By Vishvanath

The signs are that President Ranil Wickremesinghe will shortly announce his participation in the upcoming presidential contest. The Opposition has been able to have the public doubt whether he will run for President at all. However, a seasoned politician, Wickremesinghe has been busy doing the groundwork for his election campaign since his fortuitous elevation to the presidency in 2022. He has been travelling throughout the country, making speeches, meeting people, distributing freehold land title deeds to farmers and others, giving away handouts and having small-scale development projects completed. His address to the nation, scheduled to be delivered tonight, has fueled speculation that he will announce his presidential candidature today itself after making an official statement that the country is no longer bankrupt. The government is signing an agreement on external debt restructuring today prior to the President’s address to the nation. The parliament is to meet on July 02 for the debt structuring agreement is to be tabled.

The Opposition is aware that Wickremesinghe will be able to gain immense political and propaganda mileage from the completion of debt restructuring, upon which hinges the success of the IMF bailout programme. He is sure to make the most of it politically and electorally. Hence the Opposition has redoubled its efforts to belittle the achievement of the government’s debt restructuring goal and cast doubts about President Wickremesinghe contesting the upcoming presidential election. It has claimed that the government’s agreement with the external creditors is inimical to the interests of Sri Lanka.   

Addressing the media, Chief Opposition Whip and SJB MP Lakshman Kiriella claimed on Tuesday that the government would make a fresh bid to have the Constitutional Council grant Attorney General (AG) Sanjay Rajaratnam a service extension. It claims that the government is planning to have the tenure of the AG extended as part of its strategy to postpone elections. Dissident SLPP MP and former Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Prof. G. L. Peiris, too, has said something to the effect that the government has not abandoned its plan to put off polls.

The SJB has sought to assault the credibility of the government’s contention that the conclusion of the external debt restructuring process will help Sri Lanka emerge from bankruptcy officially. SJB MP and economist Dr. Harsha de Silva has argued that it is the international rating agencies that determine whether Sri Lanka is creditworthy, and the government has no say in the matter. Sri Lanka will have to achieve at least CCC credit rating to be able to claim that it has overcome bankruptcy, he has said. SJB and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa has been saying almost the same thing albeit in different words. The JVP-led NPP has also sought to rubbish the government’s claim that Sri Lanka will be out of the woods after the restructuring of its external debt.  

Regardless of when President Wickremesinghe throws his hat into the ring officially, his candidacy is bound to upend the dynamics of the presidential contest. The election campaigns of the NPP and the SJB went into overdrive prematurely, and fatigue is beginning to tell on their leaders. They have run out of gimmicks to overshadow President Wickremesinghe’s dramatic entry into the race. They however will do everything in their power to eclipse the President, but the latter will be able to gain a tremendous boost for his presidential bid form his political leadership for the country’s economic recovery efforts although it too early to say whether he will be able to sustain its momentum of his campaign until the polling day and achieve his dream. Politics is full of unexpected twists and turns.

The UNP is floating a story that some more Opposition MPs will switch their allegiance to President Wickremesinghe ahead of the announcement of his entry into the presidential race. SJB MPs Sarath Fonseka and Champika Ranawaka have vehemently denied social media reports that they will throw in their lot with the President. But the possibility of a couple of Opposition MPs siding with the President cannot be ruled out.

Wickremesinghe has so far contested two presidential elections unsuccessfully. He lost to President Chandrika Bandaranaike and Mahinda Rajapaksa in 1999 and 2005 respectively. He skipped three presidential contests thereafter—in 2010, 2015 and 2019. The UNP suffered its worst ever defeat in 2020 under his stewardship; it was reduced to a single National List post. With years of politics left in him, Wickremesinghe is obviously desirous of remaining politically active as the UNP leader. So, he cannot afford either to avoid the next presidential election or contest and lose it. If he does not contest, he will lose his grip on the UNP leadership, and if he contests and loses, that will debilitate the UNP further, perhaps to the point of being unable to make a comeback at all.

President Wickremesinghe continues to repeat some of his past mistakes which are legion, but he seems to have learnt from them where poll strategizing is concerned. He is likely to come forward as a common candidate of a broad political alliance, according to what one gathers from various statements made by his close allies such as Akila Kariyawasam.

The UNP has ceased to be an asset to Wickremesinghe, and being the SLPP’s presidential candidate is a surefire way for him to lose. But at the same time, there is no way he can think of winning the presidency without the backing of the SLPP and the UNP among others. He has sought to overcome this dilemma by making himself the candidate of a coalition so that the UNP and the SLPP will also be able to support him hopefully without turning public opinion against him. Forming an electoral alliance is not a task anyone can accomplish overnight. There is reason to believe that the President has been building it for months and what remains to be done is to float it.

It is now clear that the next presidential election will be a three-horse race. Chances of the SLFP being able to field its own candidate are remote, given its internecine internal dispute, and numerous court cases besides interim injunctions. Court cases and endless clashes in the SLFP have stood in the way of Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha’s plan to run for President. The delay in the announcement of Wickremesinghe’s candidacy and speculation that he may not run for President must have gladdened the SJB and the NPP, but they now have another problem, a huge one at that, to contend with in the form of the entry of another formidable candidate into the presidential race. Premadasa and NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake will have to campaign even harder.


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