri Lanka’s economic recovery efforts, hinges on the completion of debt restructuring. In other words, Wickremesinghe has said a parliamentary election will not precede the upcoming presidential contest.

So, the Opposition parties are busy with their presidential election campaigns, while claiming that they are ready for any election. But different campaign strategies have to be adopted for presidential and parliamentary elections.

Weeratunga is nobody in politics, and therefore the Opposition has asked why his claims should be taken seriously. Tenable as this argument may sound, the fact remains that Weeratunga is a member of Basil’s inner circle and therefore he is in the loop about the inner workings of the SLPP. Maybe Basil is using him to test the waters and/or confuse the Opposition and the public by making such statements. Anyway, whether Weeratunga’s claim is true or false will be seen soon.

As for the next election, President Wickremesinghe will do what, he believes, is good for him and his party and not others. In fact, he is now in a position to do so unlike during the early stages of his presidency. He does not have to obey the SLPP’s dictates any longer. The SLPP parliamentary group is at his mercy, and some of them have switched their allegiance to him; he can dissolve the parliament anytime and make the SLPP face a parliamentary election one year ahead of schedule. Most of them will not be able to retain their seats. Wickremesinghe is making use of the situation to do what is beneficial to him and his party. 

The UNP is without popular candidates capable of winning a general election, but President Wickremesinghe stands a better chance of winning the presidency than steering the UNP to victory at a parliamentary election. The UNP is said to be of the view that Wickremesinghe should run for President, win the presidency so that it can capitalize on his victory and face a general election confidently. It is the other way around for the SLPP, which has no chance whatsoever of winning a presidential election, which will only expose its electoral weakness before the next parliamentary election. This is the last thing it wants. To begin with, the SLPP is without a formidable presidential candidate. It is only wishful thinking that the SLPP can win a general election, but it will be able to obtain a considerable number of seats including some National List slots. Hence Basil’s efforts to have a snap general election held first. The next parliament is expected to be hung, and Basil seems to think the SLPP and its allies may be able to cobble together a coalition government in such an eventuality. He is a seasoned political dealmaker. 

There is no guarantee that Wickremesinghe will be able to win the next presidential election. What if he contests it and loses? The UNP’s chances of improving its electoral performance will be ruined. So, it will be a huge gamble for Wickremesinghe to hold a presidential election first.

If President Wickremesinghe opts for a snap general electionand some other parties happen to outperform the UNP, he will have his work cut out to garner enough popular support in the presidential race afterwards; if he fails to lead his party to victory at a parliamentary election, that will help his opponents brand him as a failed leader and spoil his chances of securing the presidency.  

There have been only two instances where general elections preceded presidential polls since the promulgation of the current Constitution. In 1994, President D. B. Wijetunga, who was serving the remainder of slain President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s term, held a parliamentary election before the presidential election in that year. The UNP benefited from his presidential powers during its general election campaign, but the SLFP-led People’s Alliance (PA) captured power in the parliament, ending the UNP’s 17-year rule. The PA, however, could obtain only a razor thin parliamentary majority. Prime Minister Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga went on to win the presidency about three months later. A snap parliamentary election was held one year ahead of the 2005 presidential election albeit under different circumstances; President Kumaratunga wanted to get rid of the UNP-led government, which undermined her. The SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance won that election.

President Wickremesinghe is a risk taker. It was a huge gamble for him to accept the premiership amidst a seemingly endless mass uprising against the incumbent government. It was thought to be suicidal of him to take over as the President after an arson attack on his house while protesters were trying to march on the parliament. Nobody expected him to succeed in managing the political and economic crises to the point of helping the country come out of chaos. He said, on Wednesday,that while others were looking for running shoes, he ran for the country wearing flip-flops at its darkest hour. 

Now, Wickremesinghe has had to take another gamble. He has been left with a choice between running for President in a bid to secure the presidency and enable the UNP to better its performance, if not emerge victorious, at the next parliamentary election, and holding a general election first so that he can leverage his position to help the UNP. Both these choices carry huge risks, which Wickremesinghe will have to assess carefully before making a decision. Worse, time is running out with only a few weeks remaining for him to make up his mind. Time as well as timing is of the essence in making crucial political decisions, which can go either way. President Wickremesinghe has to take the plunge.   


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here