By Kassapa 

It is almost official now: President Ranil Wickremesinghe is extremely likely to contest the presidential election in 2024.

This emerged last week after the so-called ‘Management Committee’ of the United National Party (UNP) of which he is the leader requested him to contest the poll which is due by October 2024. It is unthinkable that the UNP hierarchy would make such a request unless Wickremesinghe himself wanted them to. This was the first formal indication of Wickremesinghe being a candidate.

There is still an element of doubt, though. Wickremesinghe has said he will make a “final” decision only after addressing more pressing economic issues and when a presidential election is announced. The latter could be as late as late August. This lack of finality is Wickremesinghe’s way of allowing himself some room to manoeuvre himself out of the contest if the situation on the ground becomes drastic and defeat is certain.

On the other hand, there should be no doubt that Wickremesinghe will make every effort to contest. There is evidence that this is the case. He has summoned the grassroots network of the UNP which is currently in a comatose state and urged them to get their act together and do so quickly. However, the realist in him must know that there is only so much the party can cover over the next few months.

Moreover, he has opened up another front: the ‘New Alliance’ formed by Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) dissidents led by Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and the ever-resourceful Nimal Lansa. Wickremesinghe’s tactic is blatantly obvious: he wishes to isolate a group from the SLPP that resents the lack of power sharing outside the Rajapaksa clan in that party. He is trying to win them over to join the UNP or at the very least, extend their support to him at a presidential election.

In so doing, he is also sending a strong message to the SLPP. Given the political reality that the SLPP cannot contest on their own steam and win a presidential election or a general election, their best bet would be to support Wickremesinghe’s candidacy. If they decide to go it alone, they risk an almost certain humiliating defeat, no matter who their candidate is. It will then be up to the Rajapaksas to decide whether to join forces with Wickremesinghe and live to fight another day or perish instantly at the next election.

Wickremesinghe has set his eyes on contesting not as the candidate of his beloved UNP but as a ‘common’ candidate. Hence the tie-up with a SLPP faction. Soon, he will try his best to split the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) by inviting some of its members to join him as well. They were, after all, his political proteges at one time.

Fortunately for Wickremesinghe, SJB leader Sajith Premadasa appears to be playing right into his hands. Premadasa has invited the likes of G.L. Peiris, Dilan Perera, Nalaka Godahewa and Channa Jayasumana from the Nidahasa Janatha Sabhawa (NJS) to join him, disregarding opposition from within his own party to such a move, in the belief that their presence will increase his vote base at a presidential election.

Many observers believe the opposite to be the case. These individuals maintained a high profile during the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency and were closely identified with the policies of his government. That regime has been thoroughly disgraced and there is still public anger directed towards it. Still, it appears that Premadasa insists on drinking from such a poisoned chalice.

On a more practical note, the inclusion of the NJS politicians on SJB district lists would definitely set up an ugly battle for preference votes where the NJS candidates, who have maintained relatively higher profiles, will have a distinct advantage. In such a scenario, SJB backbenchers will have to decide whether they are better off being an ‘also ran’ on a SJB list or a welcome entrant on a UNP list, which Wickremesinghe would be more than happy to create for them.

This will certainly be an area Wickremesinghe will target. Already he is having a dialogue with selected SJB MPs who are known to be disgruntled with Premadasa’s political tactics and he will be eager to rope them in, when the time and conditions are right.

Why then doesn’t Wickremesinghe formally announce his candidacy right now? To answer that question, one needs to reflect on 2019. Then, he delayed the UNP’s approval of Sajith Premadasa as a candidate until the eleventh hour and was actively contemplating contesting until then. When it became abundantly clear that public opinion was overwhelmingly against the incumbent government in the wake of the Easter attacks, he endorsed Premadasa, paving the way for the latter to be politically slaughtered by Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the election.

Now too, Wickremesinghe desperately wishes to contest but at the same time wants to be absolutely certain that he stands a fair chance. If it becomes clear that he has no hope of getting elected, he may still withdraw from the contest or, worse still, try some other gimmick- such as a change of Constitution abolishing the presidential system of government- to remain in power.

There are differences from 2019 though: firstly, he is the incumbent President and has all the power he needs to make crucial decisions and manipulate processes. Secondly, he must know that this is definitely the last time he can have a tilt at becoming an elected president. If he fails this time, it will be curtains for his political career.

With all these considerations coming into play, it is not surprising that Wickremesinghe is doing everything he can to cling on to power. Even if there was the slimmest of chances of making it, Ranil Wickremesinghe will contest the next presidential election and pull out all stops- both legal and illegal- to win that poll. In the same vein, if it is certain that he cannot win, he will try his best to twist the political system to his advantage, so that he can stay in power, even if it is for a few more years.

That is the politician that Ranil Wickremesinghe has become now.