By Kassapa

The Sinhala and Tamil New Year is over. That heralds the final stretch of the presidential election which is shaping up to be essentially a three-horse race- though there will be many ‘also rans’. It can still end up as a two-way contest if President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s grand plan comes into fruition.

Wickremesinghe has all but overruled conducting a general election first. This was a demand of the Rajapaksas, though not the entirety of their party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). That is why he asked the Rajapaksas to show the support of 113 MPs, if they wanted a general election first.  

The Rajapaksa hierarchy sent out feelers to their MPs. The response they got was not enthusiastic. Most first-time parliamentarians baulked at the prospect of losing their parliamentary pensions after spending exorbitant amounts on their election campaigns. Thus, the 113 MPs project was shelved.

The Rajapaksas could have launched a public campaign for the dissolution of Parliament and an early general election through their various mouthpieces, but they wisely decided against it. Instead, they have taken up the position that they would leave Wickremesinghe, as President, to take the decision.

So, at this time, it is almost certain it will be presidential poll that will be held first. The declared candidates so far are the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB)’s Sajith Premadasa and the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB)’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake. Wickremesinghe hasn’t formally said he will run.

There will be other names on the ballot paper such as businessman Dilith Jayaweera and former Public Utilities Commission Chairman Janaka Ratnayake. They will be little more than a nuisance and perhaps of some entertainment value. Of late, some other potential candidates have been mentioned.     

Among them are Champika Ranawaka (from a coalition of alliances that have mushroomed recently) and even Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. Rajapakshe won’t run, being the astute man that he is, knowing that he will not win but he will milk this speculation to the hilt to project himself as a national leader.  

What then is Wickremesinghe’s game plan? He knows he cannot win with just his United National Party (UNP) which is still in a comatose state in respect of its grassroots party network. This is why he is actively seeking the support of parliamentarians from both the SLPP and the SJB these days.

Support from the SLPP is a double-edged sword and some of Wickremesinghe’s allies- especially those who have defected from the SLPP- have told him that. Their argument is that the Rajapaksas are now an electoral liability. Aligning with them will cost votes rather than gain votes, they have said.      

That argument is not without merit. The Rajapaksas have become synonymous with corruption, abuse of power and lawlessness, the very issues the SJB and the JJB have based their campaigns on. Linking with them will tar Wickremesinghe with the same brush, giving more credence to the SJB and the JJB.  

Therefore, those opposed to a formal tie-up with the SLPP argue that Wickremesinghe will be better off inviting selected individuals from the SLPP to join him. Names of ministers and MPs who are relatively untarnished by allegations of corruption are being mentioned but that too has its pitfalls.

Among Wickremesinghe’s closest allies are politicians such as Prasanna Ranatunga and Mahindananda Aluthgamage. Wickremesinghe is not in a position to let go of them when he forms his team for the polls. Their reputations are such that their support will come at the cost of some votes.

Faced with this dilemma, Wickremesinghe might as well opt for the support of the SLPP, lock, stock and barrel. While that will certainly cast doubts about Wickremesinghe’s integrity, it will also come with a readymade party network that could be mobilised for the polls, which the UNP sorely lacks.

The thinking of the Rajapaksas matters little in this exercise. The alternative option they have is to put forward a SLPP candidate who will be resoundingly defeated. If that candidate happens to be Namal Rajapaksa- as some naive party officials have requested- his entire political future cold be doomed.

Whatever they are, the Rajapaksas are not stupid. So, despite all the rhetoric from Namal Rajapaksa about a ‘pohottuwa’ candidate on the ballot paper, they will eventually come around to endorsing Wickremesinghe, not because they love him that much but because they have no other choice, really.

Dealing with the SJB is far easier for Wickremesinghe. Most SJBers learnt their political ABCs from Wickremesinghe. He was their leader for decades. They are comfortable with him, maybe even more than they are with Premadasa. That is why many SJB MPs have kept their communication lines open.  

The recent public comments from senior SJB stalwart Thalatha Athukorala, sister of the late Gamini Athukorala who was Wickremesinghe’s General Secretary for many years, that the SJB and the UNP should unite indicates the frustration and disappointment many feel about Premadasa’s leadership.

Wickremesinghe’s negotiators are approaching the SJB on two fronts: they are talking to individual MPs and discussing their political futures but at the same time leaving the option open for Premadasa to rejoin the UNP with the SJB en masse. The response to the latter has been negative so far.  

This is a strategy adopted previously by Mahinda Rajapaksa when he wanted to enlist the support of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) to secure a two-thirds majority to pass a constitutional amendment. He coerced that many SLMC MPs that Rauff Hakeem had no choice but to agree.

Wickremesinghe’s strategy is similar. He will identify stalwarts of the SJB and prime them for defection. If he has sufficient numbers, that will be presented to Premadasa who will have a choice of remaining in the SJB with a few MPs, when all the frontline spokesmen have joined Wickremesinghe.

That is when Premadasa will have to make a decision about his candidacy. If many of his MPs are with Wickremesinghe, his prospects are minimal. He will then have to decide whether he contests or be the prime ministerial nominee for Wickremesinghe. This is Ranil Wickremesinghe’s game plan.


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