President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s presidential election campaign has got underway in earnest. He visited the North from Jan. 04 to 07, and there he met a large number of members of the northern public and the representatives of various organizations and undertook to solve their problems. He also pledged funds for northern development. His tour bore the hallmarks of a typical Sri Lankan election campaign.
Wickremesinghe’s presidential election strategy looks similar to that of Yahapalana camp, which fielded Maithripala Sirisena as its presidential candidate, and captured power in 2015 mostly with the help of a block vote in the North and the East. Votes in the areas outside the North and the East are expected to be split among at least four candidates at the next presidential
election—President Wickremesinghe, SJB leader Sajith Premadasa, NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and the SLPP candidate who is to be named. So, the votes in the North and the East will be a crucial factor in determining the outcome of the next presidential contest.
Sirisena succeeded in realizing his presidential dream in 2015 mainly because the minorities delivered a sizable block vote to him, especially in the North and the East, although the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa won most of the other electorates elsewhere, albeit with reduced majorities. He (Sirisena) polled 6,217,162 votes (51.28%).
Gotabaya upends popular belief The TNA and the SLMC played a pivotal role in ensuring Sirisena’s victory. But Gotabaya Rajapaksa worked on the mistakes of his elder brother, Mahinda and took steps to offset losses in the North and the East by increasing the majorities for him in other electorates
considerably. His strategy yielded the desired results; he, as the SLPP candidate, polled 6,924,255 votes (52.25%) at the 2019 presidential election, and secured the coveted presidency, which he however had to give up in 2022 due to public protests. One may recall that Mahinda could obtain only 5,768,090 votes (47.58%) in the 2015 presidential contest.
Sajith Premadasa, who contested as the presidential candidate of the UNP-backed National Democratic Front in 2019, apparently expected to repeat what Sirisena had done in 2015. He received the Tamil and Muslim block votes but failed to reduce Gotabaya’s majorities in other parts of the country. He polled only 5,564,239 votes (41.99%).
Gotabaya claimed to have disproved the widely-held belief that no candidate could win the presidency without the backing of the minority communities. But such a feat becomes possible only in situations where a candidate who is not favored by the minorities rides the crest of a wave of popularity among the members of the majority community, the way Mahinda and Gotabaya did in 2010 and 2019, respectively.
Surprise for the Rajapaksas The Rajapaksas may not have expected Wickremesinghe to consolidate his power in the government in this manner by making the most of his position as the president to shore up his electoral prospects, much less run for President. They handpicked him as the Prime Minister in 2022 and then ensured his election by the parliament as President in quick succession because they thought they would be able to keep him on a string, and have him bring about political and economic stability, look after their interests, thereby enabling them to regain their hold on power subsequently, serve his fortuitous presidential term and retire. They may not have expected the leader of the UNP, which had failed to win any seat and been left with only a single National List slot at the last
general election to be able to do anything else. But Wickremesinghe has played his political cards well, and is no longer under the Rajapakshas’ thumb because he can dissolve the parliament at a time of his choosing and cause a general election to be held.
The dissolution of the parliament is the last thing that most MPs, especially those in the SLPP want at this juncture. Those who were elected as MPs for the first time in 2020 will not be eligible for pensions if the parliament is dissolved prematurely. They have to complete five years in the parliament. So, the MPs who are wary of facing a general election anytime soon will not antagonize President Wickremesinghe.
President Wickremesinghe finds himself in a dilemma where the minority votes are concerned, unlike in the past. Time was when the Tamil and Muslim parties saw him as an alternative to the Rajapaksas and voted for him and the UNP overwhelmingly, but today he is seen as an ally of the Rajapaksa family. He therefore will have his work cut out to win over the minority parties and secure their votes at future elections if the current alliance between the SLPP and the UNP continues.
If Wickremesinghe severs links with the SLPP to make himself attractive to the Tamil and Muslim political parties, he will lose the votes that the SLPP can muster, and, worse, the UNP is still weak.
Having polled only 249,435 votes (2.15%) countrywide at the last general election (2020), the UNP will have to poll more than 50% of the total number of valid votes to win the next presidential election, in the first round. This will be a gargantuan task, and the question is whether the UNP is equal to it, with no discernible increase in its approval rating. The public usually brackets the UNP with the SLPP when they criticize the government.
Call for election boycott
All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) leader Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam has called upon the Tamil voters to boycott the next presidential election. This must be a disconcerting proposition for President Wickremesinghe, who lost a large number of votes in the North and the East at the 2005 presidential election owing to a ban the LTTE imposed on voting in the North and the East. The people in the LTTE-controlled areas did not vote for fear of the LTTE, and the overall voter turnout in the other parts of the North and the East was very low.
Some political analysts are of the view that Wickremesinghe would have won the presidency in 2005 but for the election boycott declared by the LTTE.
Current Minister of Public Security Tiran Alles claimed in 2010, after falling out with the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, that he was privy to a deal the Rajapaksa family had struck with the LTTE to prevent the Tamils from voting in the North and the East. He claimed that Basil Rajapaksa had given a large amount of money to a person called Emil Kanthan, who claimed to have close ties with the LTTE leadership. A video of Alles making this allegation in 2010 is available on the Internet <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DQ64bDD3Yk&ab_channel=slfpmwing>.
Opinion is divided on what actually led the LTTE to turn against Wickremesinghe at the 2005 presidential election. It is claimed in some quarters that Prabhakaran did not Wickremesinghe to win because the latter was in the good books of the international community, and the LTTE did not want to be under international pressure to be at the negotiating table indefinitely lest that should demoralize its cadres. Ponnambalam, however, may not be able to sway the Tamil voters if the TNA decides to back Wickremesinghe at the next presidential election. But politicians like him will be able to capitalize on the resentment among the
northern public, some of whom staged protests during President Wickremesinghe’s recent visit.
The Wiggy factor
Another factor worrying President Wickremesinghe in respect of the votes in the North and the East must be former Northern Province Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran’s announcement that he will contest the next presidential election. If he does, he will attract some of the votes in those parts of the country at the expense of Wickremesinghe, who will leave no stone unturned in his efforts to dissuade Wigneswaran from entering the presidential fray.
It is reported that the UNP is trying to enlist the support of some influential expatriate Tamils and businesspersons to prevent a split in the Tamil vote. But Wigneswaran is known as a headstrong politician, and he may not give in to pressure. He has already said he is aware that his entry into the presidential fray will be disadvantageous to Wickremesinghe but he will go ahead with his plan.
As it stands, the next presidential contest will be no cakewalk for anyone, and everyone’s dream of securing block votes and taking a head start in the race is likely to be shattered. Chances are that the votes in the areas outside the North and the East will be divided among the main contestants, and the electorates with a dominant Muslim presence will swing for the SJB in case the SLMC decides to back Premadasa.
The JVP is also striving to attract the minority votes, and whether its efforts will succeed remains to be seen. The possibility of the JVP securing more votes in the North and the East as well as elsewhere at the next presidential and parliamentary elections cannot be ruled out.
Overall, the next presidential election is likely to be closely contested with about four candidates in the fray, and all the presidential hopefuls lack confidence despite their rhetoric, as evident from the fact that the political parties have launched their presidential election campaigns so early.